EMERSON, Ga. – There were undoubtedly countless times last August when the beleaguered residents of Denham Springs, La., thought the sky would never stop crying and that the sun would never again make an appearance and help dry-up their own tears of desperation.
And maybe that’s the reason the young ballplayers from Denham Springs High School seemed so appreciative – almost joyful, really – to be walking out on one of the fields at Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint Thursday afternoon under a cloudless sky, saturated by brilliant sunshine that more than adequately warmed their spirits.
“It means a lot for us to be out here because all of us have been through so much this past offseason,” Yellow Jackets senior left-hander/first baseman Brock Batty said before he and his teammates played their opening game at the 5th annual PG High School Showdown.
“I’ve played here during summer ball but being here with my school team and my closest friends, it makes it all that much more special,” he continued, a broad smile covering his face. “A lot of these guys have never seen anything like (PG Park South-LP) and I think it motivates them a lot to go out and play with some fire.”
Senior catcher/utility guy Braden Doughty was standing nearby and was eager to add his thoughts about how it felt to be standing in the sunshine getting ready to play some baseball against and with some of the top high school teams in the country.
“This is fantastic,” he said. “This is a great complex, a great trip with great team-bonding; just everything about it is really just a great experience and a great opportunity.”
And don’t forget about 17th-year Denham Springs HS head coach Mark Carroll. The veteran baseball lifer is in his 33rd year of coaching and setting out on the course of a new season never gets old – especially under some very trying circumstances.
“This is awesome; this is what it’s all about,” Carroll said. “This is my fourth trip up here to LakePoint. A lot of our kids have played here so they understand this facility and how it is and how gorgeous it is, and they were very much looking forward to this trip and get away from some that yahoo back home. Now they get to take a deep breath and just go out and play.”
All that “yahoo” back home, indeed. A whole bunch of yahoo, truth be told, probably a lot more than any of the other teams in attendance at the PG HS Showdown has had to endure over the past seven months. Life-changing yahoo, to be sure.
Denham Springs lies about 13 miles east of Baton Rouge, the Louisiana state capitol and home to Louisiana State University. The usually cooperative Amite River flows just to the west of Denham Springs’ downtown business district, between the two cities but closer to Denham Springs.
In a 24-hour period that bridged Aug. 12-14, 2016, what national meteorologists described as a “complicated, slow-moving, low-pressure weather system” set off a deluge of historic proportions – a 100-year weather event – that delivered nearly two-feet of rain to Livingston Parish and other parishes in the Baton Rouge area.
The Amite River roared out of its banks and floodwaters eventually inundated an estimated 90 percent of all structures – homes, businesses, schools, churches, government buildings – in Denham Springs, a municipality of just more than 10,000 residents.
Denham Springs High School was among the casualties, and its students had to start the school year by sharing facilities with Live Oak High School, which is also part of the Livingston Parish Public School District. Denham Spring HS wasn’t ready to be occupied again until January, and Carroll is still unable to use his office at the school because the doors haven’t been replaced.
Even now, seven months since the floodwaters subsided, many of the school’s students and their families are living in FEMA trailers or staying with relatives who escaped much of the floodwater’s wrath. But make no mistake, no one was totally unaffected.
“Everything that was normal in your life was different starting right then,” Carroll recalled. “It was unbelievable the devastation in that community property-wise, to the stores and the homes. You couldn’t believe it until you saw it; everything was just so crazy.”
Batty’s family home escaped a lot of the devastation incurred on others in town, although the family was still forced to evacuate it for several days. No one he knows was completely untouched, however, and he marvels at how the natural disaster has ultimately brought the community even closer together.
“For a while there at first it felt like maybe it was going to separate us, but then everybody just came back stronger,” he said. “Everybody was out there helping each other and doing everything they could, and now all the local businesses – the businesses everybody loved – are slowly coming back, and they’re coming back even better.”
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Batty sensed that many members of the community had lost any hope that the way of life they had always known would ever return. People were breaking down, he said, and acknowledging that they just didn’t know how much more they could take.
But time, like the Amite River, keeps rolling along, and when it comes to fighting back from a natural disaster time really can be a great healer. Everyone’s mood brightens every time families return to their rebuilt homes and every time one of those beloved businesses reopens its doors. “Everybody is way more positive and way more optimistic about everything,” Batty said.
Added Doughty: “I can be depressing seeing all the broken-down homes and everything but it’s also very uplifting to see all the new things that are being built; all the productivity that’s coming from it.”
The flooding forced Braden and Cade Doughty’s family out of their home but they were able to settle-in in with their grandparents for close to a month. “My parents were super-calming – they were the rock – and they helped us get through it,” Braden said. And now, a new baseball season is off and running.
The Jackets are coming off 2016 season in which they finished 18-12 in what Carroll called a bit of rebuilding year. The roster they brought to this week’s PG HS Showdown includes eight seniors, six juniors and three sophomores.
The left-hander/first baseman Batty is the senior leader, a Louisiana-Lafayette signee PG ranks as top-500 prospect in 2017 class; Braden Doughty is a top-1,000 2017, and also a very important cog in the team’s machinery. Doughty’s younger brother, sophomore Cade Doughty, is a real prize, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound, soon-to-be 16-year-old who is ranked No. 57 nationally in the 2019 class and who has committed to LSU.
The Jackets’ got the attention of everybody in attendance at PG Park South-LP right off the bat Thursday afternoon when they overcame a 4-0 deficit with a single run in the fifth inning, two in the sixth and two more in the seventh to stun nationally No. 35-ranked Winder-Barrow (Ga.), 5-4, in their tournament opener.
Batty scattered seven hits over six innings of work and Cade Doughty needed only five pitches in a snappy seventh inning to pick up the win. But most importantly perhaps, the Jackets weren’t done raising eyebrows with that victory; in fact, they were just getting started.
After dropping Winder-Barrow, they went up against No. 31-ranked IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) in yet another game in which they were a decided underdog. Somebody forgot to inform senior left-hander Taylor Higgins that he and his teammates were not the favorites, and he threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout, striking out 10, in a 1-0 Jackets’ victory. Cade Doughty hit a two-out double and drove in the game’s only run in the bottom of the sixth. DSHS now stands 8-4 on the young season with two more guaranteed here this weekend.
“The thing that we say at every game before we take the field is, ‘Play hard and have fun,’” Carroll said. “There are mistakes that are going to be made every game by me and everybody, but if you play as hard as you can and have fun doing it, then you’ve had a successful game.
“This is a determined group,” he continued. “Things didn’t really go our way that first weekend (of the season) … but they’ve kind of put their nose back to it and got after it again.”
Denham Springs HS won a Louisiana state baseball championship in 1986 when a young man named Ben McDonald was starring in both baseball and basketball. McDonald went on to enjoy an All-American career at LSU – he won the 1989 Golden Spikes Award as college baseball’s top player – and the Baltimore Orioles made him the No. 1 overall pick in the first-round of the 1989 MLB June Amateur Draft.
After LSU, he enjoyed a seven-year big league career with the Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers. His son, Jase McDonald, is a sophomore right-hander/first baseman on this year’s Yellow Jackets team. Jase McDonald and his DSHS teammates have probably had to go through more in their young careers then Ben ever had to endure, but it seems like they’re coming through it just fine.
“I’ve played in a lot of (PG) tournaments here (with Marucci Elite) and I’ve almost won a couple of tournaments here, but this is by far the most special trip; it’s a different atmosphere,” Batty said. “A lot of our guys have overcome a lot of adversity … and I feel like that motivates everybody and everybody is ready to play.”
Added Doughty: “Some of these guys haven’t had the opportunity to come out here before now, so it’s just great to see them come to this great complex for the first time. To come out and play with pride with the other Jackets and show people that we can play.
“I think we’re definitely more determined; we know what we want. We like to play but we also like to work hard, and I just hope our hard work shows up out on the field.”
Carrol likes to tell his players that they have the “misfortune-slash-good fortune” of having an old-school coach that believes that playing baseball – or any sport, really – provides an opportunity to learn many valuable life lessons.
In this case, baseball gives this group of kids something to temporarily avert their attention away from some harsh realities they are still confronting back home. It gives them something positive on which they can focus their energies.
“(The flood is) definitely going to be something in these kids’ lives that they’re never, ever going to forget,” he said. “Hopefully they’re going to learn a lot of positive life lessons from it, about how to band together and be the person that’s going to help somebody else that’s in trouble and needs your help. And they did. They worked their tails off at their house and their friends’ houses, and that’s really what our whole community did.”
Braden Doughty may have summed up all these challenging experiences better than anyone:
“I think we’re really just grateful for everything we have after everything we’ve been through; we’ve become closer,” he concluded. “We know that even if you go 0-for-4 you have to keep your head up and know that you’re good and know that you have another day to go out and fight for the person next to you.
“I honestly just hope everybody has a great time; I hope that we have a blast. Just play hard, and if we win four games, great, and if we lose four games, great, just have fun and enjoy the experience.”