Roughriders honor five new Hall of Fame inductees

Gillette Roughrider coach Nate Perleberg shakes hands with three of the five new Hall of Fame inductees before the semifinals of the 35th Annual Hladky Memorial Tournament on June 27.

The 35th annual Hladky Memorial Tournament saw the host Gillette Roughriders play some quality baseball en route to winning the title, but coach Nate Perleberg had something else special to share with fans last weekend.

For the fifth consecutive year, the Post 42 American Legion baseball team welcomed a new class of Roughriders Hall of Fame inductees. Started in 2015 by Perleberg, the hall of fame has honored 35 former players as well as the entire 2008 state championionship team before adding five more this year.

“When I got here, it just didn’t feel like we had a good connection between alumni and our current program,” Perleberg said. “This has kind of been a way to honor some of those guys who came before us.”

The 2020 Roughrider Hall of Fame class includes Chris McDonald, Kenny Harmer, Leo Hinkel, Randy Langdon and Rich Lauer.

Perleberg said a committee of five people votes on potential inductees who were nominated. Since records and statistics are practically nonexistent before Perleberg’s time with the Roughriders, he said many of the nominees are fact-checked through word of mouth.

“It comes down to trust and listening to former teammates and coaches who can back the nominee up,” Perleberg said. “We can’t necessarily say, ‘Oh this is a .400 batter’ or anything like that, but we can get a good idea of what kind of player he was and what kind of person he was character-wise.

“Our ultimate goal is to really get the best of the best so it means something when these guys get it.”

Perleberg said for a person to be eligible for induction, he must be five years removed from being an active player and can go all the way back to the 1948 season.

Roughriders Hall of Fame Class of 2020

McDonald primarily played third base, catcher and pitcher for the Roughriders from 1988-90, but Perleberg said his former teammates remember him for his versatility and ability to play anywhere on the diamond.

McDonald joined the U.S. Marines shortly after graduating high school.

Harmer played with the Roughriders from 1973-75 and graduated from Campbell County High School in 1975. He moved to California in 1983 after graduating from the University of Wyoming, where he still lives today.

Harmer told Perleberg his favorite Roughriders memory came against the best team in the state at the time, Cheyenne Post 6, when he was thrown onto the mound because the Roughriders were out of pitchers. He threw a complete game, but lost the decision 12-4.

“The Cheyenne coach approached me and said, ‘I want you to know you threw really hard during warmups, but as soon as the batter stepped to the plate you pretty much aimed the ball and took all the heat off,’” Harmer said. “I would have appreciated him telling me that during the game.”

Despite giving up 12 runs, Harmer stole home twice against Cheyenne, accounting for half of the Roughriders’ runs. Harmer also stole second and third base before scoring both times.

Harmer works as a mortgage banker and serves on the board of directors for the Los Angeles/Ventura County Building Industry Association and the board of directors for the California Mortgage Banking Association.

Hinkel, who grew up in Pisgah, Iowa, before moving to Gillette, became a board member for the Roughriders organization in 2007, overtaking the vice president position before eventually serving as president. Hinkel coached the 2017 Junior Riders and also coached the first Gillette Prep team in 2007.

Hinkel played college baseball at Missouri Western State University before starting a career in the oil and gas industry. During an Asia/Pacific assignment, Hinkel coached Little League and collaborated with former Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Bill Bennett.

Hinkel’s son Westin also is a former Roughrider who went on to play baseball in college.

Langdon joined the Roughriders program in 1968 as a player before moving on to play at Black Hills State College, where he graduated in 1972. In 1975, Langdon accepted a teaching job at Campbell County High School and quickly became involved with local baseball.

From 2001-2005, Langdon was president and manager of the Roughriders, where he prioritized upgrading Hladky Memorial Stadium. Improvements Langdon achieved include a new fence, updated sprinklers, a new concession stand and remodeled facilities for umpires and scorekeepers.

Lauer played for the Roughriders from 1978-1980 and became known for his power hitting and outfield glove. Lauer was a four-sport athlete in high school in baseball, football, swimming and track. He attended the University of Nebraska, where he continued playing football and baseball.

The ceremony

Although McDonald and Lauer couldn’t make the ceremony in Gillette last weekend, Harmer, Hinkel and Langdon were honored while standing on the Gillette “G” painted behind home plate just before first pitch of Gillette’s semifinal game with Mitchell, South Dakota.

Langdon said the ceremony was especially heartwarming after dedicating 64 years of his life to Roughriders baseball.

“It was very special, it was just a real heartfelt moment and I was really appreciative that they selected me,” Langdon said. “I wasn’t expecting it.”

Langdon said the reward for all the hard work he’s put into the program is seeing the kids play the game of baseball the way it’s meant to be played.

“Watching those kids, their biggest achievement is getting better and that’s a joy being a part of it,” Langdon said. “I’ve always been a giver and I always try to give to the program in whatever way I can.

“My biggest joy is giving back to the community, but especially those kids and this team.”

Hinkel said being recognized in front of the home crowd was a memorable experience because and much like Landon, his favorite aspect of his involvement with the Roughriders has been giving back to the program and especially the youth of Gillette.

“I wish I could have thanked the many, many more people that did much more than I did that weren’t recognized that night,” Hinkel said. “But the award is appreciated.”

Two players cheering from the dugout during the ceremony were Kaden Race and Brody Richardson, both former players of Hinkel’s during his time coaching the Junior Riders three years ago.

Tanner Richards, the team’s current catcher and outfielder, said playing on hall of fame night is always something special that the veterans look forward to.

“When we have nights like hall of fame night, we just play on a whole new level because we’re playing for those guys,” Richards said. “A lot of what we have now is because those guys worked for it, so with that we just go out there and prove to them that we’re still continuing the Riders way.”

Richards, a senior playing in his last hall of fame night with the Roughriders, did exactly that with three clutch RBIs, two coming off a double in the first inning of the semifinal game.

“All those guys had huge successes in the program and so we just try and do everything we can to not let them down, to show them that we’re continuing what they started,” he said.

Hayden Sylte, also a senior, said he’s been lucky to have experienced hall of fame night three times in his Legion baseball career.

“Every one of them has done so much to build this program into what it is now, so I think it’s very important to honor them,” Sylte said. “I can only imagine what it’s like to be inducted and to relive the days of playing when they were growing up. It’s an incredible thing.”

Much like Richards, Sylte put on a show for Roughriders alumni during the tournament, throwing a five-inning perfect game to open the tourney and collecting five hits and four RBIs at the plate over the weekend.

Sylte, who has committed to play for North Dakota State University, became Perleberg’s first player to sign with a Division I baseball program right out of high school.

“Nobody deserves it more than him, it’s definitely gratifying to see a guy come from a such a small program make it to that level,” Perleberg said. “Not a lot of athletes make it to that level out of Wyoming, especially for baseball, but he’s worked harder than anyone.”

Steve Laakso, board president for the Roughriders, said having players watch the induction ceremony right before they hit the field is a way to humble and remind them how the program got to where it is today.

“The current players get to see who kind of started all the legwork for the program and who helped it grow into what it is now, like our facilities and how we’re able to bring in such great competition,” Laakso said. “It’s good for them to see those guys and be able to recognize who they are.

“They’re not just another fan, they’re actually somebody who contributed to the program.”

Perleberg said current players interact with the hall of fame inductees when they arrive for the ceremony and hear about how the program has evolved through the years.

“The older players can say, ‘Hey, this is what it used to be like,’” Perleberg said. “They can say, ‘We used to have to pick up 50 rocks and fill both our pockets before we could practice or whatever.’

“Our guys are really understanding that people came before them and it’s a privilege to wear the Riders uniform.”

Laakso, who was inducted into the Roughriders Hall of Fame in 2019, said the ceremony is a way to bring people back to Gillette and come together to recognize just how far the program has come.

“I had another teammate I played with who lives in Texas come back who I hadn’t seen since high school and we were inducted together,” Laakso said. “We both helped build the field and the program years ago and he was able to see where the facilities are now compared to when we were out there and it’s just a really special feeling for all of us.”

Although Perleberg isn’t eligible for the Roughrider Hall of Fame yet, the coach is in the Wyoming Baseball Hall of Fame, which was created in 2017.

“Obviously, it was an honor to be recognized for all the hard work, but it’s really a testament that it’s not an individual award or accolade,” Perleberg said. “You can’t win without good players, and you can’t have a good program without good people.”

Perleberg and nine others from Gillette were inducted into the Wyoming Baseball Hall of Fame for their contributions to the Roughriders program. Since 2006, Perleberg has had 54 players go on to play college baseball and has coached the Roughriders to their only state championship wins in program history in 2008 and 2014, the latter being the same year Perleberg was named Wyoming Coach of the Year.

“In 2004, we needed a new coach and he (Perleberg) applied for the job,” Langdon said. “I had to knock a few heads around, but I told everybody he was my first choice. Obviously, we’re pretty fortunate we got him here.”

Work ethic, integrity and respect. These are the three things Hinkel said Perleberg instills in each player who comes through the program. Hinkel said it’s only a matter of time before Perleberg is inducted into the Roughriders Hall of Fame he created.

“I have no problem getting behind a coach like Nate Perleberg,” Hinkel said. “He’s created a legacy and by the end of it, it will be something very, very special. It already is.”

While calling new inductees in January is one of Perleberg’s favorite times of the year, the Roughriders Hall of Fame isn’t where his focus is for the future of the program.

“Competing on a national level,” Perleberg said. “Your goal in a program like this has to be about not only winning state championships but advancing to the World Series.

“That’s the goal,” Perleberg said. “Get to that World Series.”

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