When he was hired as head coach of the Kansas Cannons, Tommy Sleva made it a habit to go around to each one of his players, introduce himself and ask where they are from.
The summer baseball club from Augusta is made up almost entirely of Kansas kids, so you can imagine Sleva’s surprise when he found out five of his players were from Las Vegas.
It turns out, unbeknownst to the Cannons, the “Vegas boys” — Kyle Gaura, Koby Millner, Chris Opolka, Trevin Reynolds and Andrew Snyder — had organized a summer reunion in Augusta, three years after the Vegas natives graduated in the same class together at Shadow Ridge High.
Fast forward to the end of the summer and the Vegas boys have all been key pieces to the Cannons’ first league title and berth into championship week of the National Baseball Congress World Series, where the Cannons won their first game of pool play, 3-0 over the San Antonio Angels, at Eck Stadium on Thursday evening.
“We had no idea that they were all from Vegas and from the same school,” Sleva said. “It’s really cool that they wanted to stay together and it just so happened that they’re a great group of kids that are really good at baseball. We got really lucky that way.”
So how did five kids from Vegas who all went their separate ways for college three years ago wind up spending the last two summers together in Augusta, Kansas?
It began with Reynolds, who was recruited to the Cannons in the summer of 2017 as a pitcher. When it became apparent the team needed extra arms, Reynolds recruited Snyder, a lefty, to join the team.
Once Reynolds and Snyder were together, they talked about the possibility the next summer of uniting with Gaura, a catcher, Millner, an outfielder, Opolka, a middle infielder. All five agreed they would try to make it happen.
“High school is one of the most important times of your life and we spent all four years together and made all of those memories together, so we have a pretty special relationship,” Millner said. “We saw an opportunity as kind of one last ride and we decided, ‘Why not?’ A lot of people don’t have a chance to play together after high school, so let’s try it out.”
That’s not to say the transition was always smooth.
Coming from the entertainment capital of the world, it took the Vegas boys some time to adjust to life in Augusta.
“We’re coming from a big city with bright lights and everything is open 24 hours,” Gaura said. “Out here everything shuts down at 10 o’clock. It’s a small town, so everybody knows everybody. You see the same people every day. It’s a completely different and new experience.”
Even though Vegas is known for its desert heat, it’s a different kind compared to Kansas’ humidity.
“I definitely did not realize that before I got out here,” Opolka said. “The first day of practice we were doing ground balls and it felt like I was going to pass out. The air felt so thick.”
Those changes were different, but not necessarily bad. In fact, it was what the Vegas natives were seeking.
It’s easy to forget how quickly the allure of the bright lights, casinos and cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard fades if you were not born and raised in the city.
In that absence, the Vegas boys have discovered something only a small town like Augusta can offer: genuine human connection.
In place of the Las Vegas strip, there’s fishing at Augusta Lake. In place of concerts with famous musicians, the Cannons are the summer celebrities of the town. In place of swarms of tourists, there’s host families who treat the players as if they’re their own.
“It’s the people that make the experience so special,” Millner said. “The Cannons’ host families are second to none. It’s obviously a little nerve-wracking when you realize you’re going to be living with strangers, but I’m so impressed with how much they make us feel like we’re part of their family. We have family dinners together, go on fun outings together, then they come to our games and support us. The host families make it feel like a second home to us.”
But this isn’t a one-sided relationship. The Vegas boys have given back to the Augusta community by each contributing to the Cannons’ title season.
Millner and Snyder are in the Cannons’ starting rotation, while Reynolds is a valuable arm capable of pitching as a starter, middle reliever or closer. Gaura bats clean-up for the Cannons, while Opolka is a staple for the team as a middle infielder.
After this summer, the Vegas boys will go their separate ways once again, although Millner, Opolka and Snyder will play for Newman this upcoming season. But Reynolds (Colorado Mesa) and Gaura (Emmanuel College in Georgia) will both head out of Kansas.
That means this NBC World Series could be the five’s final chance to play together. They would nothing more than to make one more memory together and give back to the Augusta community in the process.
“We came here to win the thing,” Gaura said. “It’s been really cool to play together again, and it shows how it’s a really small world with baseball. We had four great years together, so coming back together we figured we might as well try to make that one big memory together again.”