Former Naa'taanii pitchers return as instructors, mentors
By Sunnie Clahchischiligi
KIRTLAND, N.M., August 15, 2013
(Times photo – Sunnie Clahchischiligi)
A group of about a dozen young Diné baseball players spent two days learning about the game from two of the best collegiate baseball players the Navajo Nation has to offer.
On Aug. 10 and 11, former University of Arizona pitcher Vincent Littleman and newly-signed University of New Mexico pitcher Tyson Curley became teachers of the game during a Naa'taanii Baseball Academy camp held at the academy's facility in Kirtland, N.M.
The two left-handed pitchers taught the ins and outs of pitching, stretching and batting to the small group of campers.
Dineh Benally, owner of the academy, said both Littleman and Curley grew up through the Naa'taanii system so he thought it'd be a good idea to bring them back.
"Now they're giving back … that's kind of what my intent was when I started this organization, eventually we got Native kids come in and training their own," Benally said.
The camp was open to baseball players who were eight years old and older. The camp had 13 participants who were given the option to participant one or both days.
The Naa'taanii Academy operates by the Ron Wilforth's throwing program that was used throughout instruction of the camp.
Benally said the program is to build arm strength and the physical body.
"It's to develop that fast-twitch muscle that most Native Americans don't normally have," he said. "We need to develop quickness, speed and strength, being explosive, that's kind of what we are working for."
The young athletes learned dynamic stretching, pitching mechanics, explosive batting and workouts as well as batting mechanicals.
Victor Alba, 12, heard about the camp from a Naa'taanii coach whose team he plays against in 12 and under league in Farmington, N.M.
Alba said he decided to sign up to see what Naa'taanii was all about.
"I just wanted to go see why Naa'taanii was so good, I just wanted to figure out how they got so awesome," he said. "It takes a lot of workout and dedication to do what they're supposed to do to be good ball players."
Alba said he didn't know about Littleman or Curley until he showed up at the camp. He said it has inspired to work event harder after hearing about where the two came from.
"I thought it was the most insane thing," he said. "I know I've learned a lot. I know I can keep working. I know I can get better."
Alba said he even made knew friends including Elijah Attson.
Attson, 12, from Farmington, N.M. said he wanted to participate in the camp because he knew he would get quality instruction.
"They can teach all the people to be better," Attson said of Littleman and Curley.
Littleman, from LeChee, Ariz., recently graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in agribusiness economics, and pitched for the Wildcats that won the College World Series in 2012.
Littleman, 22, said he was happy to return as an instructor especially since it meant inspiring other Navajo athletes.
"I just wanted to give back to our youth, give our native youth some more information on honing in their pitching skills," Littleman said.
Littleman played for Naa'taanii during the Connie Mack World Series about four years ago.
He said as a young Navajo baseball player he had no other Native baseball players to look up to aside from his brother, and he wanted to change that.
"I wanted to be a role model. I wanted to be that guy when I grew up," he said. "It's very important that I give back and teach the kids what I know, and maybe someday they'll want to be where I am, play at the Division I level college baseball … maybe make it to the pros."
Littleman added that there is a need for camps such as the Naa'taanii camp, since it targets the youth.
Developing skills at an early age is best "because that's when they're more coachable and their bodies are easy to adapt," he said. "When you start there, these kids can develop a foundation and build off of it."
Curley, 18, signed with UNM in April. The 2012 Aztec High School graduate also grew up through the Naa'taanii system.
The younger of the two instructors, Curley said he took advantage of having Littleman around as he sought advice from the veteran pitcher.
"He gave me a lot of advice of the college life, also some mechanical stuff I didn't know as far as pitching," he said. "Being here (with him) giving back to the kids was just great."
Curley said he has always had a strong interest in coaching. He started helping coach smaller Naa'taanii camps while he was still in high school.
He said he is thankful to Benally for hosting such camps and that hopes it will inspire more Navajo children to take an interest in the sport.
"Hopefully they stick with it," he said. "I had fun doing it, I hope to do more work outs with them."