Deep in the heart of Maryland, not far from Baltimore and Washington, there was another story of baseball magic, this one mixed with tragedy—two deaths, three years apart—that ended with the realization of a seemingly impossible dream
Why did he turn onto Lappans Road?
That's what Zach Lucas wondered as he watched the silver Honda S-2000 driven by his best friend, Brendon Colliflower, veer to the right on the way back from the senior prom just before midnight on Saturday, May 5. Everyone knew the faster route was Downsville Pike, with its wide lanes and broad shoulder. Oh, well, Zach thought, who knows with Brendon?
After all, Brendon wasn't like most kids in Williamsport, a town of about 2,100 in the northwest corner of Maryland, just across the border from West Virginia. Hemmed in by interstates, it's a place young people dream of leaving, a town on the way to everywhere but seldom a destination. Here U.S. flags dot porches, families swim in the muddy green Potomac River by the power plant, and jobs have been scarce since the leather tannery shut down eight years back. It's a baseball-mad hamlet where adults sit in their pickup trucks beyond the leftfield fence at Williamsport High and where the local newspaper streams Little League state tournament games on its website. A place where someone like Brendon, the 2011 all-county pitcher of the year, can become a hero.
October 22, 2012
Brendon was the rare high school ace who "pitched backward," relying on his precipitous curveball rather than his fastball to start off each hitter. But more than that set him apart. Tall and skinny, with fine, almost elfin features, he wore crisp Nike T-shirts and spotless Air Max shoes while his friends sported sleeveless camo and cutoff jeans. He went to all the parties but didn't drink, seeming both younger and older than 17. On Saturdays, when the other baseball players trolled for catfish, dips wedged into their lower lips, Brendon instead wandered the banks, hurling rocks over the hulking power plant. Life was too short to sit on a plastic bucket all day.
On May 5, though, he wanted to stretch out the night forever. So if Brendon took a longer route back from Shepherdstown, W.Va., if he dallied for the sake of dallying, it was with good reason, for Sam sat next to him. With dark blonde hair and large blue eyes, Samantha Kelly was homecoming queen and the star of the volleyball team. She mingled with adults as easily as with teenagers and took to Twitter not to gossip but to post maxims such as Don't be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. That she'd chosen Brendon—the kid who'd never had a serious girlfriend, who'd been shy and a bit of a goofball much of his life—came as a surprise to many. She attended all his games, and she was the only girl allowed when the players gathered at the Waffle House on Saturday mornings to eat syrup-drenched chocolate-chip waffles and fire spitballs. Brendon's teammates teased him—"She's too good for you," they'd joke, or "You better wife her up"—but they all saw how happy he was.
Now, driving home from the prom with Sam, she in a blue strapless dress and he in a white suit with a powder-blue tie, Brendon must have been exhilarated to rocket through the countryside, windows open to the warm spring air. From Lappans he turned left onto Sharpsburg Pike and then left again onto Rench Road, which wound through darkened farmland, with only grass and trees abutting the white lines. As they crossed the railroad tracks, Brendon accelerated. If he saw the yellow sign at the top of a small hill, the one that read 30 MPH with a left arrow, he didn't heed it.
Five hours later the cellphone of Williamsport High baseball coach David Warrenfeltz beeped, jolting him from an uneasy sleep. Upon grabbing the phone, he saw a backlog of text messages and missed calls and felt nauseated with fear. Please, not again, he thought, remembering a call he received at this time of the night three years earlier. That one was about Nick.
The two had met in 1994, on the baseball field, when David was seven years old. Though neither tall nor strong, David was the son of a coach, the kind of smart, unassuming player who would earn the tag of gamer. Nick Adenhart was the opposite, the boy the coaches talked about in low, admiring whispers. Whereas most kids threw in loops and arcs at that age, Nick reared back and cracked the mitt. Plenty of kids were afraid to catch him, but not David. Over the next half-dozen years the two would be a tandem, the cocky righthander and the smaller kid known to many only as Nick's catcher. They spent summers long-tossing, Nick pushing to throw from farther each time. Later David would look back on this time and credit two men with instilling in him the love of baseball: his father and Nick.
By the time Nick and David reached Williamsport High, Nick a class ahead, they were two of the best players on the team. But even though David was good, a savvy defensive catcher with in-the-gap power, he was nothing like Nick. By the spring of Nick's junior year, in 2003, major league scouts were flocking to his starts. They weren't disappointed; Nick's fastball was clocked as high as 95 mph. The Washington Post sent a feature writer to see him, the local cable channel carried two of Williamsport's games, and Baseball America dubbed Nick the top prospect in the country.
Then, in the final regular-season game of his senior year, Nick blew out his right elbow. Playing DH, he still led Williamsport to the state finals, nearly winning the school's first title since 1975. After the season, he needed Tommy John surgery; as a result he dropped from a top five pick in the 2004 draft to the 14th round, where the Angels chose him.
It took five years, but Adenhart regained his velocity, and he entered the 2009 season as the Angels' third starter. On April 8, in his season debut, he threw six scoreless innings against the A's. Back home in Maryland, an overflow crowd watched at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Hagerstown. Afterward, in the Anaheim clubhouse, Nick hugged his father, Jim, then headed out with three friends to celebrate. A couple of hours later, shortly after midnight in nearby Fullerton, a drunk driver in a minivan ran a red light and broadsided the Mitsubishi Eclipse in which Adenhart was traveling. Two of his friends were killed instantly; the third survived with serious injuries. Adenhart died two hours later at a local hospital. He was 22.
Warrenfeltz, by then a senior catcher at Maryland--Baltimore County, received the news when his cellphone woke him at 5:23 a.m. He'd stayed up late watching the game on TV and planned on calling Adenhart in the morning to congratulate him. Now Warrenfeltz was devastated. For eight hours he sobbed, inconsolable.
In Williamsport hundreds of people gathered at the high school field that day. Later 1,500 people showed up at Adenhart's memorial. A shrine was fashioned at the field, a framed Adenhart Angels jersey was hung in the Buffalo Wild Wings, and the Little League diamond in nearby Halfway, Md.—where Nick and David played growing up—was renamed Nicholas James Adenhart Memorial Field.
In the months that followed, Warrenfeltz was haunted by his friend's death. He wrestled with why this happened to Adenhart, not to him—why he was allowed to keep playing baseball when Nick couldn't. Even years later Warrenfeltz would be driving and suddenly have to pull over, tears blurring his vision. Maybe that helps explain why he returned home after finishing college, to make a life in the place his friends once dreamed of leaving. Why he became a coach.
When Warrenfeltz was hired to lead the Williamsport program in 2011, some of the locals grumbled—at 23, he wasn't much older than the players, and his only coaching experience was one season of jayvee. Heck, they said, Warrenfeltz even looks like one of the players: baby-faced, with short brown hair, freckles and an unimposing build. He didn't act like a player, though; during his first season Warrenfeltz remade the program, stressing discipline and structure. He posted a daily practice schedule broken into 10-minute intervals and drilled the team on fundamentals, from pickoffs to bunt defense to footwork on outfield throws. "Do the small things, and it'll lead to bigger things," he told the boys, sounding an awful lot like his father, Dave, a math teacher and former baseball coach at North Hagerstown High who valued ethics over flash, hard work over talent. The Wildcats, a sub-.500 team before Warrenfeltz, caught fire. They finished the 2011 season 17--5 and, behind Brendon's pitching, advanced all the way to the state semifinals.
Warrenfeltz rarely talked about Adenhart, but he didn't need to. The boys had watched Adenhart pitch, and when he died, they'd grieved too, if in a different way. Warrenfeltz had lost a friend; they'd lost a hero. So if their coach seemed stricter than he needed to be, they understood. Like at the beginning of the 2012 season, when Warrenfeltz suspended five of the team's best players, including Brendon, for being out late at a St. Patrick's Day house party that was broken up by police. It didn't matter that Brendon hadn't been drinking or that none of the players were arrested. To Warrenfeltz, it was about making good decisions.
Some parents, including Brendon's father, Chad, didn't like the suspensions. The boys would miss the games against Walkersville, a powerhouse, and rival North Hagerstown. The Wildcats had been moved up to Class 2A, making them the smallest school in the West region; they could ill afford to start 0--2. Yet they did, getting blown out in both games. From there it went downhill. Four key players got injured. Zach Lucas, the team's first baseman and best hitter, went into a slump. Even Brendon struggled, giving up six runs in three innings against Brunswick the day before the prom. Heading into the playoffs, the Wildcats were 9-9-1 and had lost their final three games by a combined score of 31--3. All the promise of the previous season—the trip to the state semis, the magical team chemistry—had dissipated. The players were frustrated and the parents angry.
Warrenfeltz might have tried to sweet-talk the critics, but that wasn't his style. Meticulous and stoic, he spent hours reflecting, Did I get the most out of practice today? Could I be reaching this player more effectively? How am I preparing these young men for the rest of their lives? Which is why, on the Friday of prom week, he'd gathered the boys in the locker room and urged them to be safe on Saturday night. "Have fun, but be careful," he said, "and don't do anything to jeopardize yourselves, the team or anyone around you. See you on Monday for the game."
But now here it was, 5:20 a.m. after prom night, and his phone was lighting up. Warrenfeltz didn't want to listen to the messages, wanted to freeze the moment before he heard the bad news. He called back the first number he saw. "It's Brendon," catcher Ryan Butts said when he picked up. "He's been in a car accident. I'm sorry, Coach."
Within 24 hours the police would reveal that Brendon had taken the curve too fast and lost control, sending the S-2000 careering into a tree head-on. Later, toxicology reports would confirm what Chad Colliflower had known from the start: Neither Brendon nor Sam had been drinking or under the influence of drugs.
None of that mattered at the moment, though. All that mattered was what Ryan was now telling Warrenfeltz: Brendon and Sam were dead. It had happened again.
Grief washed over Warrenfeltz. He thought of the families, the school and the town. More than anything, though, he thought about his team. The players would be looking to him for guidance, to explain the unexplainable. At 5:45, Warrenfeltz began calling his assistants. Then, just before sunrise, he sent a text message to all the players. All it said was, "I love you guys. I'll be at the field if you need me."
One by one the players arrived on Sunday morning: Zach with his father, centerfielder Tyler Nally with his dad, first baseman Tyler Byers with his parents. Some of the boys had known for hours; others were just finding out. Of all the players it was Zach, the sturdy, power-hitting senior, who had borne the greatest load during the night. He'd been the first player to arrive at the scene of the accident, the one who woke Chad Colliflower with a phone call and drove to tell Ryan the news.
As the sun rose on a clear spring day, more cars pulled up: parents, friends, other students and alumni, more than 150 people in all. They came to the field, as they had after Adenhart's death, because it seemed the right place to go. Some stood around the mound, others lingered in the dugout with Warrenfeltz and his wife, Stephanie. That the town came out wasn't surprising. Everyone knew Brendon and Sam, just as everybody had known Nick. Their successes were communal successes. That's why those men parked their pickups in the grass beyond leftfield, sometimes three trucks deep, drinking tallboys and honking when the Wildcats scored.
Warrenfeltz thought about this when he finally left the field on Sunday around 1 p.m. He was conflicted. Monday's game, the last of the regular season, would be canceled. Should the team even practice? Would it be wrong to play baseball now? Or wrong not to? Needing counsel, he headed where he'd always gone: his parents' house. Only when he arrived, he was shocked to see who was sitting in the living room.
It was by a fluke that Nick's mom, Janet Gigeous, was in town that day. It had been years since she and Nick's father had separated. She spent most of the year in Florida now, but she still had ties to Williamsport and had come up for the weekend with her husband, Duane. Which is how Janet, one of the only people on the planet who knew what Warrenfeltz was going through, came to be at his father's house that afternoon.
For an hour the six of them talked and grieved: Janet and Duane, David's parents and David and Stephanie, a tall, lanky former lacrosse player who'd been with him the day Adenhart died, back when she was David's girlfriend.
By the time David left, he knew what he needed to do. He sent a text to the boys. There would be no practice on Monday, it said, but he and the other coaches would be at the field after school.
What Zach Lucas remembers most is how quiet it was at school on Monday. Most students didn't even go to class; they just huddled near the gym, where an impromptu shrine to Brendon and Sam grew on the cork bulletin board: photos of Sam in her familiar number 2 volleyball shirt, of Brendon in a goofy pose when he entered a Ping-Pong tournament, of the two of them at the prom. Everywhere Zach looked he saw flowers, many of them blue or white, the school colors.
At 3:15 p.m. Warrenfeltz made his way down to the field. To an outsider it wasn't much to look at: bumpy green grass bordered by chain-link fencing, two concrete dugouts with skinny benches and, off each foul line, a set of metal bleachers. The tiny pressroom behind home plate, up a set of vertiginous wood steps, was hot and dark. Regardless, Warrenfeltz loved it there. He went to the field two or three times a day in the summer and at 3 p.m. during the school year, after he finished his day job as a third-grade teacher at Fountaindale Elementary. He turned on the sprinklers and planted seeds, locking the fence during the summer so kids didn't tear up the surface. If it began to rain, he could make it from his house in seven minutes flat to lay out the tarps. And on the rare occasions that he traveled out of town, he left a list of tasks for his father to perform. As he sometimes joked, "Since I don't have any children yet, this is kind of like my child."
Fifteen minutes after Warrenfeltz arrived, the players began to trickle in. Some, like senior Tyler Byers, had shut down completely. Others, like Tyler's brother, Colby, a talented freshman backup catcher, kept asking why this had happened. Warrenfeltz gathered them in the dugout. "The most important thing I want to say to you guys is this: However you feel is however you feel," he said. "If you're devastated to the point where you just need to sit down by yourself, away from everybody, that's fine. There's no timetable here, no way you're supposed to be feeling on this day or that day."
For the next two hours and each of the following two afternoons, the boys just hung out at the field. Some, like Ryan Butts and Tyler Nally, followed their usual routine—dressing, hitting off the tee—because they needed the structure and the distraction. Others sat in silence. A few threw the ball around; others played home run derby. Just being together anchored them. All season long the players had been exceptionally close. They'd gone out to eat together, fished together on Saturdays and walked the school hallways in clusters of six or seven. In the days after the accident, though, they became a family. On Sunday night Tyler Byers slept at outfielder Brandon Greene's house for comfort. Sunday morning, at the field, the freshmen had cried on the shoulders of the seniors. Watching this, Warrenfeltz realized the question wasn't whether they should keep playing but for how long they could. Every day they were together was precious.
There was only one problem: the playoff schedule. Williamsport was slated to play on Friday afternoon, during Brendon's viewing.
Warrenfeltz called Williamsport's athletic director, Stan Stouffer, who called the state office and explained the situation. The Wildcats were given a choice: They could play on Friday afternoon or at 2 p.m. on Saturday. That wasn't much better, though; Brendon's funeral was at 11 that morning. Can we push the game back to Monday? Warrenfeltz asked. The state office balked. It couldn't hold up the whole tournament for one team.
Torn, Warrenfeltz called Brendon's grandparents. They had helped raise him while Chad, who lived with the boy after splitting with his mother, Amy, worked 11-hour days as an X-ray technologist at an outpatient facility in Leesburg, an hour away. He asked them one question: Should we play?
Gail Colliflower answered immediately: You have to.
The line of cars heading to Brendon's funeral stretched for nearly a mile, so that the Williamsport police closed down one lane of traffic and turned it into a parking strip. By 12:30 on Saturday, hundreds of people had gathered at Greenlawn Memorial Park cemetery as Brendon was buried in his blue number 6 Wildcats jersey. The morning was warm but hazy, and midway through the ceremony somebody pointed to the sky. Soon enough everyone was looking up, for there, circling the sun, was a rainbow. To Chad, it looked like a halo.
At one, the Wildcats said their final goodbyes, laying their hands on their friend's casket and chanting, "One-two-three, Brendon!" Then they drove the half mile to the field. They had less than 45 minutes to warm up. They changed into their uniforms in their cars and jogged to the field. More than a few still had tear-stained faces.
It had been more than a week since the Wildcats had practiced. They were without their best player and star pitcher. Many parents wondered if their boys could even play. But even though the opponent, ninth-seeded Wheaton High of Silver Spring, was winless—in Maryland every team makes the playoffs—there is no way to explain what happened next.
The Wildcats hit with a power that had been missing all season. Tyler Byers drove in two runs; so did Brandon Greene. Zach crushed a home run that soared to where Warrenfeltz's grandmother, who preferred to watch the game in her car, was parked, 410 feet from home plate. As she scooted out of the way, the shot shattered her windshield, a piece of glass piercing the ball. The final score was 22--0. More astonishing, four Williamsport pitchers had combined to throw a no-hitter.
Afterward no one wanted to leave the field. The parents brought sandwiches and sodas and chips. Unable to stomach food before or immediately after the funeral, the hungry players scarfed it down. All around were the trappings of the day: the white rose that was on the mound before the game, the remnants of the spray-painted 2 and 6 next to it, the signs and flowers on the fence, the string from the 80 blue and white helium balloons that parents sent into the sky during a pregame moment of silence. All afternoon people approached and hugged Chad Colliflower, including players, something he never expected from 16- and 17-year-old boys, who usually find it so hard to hug another man. He saw people he hadn't seen in 20 years and old, red-nosed guys he'd seen only down on the corner but who were suddenly wearing Williamsport blue. Chad later said, "I never felt so much love in my life."
Before the game many of the boys had worried that they shouldn't be playing. Now something flipped inside them. Zach had a feeling of empowerment—he was now in control. As for Warrenfeltz, he called his father that night and said of his team, "I just want more time to be together, that's all."
He knew that was unlikely, though. The Wildcats were slated to play again in two days, and Warrenfeltz had seen the brackets.
On Monday it rained, granting Williamsport a one-day reprieve. Tuesday brought no such luck. At 1:30 p.m. the Wildcats piled onto the bus, bound for Liberty. The top seed in the West region, Liberty boasted the best pitcher in Class 2A, Andrew Massey, whose arsenal included an 88-mph fastball and a devastating 83-mph cutter. This should have been the big showdown: Colliflower versus Massey. Now the Wildcats would be hard-pressed to keep it close.
For two seasons Warrenfeltz had relied on his ace in big games. Now he had to make a choice. There was Tyler Byers, the headstrong, wiseass country boy who threw exclusively fastballs, which wasn't such a bad thing considering they arrived at 87 mph. Unfortunately, Tyler had taken a line drive on the ankle while pitching two weeks earlier. Assistant coach Kyle Lewis suspected the ankle was fractured, but there was no way Tyler's father, Mick, a demanding but loving man who put baseball right after God and country, was taking him to the doctor and no way Tyler would have gone. In the meantime Warrenfeltz had moved Tyler from first base to DH to keep his bat in the lineup.
That left Warrenfeltz with one option: He needed Zach to take the mound. Zach was a hitter first, a pitcher by necessity. For the season he had a 4.68 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings. He possessed neither a great fastball nor much of a curve.
What Zach did have was desire. The oldest son of a nurse and a cable-company engineer, he had been shy and chubby as an underclassman, but the summer after his sophomore year he began lifting weights. Week by week he added muscle to his 5'9", 180-pound frame, becoming more confident. As a junior he set the team single-season record for RBIs. He also began spending more time with Brendon. The two were in some ways opposites, Zach struggling with his weight while the rail-thin Brendon went to the Waffle House and ordered a sausage-and-egg cheese wrap with a waffle, a side of sausage, a side of bacon and hash browns. Yet they were, as Lewis says, "the same kind of weird." Everything between them was an inside joke. But when Brendon took the mound, all that changed; out there he had a swagger, and the Wildcats fed off that confidence.
Now it fell to Zach to lead. So as he walked out to the mound against Liberty, he tried to act self-assured as Brendon always had, even if he knew he was overmatched. The afternoon before, Warrenfeltz had told the players what to expect emotionally. "All we are is a baseball team," he said. "We can't make this situation right. All we can do is make the best of what we can do."
That was going to be hard against Massey. He retired the side in order in the first, struck out the side in the second and went 1-2-3 in the third. Meanwhile Liberty touched Zach for two runs. Usually a 2--0 lead didn't seem insurmountable, but with Massey on the mound, it did.
Then, in the top of the fourth inning, Tyler Nally got lucky. Or maybe Massey made a bad pitch. Either way the ball shot up the middle for a single. And, just like that, it began: a Liberty error; then Zach crushed a double to make it 2--1; an inning later Williamsport added three more runs, then another in the sixth to make it 5--3.
Heading into the bottom of the seventh and last inning, Williamsport clung to its two-run lead. Out to the mound walked Tyler Byers, bad ankle and all. Warrenfeltz had expected to use him for one inning at most. This would be his second. It showed. He hit one batter, gave up a double to another and soon enough it was 5--4, with two outs and a runner on third. Tyler got ahead 0 and 2. The Liberty batter sent the next fastball screaming over the Williamsport dugout. Twice more Tyler threw heaters, and twice the batter fouled them off. If there were ever a time to call for a changeup, it was now. Warrenfeltz considered it, then gave the sign. Tyler reared back and unleashed an eye-high heater. The boy didn't stand a chance. He swung, and the umpire yelled, "Strike three!"
On the mound Tyler rejoiced, then looked up and raised one arm straight above his head, as if signaling a first down to the sky. All around him the Wildcats hugged and yelled. On the other side of the diamond Liberty coach Erik Barnes walked over to Warrenfeltz. "Great job," he said. "Now go on and win this thing."
Win it? Hell, Warrenfeltz was ecstatic just to have another day of practice. Yet two days later Williamsport won again, beating South Carroll 5--4 on a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the seventh. The following afternoon, in the regional final, the Wildcats beat Century High of Sykesville 11--6. It was Williamsport's fourth game in six days, yet, improbably, the team was only getting better. During the regular season the boys had occasionally played selfishly, concentrating on putting up numbers and earning college scholarships. Now the chemistry was back. No one cared about anything except not being the guy who ended the season. In one game reserve Aaron Green came up with a huge pinch-hit RBI single. In another Nick Sauble pitched two much-needed innings. If there was a concern, it was over the team's bunting, in particular that of sophomore shortstop Brandon Toloso. Three times in the playoffs Warrenfeltz had asked Brandon to sacrifice, and three times he had failed.
With each win the buzz built. The NBC affiliate in Hagerstown, WHAG, featured Williamsport on the evening news. Players on eliminated teams told the Wildcats on Twitter: Win this s---. Williamsporters patted the boys on the back at the Waffle House, flew blue-and-white flags on their cars. The Wildcats were back in the state semis.
It was a bittersweet time for the Colliflowers. Chad, a youthful-looking 41, couldn't stop thinking that his son would have reveled in the moment. The two of them, occasionally mistaken for brothers, had gone to rock concerts together and played video games in Chad's two-bedroom apartment. "He really was my best friend," Chad says. Yet he was amazed by Brendon's patience and drive, unable to believe this was his son. "Don't be like me," he often told Brendon. "Be better than me."
So on Tuesday, May 22, when Williamsport traveled to College Park to face Loch Raven on Maryland's turf field, Chad was there. He stood and cheered when Zach took the mound, wearing Brendon's number stitched on his hat. Chad roared when, two innings later, Zach jacked a triple to right center to give Williamsport a 2--0 lead. And he high-fived everyone when Tyler Byers closed out the 3--0 win.
That night the Wildcats headed to the Waffle House, as they always had. They sat in their favorite booths, near the counter, and antagonized the night waitress, Minnie, as they always did, dipping their napkins in their water glasses and firing wet fastballs at each other and the front windows, the gobs sticking on the glass for a moment before sliding down, the streaks looking from the outside like tears.
The same night, as the clock neared midnight, Warrenfeltz huddled in his living room with his assistants, eating from cartons of Chinese food and preparing for the title game. Earlier that day Warrenfeltz had sent two of them to scout the other semifinal, instructing them to track pitch location. Now the coaches broke down Williamsport's opponent, Patuxent, a southern Maryland powerhouse with a 19--4 record. Patuxent was the clear favorite, a deep, pitching-rich team that excelled at small ball. But as Lewis pointed out, "We're not good enough to be here in the first place, so let's not worry about that."
Two afternoons later, on May 26, the team boarded a charter bus—the first one the boys had been on—and headed two hours east to Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, home to the Class A IronBirds, an Orioles affiliate. The Wildcats peered up at the ballpark's towering brick facade, then walked through the tunnel to the field, staring at the two decks of stands and the big video scoreboard. Later Lewis would compare the boys' reaction to "the awe of Hoosiers combined with the excitement of getting dropped off at Disneyland."
Presently Warrenfeltz gathered the team and talked again about bunt defense. For nearly an hour on the previous afternoon they'd practiced it: covering first, the wheel play, guarding the line. The players loved to complain about it, but Warrenfeltz didn't care. As his father always said, "You can't expect them to do something that they've never practiced." His dad said something else too: There's no way to defend against a well-executed squeeze play.
While the position players warmed up, Zach sat in the dugout, icing his left arm. He was the kid who didn't stretch, who needed only three warmup pitches. Now, however, Zach's shoulder and elbow were rebelling. He'd loaded up on four ibuprofen, swabbed on Icy Hot and taken herbal medicine. His arm still shook involuntarily, but he didn't care. Besides, his friend Tyler Byers was playing on an ankle that was so badly busted that Warrenfeltz had told him to not run out ground balls. Ryan Butts had recently shaken off the lingering effects of a concussion suffered during a home plate collision late in the season. And, somewhere up there, Brendon was watching him. Zach was damned if he was going to give up the ball.
Warrenfeltz saw a look of resolve on Zach's face that he'd never seen before. "How do you feel?" the coach asked.
"Horrible," Zach said, "but I'm not coming out until my five innings are up."
An hour later, when the boys took the field, Zach looked up at the stands and saw only blue and white. There was the Colliflower family and Ryan Butts's father and the regulars, all having driven two hours. But there were so many more: face-painted students wearing blue wigs, a line of girls with W-I-L-D-C-A-T-S on their bellies, a guy in a Nick Adenhart jersey and old men he'd seen only down at Tony's Pizzeria in Williamsport. Then there were the signs: WILDCAT PRIDE and WIN FOR BRENDON #6. Zach had never played in a ballpark like this. He had one thought: Brendon would have loved this.
The first Patuxent batter stepped in, and Warrenfeltz held his breath. He had no idea whether Zach had anything left in the tank. When the first pitch rocketed in, dangerously high but as hard as he'd thrown all season, Warrenfeltz had a different thought: Maybe he's too pumped up. Then, on the next pitch, Zach floated a beautiful curveball. The Patuxent batter swung right through it, as if flailing at smoke. Warrenfeltz exhaled.
The game remained scoreless for two innings. Then, in the bottom of the third, Brandon Toloso ripped a sinking shot over the Patuxent first baseman's head for a double. A bunt moved Brandon to third, and then Tyler Nally, a skinny, determined senior whose father played on the Williamsport team that won the title in 1975, cracked one through the left side. One-zip, Wildcats.
Meanwhile Zach was throwing 2 to 3 mph harder than he had all season. "It was," assistant Doug Stottlemyer later said, "like Brendon was living through him." Even so, Zach was running on fumes. The Wildcats needed a cushion.
In the bottom of the fourth Zach appeared to give it to them when he crushed a ball to deep center. In any other Class 2A park it would have been a home run. But in spacious Ripken Field the centerfielder just kept backing up and finally caught the ball in front of the 404 sign. Then, in the fifth, the Wildcats failed to bring home a runner from third for the second time in the game. Two innings later, with Williamsport still holding a 1--0 lead, it came down to this: Three outs and the Wildcats were state champions.
On the mound to close it out stood Tyler Byers, who'd come in for Zach in the sixth. As a power pitcher, he was well suited to closing. As a near cripple, he was not well suited to playing defense. The day before, Lewis had asked Warrenfeltz what he planned to do if teams saw they could bunt on Tyler. Said Warrenfeltz, "Let's hope they don't."
The first Patuxent batter singled, and everyone on the Williamsport bench knew what was coming next: small ball. Lewis again walked over to Warrenfeltz. "You want someone to start warming up in the pen?"
"If I wanted someone to warm up," Warrenfeltz said, "there would be someone down in the pen." After all the team had been through, there was no way the coach was walking out to the mound to remove Byers, and even if he did, there was no way Byers was giving up the ball.
The next batter bunted and so did the next. There were now runners on first and third with one out. Warrenfeltz grimaced. He knew what was coming next, but it didn't matter: Patuxent laid down a perfect squeeze, the kind Warrenfeltz's dad always talked about. Tyler's only play was at first, and he made it. Now the game was tied. And still, Warrenfeltz left Tyler in. He struck out the next batter swinging.
In the bottom of the seventh the Wildcats went down in order. In the stands the Williamsport fans went silent. Stephanie Warrenfeltz felt so anxious that she thought she might throw up. Meanwhile, in the dugout, Warrenfeltz worried about Tyler. The kid was a gamer, but he hadn't pitched more than two innings in a row since hurting his ankle.
Somehow Tyler made it through the eighth and the top of the ninth, but with each pitch he looked more tired. Time was running out. Finally, in the bottom of the ninth, Byers poked one to left for a single. Immediately Warrenfeltz signaled down the bench to Tyler Martin, a junior whom everyone called Brett Gardner on account of his speed. Martin rarely hit or played the field, but he might have been the best pinch runner in Washington County. On the second pitch he took off—"like he had jets on his heels," remembers Stottlemyer—and swiped second. The next batter, Ryan Butts, sent a perfect bunt down the first base line to get Martin to third with one out.
So here it was, the opportunity the Wildcats had waited for. An inning earlier Williamsport had stranded a runner at third, and Stottlemyer had told Warrenfeltz, "Next time that happens, we have to go out guns blazing." Now Warrenfeltz looked at Stottlemyer and nodded: time for the squeeze.
Nick Williams, a fine bunter, came to the plate, but Patuxent intentionally walked him. The next batter, Riley Arnone, was the only Wildcat who'd successfully laid down a squeeze that season. Patuxent walked him too, loading the bases with one out. Looking back, Warrenfeltz wonders if Patuxent had a scouting report because walking to the plate was Brandon Toloso, who was 0 for the playoffs on bunts, whom Warrenfeltz had put through an extra 10 minutes of bunting practice a day earlier, with decidedly mixed results.
There are moments that reveal a lot about a coach. How much does he believe in his philosophy? Does he have the guts to make the big call? Brandon stepped into the box and looked at Warrenfeltz, who was standing on the field as third base coach. Warrenfeltz went to his arm. In the dugout, Lewis turned to Colby Byers. The two had the same reaction. "Oh, Jesus!" whispered Lewis.
Byers stared back at his coach, eyes wide. "The sign's on!" Byers said, disbelieving. "The sign's on!"
Across the diamond Patuxent prepared for the possibility. "Watch the squeeze!" the third baseman shouted. The first baseman crept in. The pitcher looked toward third, where Tyler Martin was inching down the line, and went into his motion.
With that, Tyler broke for home. Brandon needed to remember everything he'd been taught: Square up early, get the bat high and slap the ball down. On the bench Zach couldn't breathe. They needed this. The town needed this. Just get down one freaking bunt, Brandon.
The pitch, a curveball, was difficult to judge. By the time it got to the plate, Tyler was two thirds of the way home. If Brandon popped it up, it would be a sure double play. Had he missed it, Martin would have been out by a good 10 feet.
None of that mattered, though, because Brandon plopped a beautiful blooping bunt in front of the plate. The Patuxent pitcher dived, trying to use his glove to flip the ball to the catcher, but by then Tyler was sliding into home face-first, the dust billowing up like stirred ash.
There is a grainy video of what followed, captured by a Williamsport parent on a cellphone. In a split second the ballpark is engulfed by a deafening roar. Boys in blue fly out of the dugout, leap past the still-prone Patuxent pitcher and dog-pile Brandon at first base, some yelling and crying at the same time.
Warrenfeltz tried to keep his emotions in check, to act like an authority figure. Then, seeing those boys streaming across the field, he thought, Aw, screw it. And thus on the video you see a taller, older figure fly into the picture and leap on top of the dog pile, grinning maniacally. In that moment Warrenfeltz didn't care how it looked: He just wanted to be with his team.
The next 15 minutes remain hazy. Warrenfeltz remembers Tyler Byers pointing to the sky. He remembers the fans screaming as if they were 5,000 strong. He remembers thinking about Nick and Brendon and how each would have savored this moment, Williamsport's first title in 37 years. He remembers the security guards, who'd gathered to prevent the fans from storming the field but allowed Brendon's grandfather John to pass through so that one by one the Williamsport players embraced him, none harder or longer than Zach, who cradled his head against the older man's shoulder, both of them crying.
Warrenfeltz will always treasure the hours that followed: How the team rode back to Williamsport celebrating the whole way and stopped just off the I-81 exit to climb aboard one of the town's three yellow fire trucks and parade through town, followed by police trucks and a caravan of honking cars. How they looped the long way, past the Waffle House with its sign that read, 2012 STATE CHAMPS!!! GO WILDCATS BASEBALL 4 YOU NO. 6. How the team stopped at the cemetery for a moment of silence with hats off. And how the bus ended up back at the school, where 166 white plastic cups had been jammed into the fence of the football field nearly three weeks earlier. The word they spelled was HOPE.
Life goes on, yet part of it remains behind.
By late July, Warrenfeltz wasn't seeing the seniors as often. Zach was getting ready to head to Salisbury College, where Brendon had been slated to be his roommate. Four other Wildcats would also play college ball. When Warrenfeltz did see the boys, they reveled in putting in a dip in front of their old coach, just because they could. They were young men now, asserting their independence. Zach Lucas and Tyler Byers had let their hair grow, so that it curled up and around their blue Williamsport hats like flames licking a log.
In most ways they remained the same kids they had been, fishing and making crude jokes, but in deeper ways they had changed. Most days they wore their championship shirts, just as they would wear the championship rings that were being made, the ones that would read IN MEMORY OF B6C on the side. Even now the seniors remain in awe of what happened—how it seemed meant to be. How else to explain all the eerie coincidences? Like the fact that Sam's number was 2 and Brendon's was 6 and the team won the state championship on May 26 on two runs and six hits. Or the fact that Brandon Toloso, who dropped down the winning bunt, was number 2, the charter bus that day was number 426 and the Wildcats won six straight games in the playoffs. Or that the rainbow around the sun at Brendon's funeral had reappeared that day against Wheaton, just before the first pitch. Nor did they know what to make of the eeriest coincidence—that the last time Williamsport won the state title, in 1975, one of the team's best players, Mick Myers, had died earlier that year. In an auto accident.
Talk to the boys, the parents and the assistant coaches, and they would tell you that it was Warrenfeltz who made this happen. "He was the rock, the foundation," said Gary Nally, Tyler's father.
"He was more than a coach to them," Chad Colliflower said. "I don't think they would have won the championship if it hadn't been for the accident. There was something greater going on."
Lewis, Warrenfeltz's longtime friend, is a jokester, but not on this subject. "After Brendon's accident, these parents just wanted to hold their kids," he said. "To put their kids in the hands of a 25-year-old?" He paused. "If I were a parent, I would want my kid grieving through me. But these parents relinquished their kids to David."
As for Warrenfeltz, it remained hard for him to talk about, just as it was still hard to talk about Adenhart. On this afternoon he took a visitor for a drive. It was warm and muggy, and the AC was going full blast. He passed Byers Market, the LIVE BAIT signs in the window, and Smitty's Williamsport Creamery, where Zach still got free ice cream. Warrenfeltz reached the river, then turned around and headed back, past the cemetery. Only then, after 20 minutes, did he open up.
He said he sometimes went jogging and ended up at the cemetery, and one time he stopped to look at Nick's and Brendon's graves, just across the slope from each other. Noticing something unusual, he began to walk off the distance between the two. It was almost exactly 60 feet.
He talked about how there was no end point to his grief, about what he said to the team. "You don't need to feel like you need to ever get over it," he said, "because it's something that we have no answer for, a situation that is so tragic and so close to you, it changes the person that you are and the way that you view the world, not necessarily in a bad way. I got a lot of strength from watching Nick's family. At some point you have to go back to living your life and chasing your dreams and doing the things that are good for you."
That's what Warrenfeltz himself was trying to do. He was hoping to raise enough money to redo the press box and put in a proper set of bleachers. When he first took the coaching job at Williamsport, some of his friends were surprised. "Don't you want to be a college coach?" asked Lewis. "Don't you want to move up the ladder?" But Warrenfeltz didn't understand this thinking. In October 2010 he took Stephanie out to dinner in Baltimore, and the two walked from the Inner Harbor up to Federal Hill. Looking out across the city, he turned to her. "Are you all right being with someone who's going to be a high school coach for the next 30 years?" he asked.
She looked at him, surprised by the question. "Yes," she said. Moments later, when he produced a small diamond ring from the pocket of his Williamsport High baseball jacket, she said it again.
In the meantime he will be here, where he ended up after a half-hour drive, where he always ends up: at the Williamsport High diamond. There on the fence was the photo of Nick, and next to it a photo of Brendon and Sam in their prom outfits, and metal placards with Brendon's and Adenhart's numbers. And, over in the cage, even though it was summer, Colby Byers was hitting off a tee, crushing balls into the netting. Next to him, his father sat on a plastic bucket, sweating in the heat. After each of his son's swings, he picked up another ball and placed it on the tee. And this is how it continues: One disappears, another takes its place.
Please, not again, Warrenfeltz thought, remembering a call he received at this time of the night three years earlier.
The question wasn't whether they should play but for how long they could. Every day they were together was precious.
With each win the buzz built. Williamsporters patted the boys on the back, flew blue-and-white flags on their cars.
Zach couldn't breathe. They needed this. The town needed this.
SI ON NBC
Watch a segment about Zach Lucas (above, left), Brendon Colliflower (right) and the tragedies and triumph of the Williamsport High baseball team, scheduled for Sports Illustrated, Nov. 3, at 2:30 p.m. EST on NBC.