RUSSELLVILLE — If you build it, they will come.
That common misquote from 1989’s “Field of Dreams,” with "he" correctly replacing "they," is heard while Kevin Costner roams through an Iowa corn field he eventually builds into a baseball field for Shoeless Joe Jackson and several other members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team.
That identity of a small, yet strong, tight-knit community wasn’t first derived from a movie or fairytale. It’s reality across America.
As smaller towns around Mid-Missouri find ways to come together as one, Russellville’s main attraction is high school activities and there might not be one more integral than the baseball team.
Playing in a dirt and grass complex directly off Route C where a 425-foot home run to right field could hit a passing car, the Indians have turned every home game into a community forum. If you miss sitting in the two sets of high-rise bleachers or at various spots in foul territory, you’re missing out on a valued part of town.
“I remember I was younger and most of the community, they would come every once in a while,” Russellville graduating senior Riley Marcum said. “But now, the fans fill the stands every single game. Our success has definitely brought the community more together.
“... There’s definitely less opportunities without athletics, or other school activities ... If we did not have the togetherness and the way we were thriving right now, I could see multiple business just going out and not staying together.”
The Indians have built a fan base they hope keeps coming back.
Russellville sits as a bedroom community to California, which isn’t that large in its own right, and Jefferson City.
The closest neighboring town is Lohman and that’s even smaller than Russellville and any residents send their kids through Cole R-1 School District.
Russellville athletic director and head baseball coach Lucas Branson estimates the district has about 600 students from Kindergarten to 12th grade.
When Branson started at the school 10 years ago, he wasn’t concerned about fan support long into the future.
“Our biggest goal that we try to achieve is making sure that we are a family and that includes past players, that includes future players, that includes moms and dads, brothers and sisters,” Branson said. “That’s something that doesn't happen overnight. It’s taken a few years to get to that.
The year seen as the gold standard for Russellville baseball before its current string of district titles was a 2006 state tournament appearance — three seasons before Branson arrived when the incoming freshman were toddlers.
Russellville baseball doesn’t follow a different principle than any other sports team. The Indians' three-straight district championships has put more eyes on the team than ever before.
Their following has also filled up the stands to see one of the standout teams in the region.
In 2017, Russellville reached the state quarterfinals. Last season, a return trip to the state tournament occurred with a third-place finish with no seniors. This year, the Indians lost in the sectional round to Skyline.
That’s led to teams from higher classifications wanting to fill their regular-season schedules against the Indians. Maybe more importantly, it’s given the chance for the community to constantly have something to gather around multiple times a week in the spring.
“Anytime you can interweave what your school athletic programs with what the community does, it's going to be a benefit to everybody,” Branson said. “Our tradition of having a good baseball program is something that our community really supports and looks forward to and our kids do a lot as far as making sure that they help out in the community and they’re involved in a lot of different activities as well to thank the community for that support.”
Years of Preparation
Russellville’s baseball players don’t walk into high school talented by nature. There’s more than a decade of prep spearheaded by Mike Miller.
Miller, whose son Chandler has been on the recent successful teams, started the Russellville Outlaws baseball team under the United States Specialty Sports Association banner in the summer of 2004.
The Outlaws were a summer league team created for Russellville’s youth to hone its skills.
They’ve played every summer since then except for 2018 just to break up repetition. Every 2019 Russellville Indian was an Outlaw at one time.
“It’s very hard to get this many boys in one age group together for such a small town,” Mike Miller said. “So, sometimes you have to borrow from the neighboring towns.”
Miller estimated that starting as an Outlaw at 8 years old to finishing with the program at 17, players have gained about 3,500 innings of experience.
Miller said bringing that much experience to high school baseball is part of why the Indians have had success the last few seasons — and that’s exactly what he hoped for.
He wanted his children and others to have the end goal of being at their best by the time the Indians’ varsity squad called their name.
“That wasn't by accident,” Miller said. “That wasn't because we didn't play good competition. It’s just we got on the bandwagon and we got in the same groove as Jeff City, there’s traveling teams all over Jefferson City, but we’re just one little town that was able to put enough boys together to make that happen.”
Having players commit time to the Outlaws got harder as they grew up. Miller mentions distractions such as “gas fumes and perfumes” — referencing the attention teenage boys give to after-school jobs, attaining a driver’s license and maybe most of all, females.
Sights and Sounds
In a town without a movie theater, bowling alley or strip mall, there’s much worse things kids could find trouble doing than hitting a bucket of balls in a batting cage.
Russellville just got its first chain restaurant, Leo’s, a Mexican restaurant across from the high school where the baseball team is frequently seen. Leo’s other location is in Wardsville.
Outside of those who are local business owners or involved in the school system, Russellville is essentially a farming community with lots of rural land around the town.
“I wouldn't trade a day on the farm for anything,” Indians’ graduating senior Austin Roe said. “It’s making the person I am today just like baseball does.”
While the lessons learned on the farm happen in private, any learned in an Indians uniform happen in front of the community, making the positives and negatives stick out.
An experience at a Russellville game always starts with Beverly Meyer, the 79-year-old ticket checker, who has sat at the edge of the high school parking lot for 25 years welcoming everyone to the stadium.
It’s not long before you’d notice Judy Thompson, a Class of 1965 Russellville graduate, sitting right behind the chain-link fence and home plate.
For more than a decade, that space behind the backstop has been coined “grandma row” for Thompson and a select few others to watch the Indians play.
Thompson has had three grandsons play for the Indians, with the youngest, Nick, graduating from Russellville this spring.
“If I’m not down here, some of the parents or grandparents will fuss at me telling me ‘get down in your spot,’” Judy Thompson said in the middle of watching Nick’s regular-season game against Southern Boone.
Judy Thompson insists it’s not mean things anyone says to her, it’s just abnormal to not hear “relax your hands, hit that ball hard and run fast” at every Indians’ at-bat. That’s the phrase Thompson is known for and is the calming presence each Russellville player liked to hear while in the batter’s box.
“I think it would be extremely weird for those boys, you know they all hear it,” Mike Miller said about not hearing Thompson while at a Russellville game.
Even without a grandson on the team for the first time in over a decade next season, Thompson said she’ll still be at home games next year.
“I’ve got to be back here ... I‘m always rooting every boy on,” Thompson said. “I want them all to win. I want them all to do their best.”
And even if pulled pork nachos only costs $3.50 at Russellville’s baseball stadium, the baseball team is possibly the greatest show in town.
“Everybody bends over backwards to make sure that they support everybody as best they can ... anytime that the baseball program can have some success to make sure that people have something to look forward to, that helps out,” Branson said.
Russellville High School has only gotten bigger over the last 10 years or so, with about 200 students at any given time.
Athletics hope to get a boost with the addition of football as well. The Indians played their first middle-school gridiron season last fall.
This fall, Russellville will have a full junior varsity schedule. And in 2020, it’ll play 11-man varsity football for the first time.
Russellville has most other sports that bigger high schools participate in with most athletes playing multiple throughout the school year.
“That takes a lot of time out of your high school, it makes it fly by a lot faster,” Roe added.
And for a lot of spring Russellville athletes, their last time affiliated with the school wasn’t wearing a cap and gown while walking across a stage at graduation.
It was while competing at state track in Jefferson City or on a baseball diamond in a postseason game.
And in Russellville’s small, tight-knit town, that can lead to success on the farm or in anything else they do.
“Every family has problems, ups and downs ... we’ve got each other’s backs,” Branson said.
Part I: While Boone County booms, neighbors struggle with change
Part I Extra: Westmoreland: A journey together into 'Rural Divide'
Part II: Effects of factory closures continue to linger
Part II Extra: Some cities face uphill battle in tech-driven economy
Part III: Mid-Missouri is ‘leaking’ sales tax revenue
Part IV: Small schools see challenges, rewards
Part IV Extra: Small town, big field of dreams
Part V: Rural areas have limited health care, lower life expectancy
Part VI: Communities struggling to maintain basic infrastructure
Part VI Extra: Rocheport bridge rehab could be 'poison pill'
Part VII: Fewer Mid-Missouri farmers are tending bigger farms
Part VIII: Poverty a 'hidden epidemic' in mid-Missouri