The shirt. A coveted piece of North Carolina folklore. Many strive for it, but few earn it.
That “shirt” is the prize won for being an intramural champion. The sweet trophy for standing above all the rest in your league.
On April 24, I became one of the lucky ones. After four years of unrelenting effort, a misfit band of friends finally rose to intramural softball glory.
The Sandlot taught us that “heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” But this was about more than that. This was 15 friends, in their last organized game together at college, trying to finally reach that mountain that they hadn’t yet been able to summit.
It was a journey that felt like it would last forever, now becoming all more real that it was likely the last ride for us as a team. Our last hoorah on the battlefield as a team. This group — save a few additions and subtractions here and there — has been through countless IM games and its fair share of title appearances. Yet somehow, that Tuesday night came and there was not one blue shirt won by our close-knit group.
I know I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start from the beginning.
Freshman year, player/coach Jake Barton and a plethora of bright-eyed freshmen took Hooker Fields by storm. The group steamrolled into the championship game, falling at the hands of a more experienced team.
Sophomore year, when I joined the team, brought much of the same. A runaway train into the championship game, where a pivotal out call at first base costed the team another chance at a title. Seasoned veteran Hunter White was forced to bear the burden of grounding into that double play. Further review showed he was safe — we had someone there with a camera filming — but that didn’t change the knife in our heart.
A chip fell onto everyone’s shoulder after that. The pain of defeat cut deep, and being so close to victory just poured salt into the wound. Any bystander could tell the despair on everyone’s face, but the opportunity to play for two shirts was a lot more than most could say. And let’s be real. This was our World Series. There is no bigger stage than intramural glory.
With two championship losses under the belt, team morale started to lower. But there were still two chances left in this window.
One of these was butchered from the start. Junior year acted as a major learning point — the lesson spearheaded by a first-round exit — and led to 2018.
Pressure had been mounting with each passing year. This group of 2018 graduates — save for a few 2019 grads who will be the face of the team moving forward — had the pressure of college, finding a job, figuring out life and just one chance left at intramural glory.
Now rounded into a consistent unit, the camaraderie was powerful. A devastating injury to speed-demon Jarrett Corder knocked him out for the year, but he assumed the role of coach down the stretch and flawlessly commanded our ever-strengthening unit.
Our team was Choppy Chop and the Funky Bunch, named after one of the team’s cornerstones, shortstop Jared Morton, known by those close to him as “Chop.” We were rolling, outscoring opponents 27-0 in the regular season. We had all the confidence in the world.
The team communicated through a group chat — also named “Choppy Chop and the Funky Bunch” — and it was a pretty sacred chat. As players would come and go, they would be removed from the chat. Even close friends of the team were not let in the brotherhood of the Funky Bunch.
That Tuesday night brought a dreary, rain dampened evening. But for Choppy Chop and the Funky bunch, this was fate.
Win or Go Home
The game started off on the wrong foot. Multiple controversial calls and some great hitting from the opposition saw the Funky Bunch falling behind early. That deficit stood for a majority of the game, with each passing out the dream of finally fulfilling our destiny fading away.
A controversial call in the middle innings may have sparked some life into the team. It happened on a tag play at home, when Nicholas Kohlmann — who looked to be safe despite running through multiple stop signs — was called out at home and let the umpire know his thoughts.
“My pupils widened in disbelief of the call,” Kohlmann said. “The next couple of minutes were a blur. And all I recall was being dragged away from the stoic umpire by teammate Will Bryant.”
More chatter and emotion started groaning from the team. Even even-tempered pitcher Luke Gutekunst started to let his emotions show. While the out hurt the Funky Bunch in the short term, it may have lit a bit of a fire under the team in the long run.
The game sped along, and with each out the curtain seemed to close just a bit more. Fast-forward to the seventh now. The bottom of the last inning, down 7-3. After the first two batters got out, the last one just seemed like a formality.
Another year, another loss.
But three-hole hitter Morton turned to the bench just before going up to the plate with the game on the line.
“Get ready to change the name of the group chat,” he said.
This made no sense to anyone at the time. But later it became clear: it would change to “champs.”
“I told Chop to try and hit one to Durham,” Gutekunst said. “But instead he hit a dribbler in the hole and sparked one of the greatest IM rallies of all time.”
A slow roller just out of reach of the infield. A man on first did little to dent the growing hopeless feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Another hit. Now things were getting warmer. Like a metal detector when it first picks up a hint of lead, our team was on the prowl.
Another one, to load the bases, then Spencer Hutchinson for a two-run scoring double. It was 7-5 now, but the two-out caveat hung over each batter’s head.
The tying runs now on base, who else but White — who hit that should-be clincher two years before — stepped up to the plate.
Roars explode from the bench as White lined a ball into the outfield. One run scored, and another followed close behind. Hutchinson tripped rounding third, but he was able to recover quickly and dart home for the tying run.
The improbable had happened. The game was tied.
With the swinging pendulum of momentum now firmly on the Funky Bunch side, it was all about finishing what we started.
Extra innings felt like an eternity as each team traded flawless defensive innings. It wasn’t until the bottom of the 11th that Chop’s prophecy of changing the group chat name would come true.
“Every time we took the field for another half inning we looked better and better,” said Barton, the team’s coach. “It was just a matter of time before we walked it off.”
White doubled, paving the way for a game-winning single by Barton.
The Funky Bunch now stood above the rest, enshrined as IM immortals as the softball champions of 2018.
"This year and our sophomore year was so similar having the ‘ship go to extras, which made that loss even tougher than our first,” Barton said. “We just knew that we weren’t going to let that happen again this year.”
Celebration ensued like fireworks on the Fourth of July. The Funky Bunch stormed the field, tackling White at the plate and Barton in centerfield. Champions at last.
“One of the most remarkable feats I’ve seen in my entire life,” said David Ray Allen, a longtime fan of the team. “I was giving them a 0 percent chance to win that game with two outs in the seventh.”
But they did. The celebratory mauling on the diamond lasted for a bit longer, with reality still not setting in.
And I don’t think anyone wanted it to.
By coming to the realization that we were champions, we also had to come to terms with the fact that this was our last game together. Sure, we went out on top. But we went out, and that pain overwhelmed the exhilarating feeling of winning it all.
After the game, the players all got in their cars and went home to study for exams. Likely the last time I will see some of those boys. But because of an unbreakable bond, strengthened by the thread of a championship t-shirt, I know I’ll speak with them again soon.
“Honestly all I can say is that playing IM softball with the fellas has been one of the more memorable things for me since being here,” Barton said. “It’s a group of some of my best friends, and being able to experience the lows of two championship defeats and the high of our senior year ‘ship victory was something I never expected I’d cherish so much when I first came to school.”
I know the nostalgia is engulfing each member of the team. I imagine most of us will fight back tears when we read this in the future. But this feeling of brotherhood needed to be immortalized in words.
Because when it comes down to it, heroes may be remembered, but friendship never dies.