More than eight men out

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Jim Vallet, For the Fernley Reporter

“Life doesn’t always go as you planned. If it did, your four hitter would always bat with the bases loaded” – Nate Harrison

On March 17, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak closed all non-essential businesses, including all Nevada schools, until at least April 16. On March 27, the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association announced that there was a plan for spring sports to resume on April 22, assuming that schools would reopen on April 16. On March 29, President Trump announced that he was extending the administration’s social distancing guidelines until April 30. At the time of this writing, when and if Nevada students will physically return to their schools this year is not known. 

Baseball is always about hope. Its season begins at a time when we’re ready to look ahead. We’re ready to forget about the cold and hope for warmth. We’re ready to forget clouds and darkness and hope for warmth and sunlight. Brown grass turns green, barren trees explode with color. Nights in front of the fireplace and TV give way to barbecues, pool parties, golf outings, and lounging on the hammock. The silence of winter yields to the sounds of children at play, songs of birds, and the sputtering of lawnmowers. There is also the crack of the bat (replaced at many levels by a ping) and the splat of ball striking leather. 

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So too, baseball is about youth. Unlike other “older” sports (like golf) kids begin playing baseball very young. Many fathers and sons bond while playing catch. How many fathers have heard, “Will you play catch with me?” from their four-year olds? How many of us have watched their five-year old sons swinging a real bat at a make-believe ball, and then rounding make-believe bases after a make-believe home run? How many fathers have heard their sons reasoning not if, but which Major League team they will play for? How many parents have watched young boys like Nate Harrison idolize local high school baseball players, to the point that young Nate happily chased down, and returned, foul balls that went out of play during high school games? How many young 5 and 6-year olds like Jake Heimbruch, Bailey Torres, Nate Harrison, and James Huckaby have dreamed of someday playing for their high schools?

The problem with baseball is, if you stink, everyone knows it. There is no play in baseball where you can set a pick, be a decoy, or just stay out of the way. Everyone gets to (has to?) bat. The ball seems to have a cruel knack of finding whomever is least equipped to handle it, even if that person has been banished to right field. 

So, even though there are many that begin playing baseball as a young child, there are relatively few that are still playing competitively in high school. In our society, many people move, and some families have moved a lot.

That is why the situation on the boys varsity baseball team at Fernley High School is unique. There are 12 players on the 2020 boys varsity team, and eight of those 12 are seniors. Most of those eight seniors, Bailey Torres, Setriano Piroddi, James Huckaby, Trevor Hargett, Nate Harrison, Louie Hatch, Jake Heimbruch and Matt Glover, have all played together since they were 8 years old. On top of that, these eight have had the same two coaches, Jerry Torres and James Huckaby, for that whole time.

This has created a very close-knit team.

“We have all been teammates and now brothers from our first days of tee ball,” said Harrison, “And we are lucky, looking back now we all have gone from a couple of kids learning what the game was to a bond that has made us one big family.”

“Playing together so long has created a brotherhood.” adds Huckaby. 

The coronavirus, and our reaction to it, has dealt this team a cruel blow. To a man, this group of eight and their coaches believe that this was to be their year, this was the year they would prove what they could do, this team would continue the same success as other boys and girls varsity sports have enjoyed so far this year at FHS.

“This team is the team to make something happen and continue the Fernley great year with athletic titles,” Heimbruch said.

“This is the year we can really get it done, we can prove ourselves,” claims Hargett.

“There is a lot of excitement for this team,” opines coach Jerry Torres.

“This team is ready, we have but one goal: To win a state championship,” adds Huckaby Jr. 

But the team may never get the chance to prove anything, as the future of 2020 spring sports in Nevada is not known at this point. At best, the season will be drastically shortened where state champions can be decided. At worst, the rest of the season (the team has already played seven games) will be canceled. 

What everyone I interviewed for this story wanted me to know is that this is a very special team, not so much in terms of talent, but in terms of knowing what to do to win, and knowing how to do it. Don’t misunderstand, there is talent. But the reason everyone connected with FHS baseball believes this team is so special is because of the fighting spirit, the drive, the confidence, the do what it takes attitude, the competitiveness, the motivation–whatever it is that you call the factor that separates winning teams from losing teams.

Torres may have said it best, he certainly said it the most succinctly, “This team wants to win, and they know how to win.” When I asked him to elaborate, Torres went on, “As a group, these kids are so good. They’re tough, they expect to win, they know they’re good, they’re fearless. Losing does not enter their brains. They compete so hard, they are never out in any situation.”

Coach Huckaby adds, “This team does whatever it takes to win. They are a good group of kids who really understand the game.”

Having the talent and that special something are important to a winning team, but so is preparation. A motivational sign I have seen in more than one locker room is “Championship Seasons Begin in the Off-Season.” Well, this team has been preparing for this season not for weeks or months, but for years. Ten years, to be more exact, back to the day the elder James Huckaby started a travel team called The Firebirds when these seniors were 8 years old. The team traveled around Northern Nevada, competing in tournaments against other teams in their age group from bigger cities with more established programs.

“It’s been great to watch this group mature,” Huckaby said, “All kids throw tantrums, but these kids have learned that tantrums don’t help so they don’t throw them. You don’t see these kids throwing helmets or breaking bats. They figure out what they have to do to succeed.”

Players and coaches credit the experience of playing for the Firebirds for the early success this age group had in Little League District Tournaments. Huckaby’s charges won their district and advanced to the state tournament in the 9-10 age group, and advanced to the district championships games in the 10-11, 11-12, as well as the 13-14 year old age groups. When the baseball players in the Class of 2020 got to high school, they played junior varsity baseball for two years, even winning the prestigious Bishop Manogue Junior Varsity Easter Tournament against primarily much bigger schools. As juniors, these players advanced to the Nevada State Tournament last year. 

The final preparations for this year’s team began, “Right after last year ended, with summer ball,” Trevor Hargett said. Although four of these seniors were members of the state championship football team last fall and others wrestled or played basketball or soccer, the team continued to meet informally to keep skills sharp. Starting in January, Torres held informal open field practices until the start of spring practice. 

Another plus this team has is senior leadership. Trevor Hargett, James Huckaby, and Bailey Torres are this year’s captains.

“If there is an issue or a problem, I take it to them,” Jerry Torres. Sometimes, high school captains can lead a team in the wrong direction, but according to Torres, that is not the case at Fernley this year. Talking with these three, I can attest to their love of playing baseball and their drive for success.

So, this team has camaraderie, talent, “that certain something,” preparation, and senior leadership, but that would not be enough if they also did not have good coaching. This team does. The head coach of the Vaqueros this year is Jerry Torres, and he is assisted by James Huckaby, Garrett Hall, Kevin Montgomery, Jake McCullar, and Stan Pryor.

Torres has been the head baseball coach at Fernley High School since 2015. He began coaching middle school soccer when he was still in high school. Torres played baseball for the University of Nevada, Reno, and even a little professional baseball. Torres describes his talents as “good defense with some speed, not a home run hitter.” The future FHS coach began coaching baseball at McQueen High School, and after one year there moved to Bishop Manogue where he stayed for six seasons. In a twist of irony, Torres was an assistant coach at Bishop Manogue in the game when  Fernley, coached by James Huckaby, defeated Bishop Manogue to win Fernley’s only State high school state championship. Because of his “real” job, Torres was forced to quit coaching high school, so he turned to coaching Little League baseball with James Huckaby until taking the high school job at Fernley. 

Torres works the “graveyard shift” as a correctional shift supervisor in Reno at the Jan Evans Detention Facility. His day consists of coming to the baseball field and working on it for a few hours before practice at 2:30 p.m. After practice is over, he goes home, eats, and drives to work. When he returns from work, he sleeps “for about four hours” before going back to work on the baseball field and starting all over again. Obviously, this is a killer schedule. The players, though, recognize and appreciate Torres’ expertise and dedication. Sadly, this will be Torres’ last season as head baseball coach, and I’ll bet a lot of people will agree with Joni Mitchell’s song from the 70’s when she sang, “You don’t know what ya got till it’s gone.”

The cancellation of the baseball season would be a major disappointment to many players and coaches, but devastating to others.

“Ending last year the way we did, we thought we would at least have this year. This sucks” Hargett said.

Huckaby agrees, “This sucks for everyone.”

Harrison elaborates more, saying “One day, we wake up and find that all our hard work, all the sweat, dirt, blood, grass stains, muddy cleats, team bonding, all these things may come to an abrupt end. At first, you get this sense like, the coaches, whom we all trust like fathers, are telling us something that just simply is not true. I mean, you’re telling us that after all our hard work (that) life just isn’t going to pay us back? And, even worse, take away our senior season?”

“The idea of never stepping on the baseball field at Fernley High School again scares me,” the younger Huckaby adds, “The idea of not being able to give an all-out effort to win a state championship scares me.” 

So, how would you feel? You’ve worked hard, for years, to get everything in place. You’ve helped nurture a group that turns out to be special, maybe this could be the one? The team is ready, the attitude is good, the talent is there, you’re prepared, the leadership is there, the season starts out well, and…it might be over before you really got going. You had nothing to do with what happened to cause this in the past, and no control over what the future brings. You’re not getting any solid information, because no one knows what’s going to happen. It’s no one’s fault, but still…

I’d be boiling. I’d want to blame somebody. I’d want someone to tell me what’s going to happen, and if someone did tell me and I didn’t like the answer, I’d complain to high heaven.

That’s what I expected to hear from these players and coaches, and I’d be right with them. It’s not fair!

Although players and coaches were not happy and described the situation as, “it sucks,” I did not hear the bitterness I expected, although a few did express that maybe the NIAA did not have to take such drastic action. Some players and coaches saw a much bigger picture.

Among their comments:

  • “I really don’t know what the NIAA should have done, but I want my community to be safe and healthy.” -Bailey Torres
  • “I understand not spreading the virus, and the virus is much bigger picture than sports.” – Coach Jerry Torres
  • “I have mixed feelings. The disease makes me nervous. I know my parents would come to my son’s games and I don’t want it to spread to them. Safety is the most important thing. But, baseball is played outside and players are usually not that close together.” – Coach James Huckaby
  • “Life doesn’t always go as you planned. If it did, your four hitter would always bat with the bases loaded.” – Nate Harrison
  • “I want the people of Fernley to know that this time in our lives is very hard, and no matter what happens we need to be there for one another. I know that in the bigger picture, this is a time when we need to be there for each other, help one another, and get through this crazy time. The athletes in Northern Nevada are optimistic, understand the situation, and know this pandemic cannot be taken lightly. Cancelling this season would be hard for all senior athletes, and is something we will have to come to peace with.” – James Huckaby Jr.
  • “The softball girls are also upset, and there are others that are in the same boat as us.” – Trevor Hargett

The last comment by Trevor Hargett brings me to the title of this article. There are eight seniors on the FHS baseball team, and, if the season is canceled, they will all be shut out of their senior seasons. But, even though this article focuses on the Fernley baseball team, this issue affects many more high school seniors than just the Fernley baseball boys. What about the Fernley High School softball team? They are in the same boat as the boys. What about track and field? What about boys golf? Then, what about all the seniors that play spring sports in Nevada, not to mention the United States? Although what is happening to the FHS baseball team is horrible and unfair beyond words, there are many, many more.

As James Huckaby correctly pointed out, a high school senior athlete is in a different situation than a college senior athlete. The NCAA has approved an extra year of eligibility for NCAA spring sports athletes. Maybe, they will even grant basketball players an extra year. But in high school, there is no fifth year, no redshirting. You get four years, and then you’re done. If you break your leg, if you’re academically ineligible, if your school drops your sport, there are no makeups or do-overs. I’m not advocating for a fifth year of high school eligibility, I’m just saying that if this year is canceled, there is no recourse for high school seniors.

Huckaby also shared another piece of insight. Since colleges probably will grant another year of spring sport eligibility and the high school seniors are still coming next year, won’t that create a logjam of athletes for spring sports? Will colleges increase the number of scholarships? Or, will the seniors of 2020 who are good enough to play at the next level get shafted for this again?

As I ride my old “Wizard of Oz” around Desert Lakes on a beautiful spring day, I see signs of spring. There are “V” formations of geese honking overhead. Trees that were barren now are full of color. The golf course grass is turning green. Middle school boys chase middle school girls around cars, it doesn’t look like the girls are moving as fast as they can. I hear lawnmowers. There is a lot of singing by birds. Old guys are cleaning old golf carts. People are out walking and working on their yards.

Spring is coming. Hope is eternal. But, no baseball for now. I guess I’ll try to listen to the younger James Huckaby’s advice and be at peace with that.

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