A wild throw to second base skipped into center field, and Cailen Rundles sprinted home to win the game for the University of North Georgia (UNG) baseball team. The fourth-grader's rare, walk-off win was celebrated at home plate by a cheering crowd of his fellow UNG Nighthawks during an April 7 Make-A-Wish event at the university.
The game-winning run was part of a special day for Cailen, a student at Mount Vernon Elementary School in Gainesville, planned by UNG and the Make-A-Wish foundation titled "A Field of Dreams." He signed a one-day contract to play for the Nighthawks after he received a police escort to UNG's Bob Stein Stadium.
|Rundles talks with teammates after scoring for UNG.|
"Our program is all about adversity; we pride ourselves on having fighters and competitors, and Cailen fits that mold perfectly," Tom Cantrell, head coach for UNG's baseball team, said during a news conference announcing Cailen's signing to the team. "Character is the most important thing to us. What a person stands for makes all the difference in the world."
UNG's Athletic Department raised more than $21,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation during the 2013-14 year, marking the highest total ever from a single institution in the history of the NCAA Division II initiative. UNG has donated the highest amount of money to the Make-A-Wish Foundation in three of the past four years.
Through a joint collaboration between the national Make-A-Wish office and the NCAA, five Division II schools nationally are part of a wish reveal each year.
"It's such an honor to have Cailen here," Brandon Agar, starting pitcher for the Nighthawks, said. "The athletic department believes in Make-A-Wish, and to see firsthand where the support is going and the joy it brings to Cailen and his family is amazing."
Before the evening's official match-up between the Nighthawks and the University of West Florida Argonauts, the teams staged a special "halted" game, a continuation from a game in the previous season that was rained out. The scoreboard was set to a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the ninth, with UNG up to bat and a runner on second base. The runner then stole third base but feigned injury after sliding, and limped back to the dugout. Cantrell then called for Cailen to come on the field and pinch run in his number 00 Nighthawks uniform.
Cailen took the field to cheers and claps, and listened as Cantrell whispered advice from the third base line. After batter Tremayne Toorie walked to first, he attempted to steal second several pitches later. The throw from the Argonauts catcher sailed past the second baseman, and Cantrell waved Cailen home as the crowd leapt to its feet.
As Cailen crossed the plate, his teammates enveloped him in a shower of high-fives, hugs and spray from water bottles as the crowd roared.
"That was a rush," Cailen said. "Coach kept telling me to watch the pitcher, and when he told me to run, I just felt adrenaline."
During the pre-game ceremony for the evening's regular match-up, Cailen was presented with a commemorative bat to honor his winning run and a football signed by his favorite athlete, quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons. An audio message recorded by Ryan for Cailen was also played over the stadium speakers.
Cailen and his family, including parents Emily Burnett and Royce Rundles, had a catered meal next to the Nighthawks dugout during the evening's game. Coincidentally, the Nighthawks also won that game in walk-off fashion at 6-5 in the bottom of the 10th inning. The team is now ranked 26th in the nation among NCAA Division II schools.
"This has been an absolutely wonderful day," Burnett said.
Cailen and his family will travel to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas next month to fulfill his wish, which is made possible by the Make-A-Wish foundation and thousands of student-athletes across the nation.