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Superhero Sports gives young Mitchell residents a chance to play ball

Superhero Sports, a biweekly T-ball program for children between 3 and 5 years old, gather for a photo at the Dry Run Creek baseball field. (Matt Gade / Republic) 1 / 2
Monte Fristad tosses the ball to children during Superhero Sports practice earlier this summer. Superhero Sports is a biweekly T-ball practice for children in Mitchell between 3 and 5 years old. The group meets every Tuesday and Thursday at the Dry Run Creek baseball diamond. (Photo courtesy of Christie Gunkel) 2 / 2

Three-year-old Mesa Rasmussen's favorite part of baseball is putting her foot on the base.

Her favorite superhero is Wonder Woman. And now she can combine her newfound love for baseball and superheroes with Superhero Sports — a biweekly T-ball practice for children in Mitchell between 3 and 5 years old.

"The first night she wiped out, but other than that, it was good. She's had a lot of fun and is always excited to come back," said Mesa's mother, Pam. "She will ask every day if she has T-ball that night."

Superhero Sports was created by Christie and Jeremy Gunkel, who have four children. Two of their children fall into this age group, and they wanted a chance to play baseball. But there was no baseball or T-ball program for kids under 5 years old in Mitchell.

"We wanted to find something our kids could do at that age," Christie said. "And they didn't even notice the difference between first and third base."

Another couple attempted to start a program last year, but since moved away, allowing the Gunkels to take charge.

And already its participation is booming. T-ball practice began with 25 children last year, but this year, they have 74 at the start of the season.

So each Tuesday and Thursday night this summer through late July, 74 of Mitchell's smallest superheroes meet — while also wearing their favorite superhero T-shirt — to play T-ball at the Dry Run Creek baseball diamond.

There's no teams, as Jeremy splits the children up into groups to practice all the basic skills of baseball. Each section practices a different skill, including throwing, catching, running bases and hitting.

"We race around the bases, and they're just pumped," Jeremy said. "We try to make it super fun so they're excited about baseball and try to learn some mechanics. If you make it too serious, they're not going to be interested in it, and they won't come."

Last year, when there were fewer kids involved, the Gunkels had the children practice their sliding on a Slip 'N Slide. The kids had a blast, the Gunkels said, but now with more than 70 children involved, they have yet to figure out how they'll make it work this year.

And at the end of the season, the Gunkels put on superhero-themed night. During this, all of the children dress up in their favorite superhero's costume and play a few games of baseball.

But Jeremy said he would also like to see more community involvement and allow other sports organizations help with practices. The Dakota Bulldogs — a Mitchell football amateur team — have already helped out with a practice this year. And for the T-ballers, Jeremy said, it was "so cool."

It's fun for the parents, too. Growing up, Jeremy played amateur baseball, and has now passed it down to his sons. And to see his youngest children become interested in the same sport, and improve their own skills, is rewarding.

"First of all they have fun, that's what it's all about," Jeremy said. "But also you can just see how much they advance and how much they learn. They're making much stronger throws, and toward the end of the year, a lot of them will be hitting with no (batting) tees."

The practice also helps kids stay active and develop sportsmanship skills, the Gunkels said.

But for Christie, it's not so much about baseball, as it is making sure all of the children get involved and are social.

"I love all the kids. I walk around and see them if they're not joining in, I'll try to race them or get them involved a little more. I'm more here to hang out with kids," Christie said.

Children and parents can still sign up for Superhero Sports, the Gunkels said. Anyone interested can contact Christie or look for the group's Facebook page, "3-5 year old T-ball Mitchell SD."