Fourteen-year-old Josh Hojnowski hasn’t taken the ACT, played an inning of varsity baseball or even applied to college, but he already has a $1,000 scholarship waiting for him when he graduates from high school in 2019. However, if he maintains his course of development, the freshman won’t need it because he’ll have a full-ride to play college baseball.
Hojnowski – and nearly a dozen youth baseball players like him – is part of the Colorado Flash Baseball Scholar Program set up by radio host and Flash Baseball founder Darren McKee and his wife Kim. The Aurora-based organization provides a competitive, tournament-based alternative to Little League Baseball at what the McKee’s believe is an affordable price. The McKee’s brand of baseball has encouraged the community and young athletes to invest in each other through the Scholar Program.
Colorado Flash Baseball Scholar Program award winner Josh Hojnowski
While Flash was created in search of on-field success, the McKees were adamant that their program reach outside the foul lines. In a meeting with Beth Bowlen, daughter of Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, Darren laid the groundwork for the Scholar Program, a flagship college scholarship program that asks middle school kids to start planning for their academic future.
As former director of special projects for the Broncos, Bowlen made a career around event planning and community events, including Kids Giving for Kids. She’s heard her share of pitches like Darren’s.
“People have great ideas, but it takes a lot to make them happen,” she said. “Nine out of ten projects like this don’t get all the way through.”
However, she was impressed with Darren’s passion and saw potential for the program to help younger generations understand the value of social duty. Bowlen offered her services as a member of the program’s six-person board. Much to her surprise and joy, the McKee’s were able to pool enough resources to get the Scholar Program up and running.
The program is available to players in the 13U and 14U brackets who have completed at least one season of Flash baseball. The nominees, as eighth and ninth graders, are asked to design community service projects based on their passions.
Each year, before the end of the spring season, the candidates outline their projects in writing and submit them for review by the McKees. Kim leads them in a two-hour interview training session, and they learn how to shake hands, dress, make eye contact and succeed in a professional setting. Later that day, they deliver a pitch before notable Coloradans including Beth Bowlen, former Bronco Chris Kuper, Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and prominent attorney Harvey Steinberg. Each board member pays $1,000 to sit on the board, which enables the program to sustain six new Scholar Program awardees every year.
The well-dressed nominees present their pitch in a professional setting in a day that renews Bowlen’s hope for the future.
“This is an experience you leave feeling filled up – your tank is full."
- Beth Bowlen, Flash Baseball Scholar Program board member
“This is an experience you leave feeling filled up – your tank is full,” she said. “And that’s what we look for when we give our time, treasure and talent. Often, you get asked to join a board and you don’t know if you’re going to walk away feeling positive about what you’re doing. But it’s not like that for the Scholar Program. It’s great helping these kids realize that they can go above and beyond.”
About 10 Flash players are picked to make presentations each season. After three seasons on the board, Bowlen remains impressed with the young men, saying they’re presenting at a level well beyond their years. Some highlights include a player with a speech impediment who, Bowlen said, delivered an incredibly articulate, well-thought out presentation, a player whose project prompted 10 neighborhood kids to help their elderly neighbors and the jaw-dropping look players make when they realize they’re in a room with Kuper, an NFL Pro Bowler.
Bowlen was especially impressed with Josh Hojnowski’s idea to institute a recycling program at the local baseball fields.
“Not only is it a fantastic project that’s needed, but you could build an entire team around it,” Bowlen said. “It was really well put together – definitely a highlight for me.”
The idea was born after one of Hojnowski’s baseball games, when he was trying to stuff an empty Gatorade bottle into an overflowing trash can. He noticed that more than half the trash was recyclable materials – just like his – and wondered why there weren't separate bins for recyclables. Nearly a year later, he stood in front of Bowlen and the Scholar Program board and presented his idea for the “Pitch It Here” campaign – a recycling program designed specifically for baseball fields.
“It was fun actually – most kids thought it was pretty scary,” Hojnowski said about presenting in front of the group. “Once you start to speak, you think it’s an honor to speak in front of those people. I was definitely nervous, but they did most of the talking and asked us questions.
“(The experience) helped me speak at school, too. The leap from speaking in front of Beth Bowlen and Chris Kuper to my classmates is night and day.”
As part of the program, Hojnowski will continue to work on his project for at least 20 hours per year until he graduates, recording his progress on a Google Doc. So far, he’s contacted the city and Cherry Creek Little League regarding his idea and discovered that there is a lack of funds to set up a separate recycling pick up, but his father, Jim, has no doubt his problem-solving son will find a solution.
“He definitely has the will, patience and stamina to do a project like this ‘Pitch It Here’ campaign,” Jim said. “I know he’s going to do a good job and stick with it.”
While the Scholar Program the hallmark of the Mckees' efforts, it didn’t emerge overnight, and neither did Flash baseball.
Name: Darren McKee | Age: 46
Resides in: Centennial, Colorado
Family: Wife, Kim; son, Connor, 15; son, Dylan, 15.
Job: Sports talk radio host on 104.3 The Fan.
Interests: Skiing, hiking, running, cycling, music (drummer in a punk rock cover band) and reading.
Darren McKee wanted to be a radio host since childhood. He attended Syracuse University from 1987 to 1991, majoring in speech communication and rhetoric and making his airwaves debut on WJPZ, a college-run station. From 1990-92 he was a disc jockey for Classic Rock 104.7 KIX-FM before moving to Buffalo, New York, where he took his first sports radio position on the Buffalo Sabres Radio Network. After a short stint in Washington, D.C., he moved to Colorado in 1999 and transitioned into political talk radio. After working at seven stations in nine years, he landed his current position at as D-Mac on 104.3 The Fan, a drive-time sports talk show. The success of the show allowed him to create Flash Baseball, which will field its 17th team next year.
Before founding Flash, the McKee’s watched as their son Connor and the Cherry Creek Little League all-star team went into the district tournament with high hopes, but took an early exit after being 10-runned several times.
“It was embarrassing,” Darren said. “We just laughed about it and thought, 'There’s gotta be something better than this.' ”
After a little research, he discovered that the teams dominating Little League all-star tournaments weren’t Little League teams at all. They were tournament teams formed in the beginning of the Little League season, or in years before, that played weekend tournaments in between Little League games. While looking for a tournament team for their son Connor, the McKee’s believed they could provide a better program than the ones available.
“I just went for it,” Darren said. “Connor and I came up with the name and figured out some cheap uniforms. Everything was down to the penny, and I didn’t ask the parents for anything.”
Initially, Darren coordinated with Cherry Creek Little League to pull players from the two 13-year-old teams. The pioneer Flash team played 19 tournament games and went 4-14-1 in the lowest-level tournament baseball Darren could find. However, the Cherry Creek Little League teams showed marked improvement. The Intermediate 50/70 team competed in the Little League World Series Southwest Regional tournament in Grand Junction, Colorado.
“We had such a great time waving the banner for Cherry Creek that I went to the league and asked about expanding my program,” Darren said. “By the next year we had five teams in several age divisions and everything got complicated.”
Colorado Flash Baseball's Sport Ngin website is in development
With five teams to organize, coach and clothe, Kim gave up her full-time job to dedicate herself to running Flash. The McKee’s finally instituted a sign-up fee, like the other tournament teams, but insisted on finding a way to keep their teams affordable for anyone interested in joining. So, Darren – known locally as D-Mac on 104.3 The Fan – used his connections with local business to set up a sponsorship program that encourages Flash parents to ask local business to cover a portion of the cost, which is usually between $1,200 and $1,500.
“If you go out as a parent and sell sponsorship, you get all the money,” Darren said. “In three years, 90,000 dollars in sponsorship have been raised. It’s sort of a trickle-down concept where people take care of themselves and then help others. Of course, they can just write a check if (they) want to.”
Jim Hojnowski turned to Lubo’s Pizza and his favorite auto repair shop to sponsor his sons Josh and Luke. The average tournament team fee is nearly $2,500 while Flash Baseball's fee is usually between $1,200 and $1,500. The Hojnowski’s, however, are one sponsor away from completely funding Luke’s season.
“We just asked ourselves, ‘Where have we spent our time (and) money in the community?' ” he said. “A lot of the businesses here love baseball and are excited to help sponsor a team. That really makes us a community. It helps that we’ve had teams win championships and tournaments and we’ve been able to bring back trophies.”
With an affordable tournament baseball program in place, the McKee’s continued to hash out Darren’s big ideas to better his players and his community. They began with a winter training program, which kept Flash players fresh during the offseason. Within a year, Flash teams were winning weekend tournaments and dominating their opponents in the Little League all-star tournaments.
“When we get to all-stars we’re the ones killing everybody on every (age) level,” Darren said. “We’ve won two state championships and three district titles. Our Little League hadn’t won anything in 30-plus years and all of a sudden we’re winning left and right.”
While the Hojnowskis have already benefitted from Flash baseball programs, it may be tournament-style baseball itself that saves them the most money. Josh is now one of three former Flash players starting on Grandview High School’s JV baseball team as freshmen and knows of five former Flash teammates competing at the same level at surrounding schools.
Colorado Flash founder Darren McKee, far right, poses with his players for a team photo.
“In seventh grade, when I joined Flash, my pitching was struggling,” he said. “Coach McKee taught me the right mechanics and form for pitching. Now, I’m one of the main pitchers because of what he taught me. I was struggling with my follow through, I wasn’t extending enough. He taught me to keep the same motion with my upper body, but extend my bottom half to get more velocity.”
Josh and his parents have already started looking at colleges. The freshman is interested in Oregon University because of its architecture program and baseball team but believes he could get into most colleges. Whatever he decides, he’ll have $1,000 from the Scholar Program and, hopefully, an athletic scholarship to help pay his way.
Meanwhile, Flash baseball is heading into its fourth year, and the program is still evolving. Kim and Darren meet at the office (their kitchen table) every morning after the kids leave for school and discuss their brainchild’s future. At 3 p.m., Darren becomes D-Mac and goes on air, and Kim whittles her husband’s grand ideas into functioning programs, including a plan to streamline T-Ball in order to maximize playing time for each player.
Recently, they made the decision to cut ties with Cherry Creek Little League and became the Colorado Flash, an independent, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Although the McKee’s say they haven’t profited a dime for their efforts, they take joy in watching their program and players improve and pray for the day when others ask for advice to model a baseball program after theirs.
Bowlen prays for the same thing.
“Once a year it gives me hope, but I wish more people would do projects and create scholarships like this that would make in impact,” she said. “What Darren and Kim have done puts me in awe. They did it – didn’t just talk about it, they really did it.”