SHIPROCK — It was a case of better late than never for recent Shiprock graduate Zander Dale, who signed his national letter of intent today at Shiprock High School to play college baseball for the Valley City State University Vikings in North Dakota.
Dale, the unquestioned leader of a Chieftains team that went 20-7 last season, didn't aggressively seek out colleges until the recent high school season ended. But with the help of Shiprock coach Alfred Baer and his older brother, Dewayne, he found his new home in Valley City, N.D., late last week.
"The coach there now was an assistant when my brother played there," Dale said. "I thought I'd try out. And (Dewayne) also got in a good word for me."
Dewayne Dale played for the Vikings from 2004-2007 when coach Casey Olney was just beginning his 10-year run with the university.
According to Zander Dale and Baer, the Vikings still have some roster spots to fill, including a starting spot that could open up a year from now at catcher, the position Dale thrived in as a member of the Chieftains.
"I told (Olney) I can pretty much play anywhere, but I'd like to play catcher," Dale said. "And that's what he said they need, is a freshman catcher."
In February, Dale turned down a football offer from New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, and he did it for two reasons: His heart was with baseball, and he wanted to travel outside of his comfort zone, which was outside of the state.
"(Highlands) actually wanted me to play football and baseball, but I thought it was too close to home," he said. "My peers and my siblings all did the same thing I'm doing. They got away from the reservation and the Four Corners area, and I really wanted to see what I could do out in the real world by myself."
But Dale wasn't long on options as the calendar turned from May to June. He admitted he was nervous about finding a place to play in time for his freshman year this fall, but said he remained positive and continued praying until the day VCSU offered him a scholarship in early July.
Baer said he thought Dale was a bit lucky to latch on to a school this late into the summer, but believes the player's resume and reputation spoke for itself.
"Like a lot of other teenagers, he got out of high school and realized 'Ah crap, I still want to play baseball,'" Baer said. "We got online and looked at some schools that he thought would be a geographic fit, and I don't think he followed any of those — he went with the school he was comfortable with and the school he had ties to."
Dale, who was named the District 1-4A Player of the Year after last season, sported a .515 batting average for Shiprock during his senior year, second only to team leader Cameron Phillips with his .591 clip. Dale also mashed seven doubles, which were the second most on the team, and he drove in 15 runs in his 25 games played.
Statistics aside, Baer believes Dale's biggest contributions since joining Shiprock's varsity team as a sophomore have come in the locker room, in the dugout and by example on the field.
"You hear coaches tout leadership, and he defined that word for us," Baer said. "It was inevitable after almost every single game, I would either have a spectator, another coach or somebody come up and say 'Man, I love your catcher, your catcher is this, that or the other.' I would usually answer more questions about him than the game or anything else. He has the innate ability to draw people to him and to lead."
The Vikings are part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and they have competed as a charter member of the North Star Athletic Association since the 2013-14 season. Last year, the VCSU baseball team compiled a record of 21-35.
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.