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Friendship, family and the season that wasn't for the Evart Wildcats

Angie Reagan and Brenda Henry sat in adjacent chairs and watched their sons come off the field following their final baseball game of the 2019 season. Angie’s son Donavin played first base, Brenda’s son Parker occupied left field, and the two of them had just suffered a 3-2 extra inning loss to Beaverton in a Division 3 MHSAA Regional Final game.

 

Despite the sorrow they felt for their children and their loss, they knew each of their children had one more chance to reach their goals of a state championship. Parker and Donavin were part of a seven-person class that was returning for their senior year, each sharing the same mindset. While all seven were upset about the result, they knew they would get another chance to be in the same moment one year later. After all, there’s always next year.

 

But in this case, there is no next year.

 

Last week,the MHSAA announced the cancellation of the remainder of all winter sports aswell as the entirety of spring sports due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, leaving these seven seniors without another chance to chase their dreams.

 

The cancellation ends the senior season of Reagan, Henry, Nolan Rohen, Sebastian Calderon, Justin O’Dell, Justin Buckner and Ty Sochocki.

 

“It’s unfortunate, it sucks,” Rohen said.

 

Rohen is among the seniors who have aspirations to play baseball collegiately. Justin O’Dell, a pitcher, has already committed to play at Cornerstone and several others have opportunities to try out with teams at the next level.

 

Though they have chances to play after they graduate, these seniors will not have another chance to play together for their hometown team. They’ve bonded together in search of a championship since T-Ball but have lost their last chance due to an unforeseen set of circumstances. This group has been at the heart of a culture change within the Evart baseball program.

 

“Last year was the big breakthrough season,” Wildcat coach Josh Johnson said. “This year will always be what might’ve been.”

 

Relationships build optimism in time of doubt

The Wildcats were able to squeeze in their first week of practice before schools were shut down to observe the statewide quarantine. As a team, the group decided that they were good enough to contend for both the conference and state championships. The goals did not seem out of reach for any of the seniors, who were confident in their abilities after their prior breakout season.

 

“We expected to win the conference by ourselves,” Johnson said. “We expected to get back to that regional and win that regional this year and then make our way to Lansing.”

 

O’Dell added that practices were upbeat and positive, Reagan was excited to see what the team would become and Henry was ready to make all of his offseason work with his pitching coach pay off. Sochocki was a returning all-conference and all-district shortstop. Expectations were rightfully high.

 

“That first week of practice, it was great,” Johnson said. “We had guys so fired up, they were just talking about baseball.”

 

By Friday, March 13, the practices were over. Ken Ranjel, who doubles as an assistant for Evart’s football and baseball teams, devised an at-home workout plan for the players to follow to stay in shape during the break. Nobody believed the season would come to a close before it began.

 

On that Friday, Johnson addressed his 2020 squad in person for the last time.

 

“He told us to stay active and keep throwing and hitting because we will have a season and just think positive through everything,” O’Dell said.

 

“(We were) just hoping for the best, man,” Henry added. “Not much you can really do in those situations.”

The players bought into the workout regimen, posting their scores and times from each session in the team group chat. O’Dell kept his teammates updated on findings in a players only group chat as well. Three weeks into the quarantine, the players remained optimistic.

 

“For three weeks, every kid was doing the work,” Johnson said. “We had a workout of the day on Wednesday and kids are recording their video, what they were doing. I mean they were fired up. For three weeks, the kids had no thoughts but, ‘We’re going to still play baseball.’”

 

The parents were just as positive.

 

“I kept saying, ‘Nope, they can’t cancel the whole season,’” Angie Reagan said. “I thought maybe we’d get to play in June or July because I know for a fact that every last one of those seven seniors would be back to play.”

 

The players continued to communicate with one another, still sharing goals and dreams of hoisting a championship trophy. On April 2, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the closing of all schools for the remainder of the school year.

 

A day later, the MHSAA shut down the spring sports season.

 

“When I got the news, I looked at my mom and said, ‘I can’t believe that regional final game was my last game in high school,’” O’Dell said.

 

“I was upset about it being closed and everything, but it’s going to be what it’s going to be,” Henry added.

 

Lasting bonds and lessons

Reagan and Henry have traveled across the Midwest to watch their sons play baseball over the last decade. Parker and Donavin have played together every year in Evart since age three, and the two of them even spent two years together on a travel team in Cadillac. Both Angie and Brenda were at every game with their husbands, Jeff and Scott, Angie keeping score in her scorebook and Brenda doing the same on her iPad.

 

“Brenda and I are just kindled spirits with the whole baseball thing,” Angie said. “We love to watch our kids play, we love to cheer them on. (We’re) both dedicated moms and dedicated to our kids and to the sports that they play and do what we have to do to make everything the best for them. Donavin did football and Parker didn’t, Parker did cross country and Donavin didn’t. So I think it was the one connection that we really had. It was baseball with our side-by-side chairs rain or shine or snow, we were there watching the boys play.”

 

“We always planned ahead and had coolers and drove together,” Brenda added. “It was fun to do it with her and I’m sad to see it over.”

 

Donavin was also able to strike up a bond with O’Dell. The two worked out together often in the offseason and played football alongside one another as well.

 

“He was a really great teammate,” O’Dell said of Reagan.

 

For Parker, baseball served as an introduction to leadership and an expedition that allowed him to become assertive as both a player and a teammate.

 

“It’s really given him a lot of self-confidence,” Brenda said of her son. “Having that team spirit, playing as a team, he knows what that’s like now.”

 

No different than parents of athletes all across the state, both Henry and Reagan cried when they heard the MHSAA’s decision. Though both of their children have goals to play after high school, it likely won’t be together.

 

O’Dell, who has already signed a letter of intent to play at Cornerstone next spring, noted that he’ll be playing with a little extra motivation the next time he takes the field.

 

“You know, it just sucks,” he said. “I’m definitely going to be playing in college for them. I’ll have them in my heart. I’ll be playing for them.”

 

‘We were going to do what we did last year and more’

Despite the impending decision, Johnson remained optimistic Friday morning.

 

He found out about the decision at the same time as everyone else, seeing the 1 p.m. press release. He commended the way it was handled by Mark Uyl, the MHSAA’s executive director and respects the decision.

 

After the decision, Johnson called each of his seniors personally to congratulate them on their success and compliment their offseason efforts.

 

“I basically treated it as an end of season banquet,” he said. “I based it off the four years I had them and what they did over the winter to get ready for this season.”

 

This group of seniors will forever be the question without an answer. A group of talented athletes who were unable to take the field in their final season.

 

Though these circumstances have taken away the final season for seniors across the state, it hasn’t taken away what they have already accomplished. Those accomplishments are what Johnson will remember this squad for the most.

 

“Last year I graduated five seniors and I thought, ‘That’s the most seniors I’ve had in the program.’” Johnson said. “This year it’s seven. I’ve always said that you’re program is going to be dictated by your seniors. If you’ve got guys that have stuck with you for four years and are really buying in, no question that we were going to do what we did last year and more this year.” 

 

Maybe it was O'Dell who summed it up best. 

 

“It just won’t be the same without those boys,” he said. “They’re a special group.”

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