116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — It has gone way beyond trying to learn proper hitting and pitching techniques for Iowa City Liberty’s baseball team.
Making sure you know how to bunt, which base you should throw to, all the nuance in the sport is important, sure, yet has been secondary since the day the season began.
It’s just a game, in the end. Just a game.
Real life and how to deal with its challenges, those are the significant things.
Liberty sophomore Owen Skelley died by suicide in early March. He was just 15.
As with so many others who decide to take their lives, there were no signs that he was struggling internally. No one saw this coming.
Skelley would have played a big role on this Lightning team, an emerging multi-sport athlete who loved competing. He could hit, had a feel for the game of baseball that belied his young age.
Instead he’s gone.
“Owen was always a very curious kid, asking questions that would expand his general knowledge,” said Boyd Skelley, his older brother and a senior pitcher for Liberty. “He also had a very hard work ethic and was very determined to accomplish anything he set his mind to. His smile brought a certain energy that was big and boosted the mood of the room.”
“He was the perfect kid,” said Liberty senior catcher Jack Funke. “He was outgoing, made everyone laugh, made everyone smile. He always cared about everyone before himself. You couldn’t ask for a much better kid than Owen.”
The field has been a sanctuary for Boyd Skelley, Funke and their teammates. It has provided a chance for everyone to escape their grief, albeit for just a few hours at a time.
Liberty (21-19) has qualified for its first state baseball tournament, playing top-seeded Johnston (33-4) in an 11:30 a.m. Class 4A quarterfinal Tuesday at Banks Field in Iowa City. It shocked Cedar Falls in a substate semifinal, then vanquished defending champion Pleasant Valley in the substate finals.
The Lighting are an amazing story in more ways than one.
“We’ve always had the talent and ability the entire season to play really good baseball, and we’ve shown that various times through the regular season,” Boyd Skelley said. “But this postseason we’ve really come together as a team to play as one and for something bigger than ourselves. It’s surreal being the first Liberty team to make it to state especially under the given circumstances.”
“We’ve dealt with a lot of stuff, and it’s been emotionally draining,” said head coach Tom Cronk. “It’s awesome to be a part of this. I firmly believe we’ve had somebody kind of watching over us.”
There are no classes for coaches on how to handle having a player commit suicide. Cronk decided to bring everything out into the open.
Skelley’s father Joe addressed the team. Joe and Jen Skelley have created a memorial fund in their son’s name.
Regular talks about mental health have followed.
“Understanding what happened, and what we can do to try and prevent it. Just realize that it’s real. It’s everywhere, it’s that thing that nobody wanted to talk about,” Cronk said. “The big thing is we’re bringing awareness to it. To understand that it’s OK to need help, it’s OK to get help. Let’s stay together, keep them together. I’m really excited we get another week together.”
“We’ve gone through every emotion possible, basically,” Funke said. “A lot of us really struggled with that, and it has kind of pushed us to work even harder in honor of Owen.”
Funke and Boyd Skelley are good friends who will play college baseball together next year at Division II Winona State in Minnesota. The Funkes and the Skelleys have lived next to each other in two different neighborhoods in the Iowa City, North Liberty area.
“I think Boyd has done really well with it,” Funke said. “He’s holding a lot of people together. He really is a really big part of our team, one of the captains, brings all the energy. He doesn’t sulk. I know how super, super sad he is, and I’ve seen that outside of baseball. But during baseball, he’s dedicated and just willing to work.
“I know that I have to be there for him. He’s always been there for me, so it’s my turn to step up. Keep him working, keep him motivated.”
And keep Liberty winning. Against all odds.
“They say it takes a village, and our community, the support they’ve given ... they’ve come together like you would never imagine,” Cronk said. “Joe said it best: ‘I’ve had people I don’t even know that are coming and trying to support me.’ That’s how I feel as the coach. Everywhere we look, we have people that want to help and want to do this.
“Then for our kids, it’s talking about things, making sure that we’re addressing our feelings, and it’s OK to not feel good. The key is how we get help when we need it, how to recognize those things. Not only ourselves, but also our friends. We’ve got a very tight-knit group of seniors, especially, and they’ve been together ... Our group is together all the time, and I think that has really brought us closer together.”
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