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Eric Schmoldt: Janesville's Clark family sets out on baseball adventure

By Eric Schmoldt
August 7, 2015

It was July 26, a hot Sunday evening, and 20-year-old Kylie Clark stood at the Janesville Youth Sports Complex holding an iPhone.

Her younger brother, Connor, had just helped Janesville's 13-year-old Babe Ruth tournament baseball team win the Ohio Valley Regional.

A couple dozen fans surrounded the small screen, all eyes glued on another baseball game 350 miles away in Vincennes, Indiana. Janesville's 10U team—including the youngest Clark sibling, Keagan—had a chance to give the city a pair of World Series qualifiers in the same season.

A 2-2 game dragged on past the scheduled six innings. Jake Schaffner struck out the side in the top of the seventh, then bunted to reach base to open the bottom half. He scored the winning run, to the glee of those huddled around the tiny screen on Janesville's east side.

“They all cheered,” Rich Clark, the patriach of the family, recalled. “It was probably one of the most exciting days we've ever had.

“Then, about 9 o'clock that night, when she (wife Jodi) was on her way home from Indiana, we all realized, 'Oh boy, we've got a mess.'”

That Sunday very well could have marked the end of a long summer of baseball. Suddenly, it instead became the beginning of what is about to be a whirlwind two weeks of the Clark family shuttling themselves around the eastern half of the United States.

•      •      •

Rich Clark says the special summer for his family actually began in June, during a game in which none of his children were in the lineup.

Janesville Craig High won its fourth WIAA state baseball championship on June 18. Sophomore Nick Cramer—Rich and Jodi's nephew—was the starting and winning pitcher in a 2-0 title-game victory over Kimberly.

“That kind of got things going. The whole family has had a fun year,” Rich said. “Connor and Keagan both really look up to their cousin, Nick. He's talented as heck, so he's kind of an inspiration to them.”

The name Cramer, of course, should be familiar to anyone involved in sports in Janesville. Ron, Jodi's father, spent more than four decades as a coach at Janesville Parker and was inducted into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. Ron still spends his days around sports, though now following a talented stable of grandchildren.

For Keagan, this summer included a run to his own state tournament championship—the 10-year-old team winning the title in Marinette. The group was dominant there and continued its fantastic play in Vincennes. The only real close game during that entire stretch was the Ohio Valley title game, a 3-2 triumph over South Lexington, Kentucky. Now they open play at the Cal Ripken World Series in Jonesboro, Arkansas, on Saturday.

Connor and the 13-year-old team faced a more arduous journey. They didn't even win their state tournament in Janesville, but they snagged a spot in the Ohio Valley Regional because they were the host team. They proceeded to win the whole darn thing, and now they'll head to Jamestown, New York, for the Babe Ruth World Series, which starts Aug. 15.

“The 10-year-old team, I had an inkling they could win that regional,” Rich Clark said. “But the 13-year-old team didn't even win state. They're a very good team that can beat anybody. … And they just got hot at the right time.”

•      •      •

Now comes the messy part.

Rich and Jodi Clark hadn't necessarily banked on one—let alone two—of their sons' teams advancing all the way to the World Series. The state and Ohio Valley tournaments had eaten up much of their vacation time from work—Rich at St. Mary's Hospital and Jodi at Beloit Memorial Hospital.

They also weren't about to miss out on their sons' golden opportunities.

“Usually things end at regionals, so we both didn't have any time off scheduled,” Rich explained. “Our coworkers have been fabulous about switching time and extending their hours. They've been more than gracious.

“It wouldn't have worked without them.”

The plan, assumed final as of Wednesday, called for all five family members to make the 8 ½-hour drive to Jonesboro on Thursday morning.

Jodi, Kylie and Connor will watch Keagan's first few games and then drive back to Janesville on Sunday. Rich will stay in Jonesboro until Friday, Aug. 14. He'll snag a ride back to Janesville with another 10-year-old team family, and on Saturday he'll help Kylie move back to Madison, where she's be a junior softball player studying nursing at Edgewood College.

“Unless Keagan is in the championship (Saturday),” Rich said. “Then that plan is going to go by the wayside. I hope that's the case.”

Meantime, Jodi and Connor will have left on separate flights for Jamestown on Thursday, Aug. 13, with the Babe Ruth 13-year-old World Series slated to begin play that Saturday. Rich, Kylie and Keagan will set out on the 10 ½-hour drive that Saturday night or Sunday morning, and the whole family will stay for the duration of the week-long tournament in New York.

“It's been stressful to say the least,” Rich said. “The kids, they don't get it. They're like, 'Let's just go.' It doesn't really work like that. And Kylie has given up a lot of stuff to go on all of these trips.”

•      •      •

After spending much of the summer separated at different tournaments, the Clark family won't be needing their FaceTime app quite as much over the next two weeks.

They'll spend plenty of miles, minutes and innings together.

The planning has been hectic. The group expects it will all be worth it.

“It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Rich said. “And we're going to make it work.”