High School | General | 2/6/2019

'We had each other's back'

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Stoneman Douglas HS baseball

2019 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

There really isn’t any way to prepare one’s self mentally for unimaginable tragedy. The mind will try to sort out the complexities, compartmentalize the stark realities and attempt to devise various strategies of how best to cope. But there certainly isn’t any magic switch to be thrown. And, as is easily imagined, it can be especially difficult for teenagers.

A year ago next week, on Valentine’s Day, unimaginable tragedy visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., when a 19-year-old gunman opened fire while classes were in session. Seventeen students and teachers were murdered and another 17 were wounded.

No member of the Stoneman Douglas baseball team was killed or injured in the senseless act of violence but the players were every bit as devastated as the rest of the student body. Grief consumed the entire community and people found ways to deal with it in their own intensely personal way.

For this one group of young men at the school, the refuge they sought out was an obvious one: a ball field. Kevin Heinrich, a junior right-handed pitcher for the Eagles last spring who as a senior has now signed a letter-of-intent with Arkansas, summed up the feelings shared by most members of the team quite succinctly.

“One-hundred percent, baseball was definitely an escape,” he told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation this week. “The day after it happened, the whole baseball team met up at an indoor facility and we just took time to reflect with one another and let out anything that we had (inside) at that point. But, 100 percent, baseball was the biggest escape for me.”

Baseball doesn’t have to be an “escape” for the Eagles this spring, just something more along the lines of a pleasant diversion along with a task at hand. This is a tight-knit team that enjoyed a lot of success last spring, one that was intent on going about its business despite the cloud of sorrow hanging over the players’ heads.

Most of the key contributors from the 2018 team that advanced to a FHSAA Class 9A regional final in are back as seniors and juniors this year. Lessons can be learned under the most trying of circumstances, and the 2018 Stoneman Douglas Eagles learned how to persevere and how to keep the wheels moving forward.

Todd Fitz-Gerald is beginning his eighth season as the Eagles’ head coach and is fully aware that last year’s team faced more adversity than any other he had guided in his 26 years as a high school baseball coach.

After the shooting, which delayed the start of the baseball season for about two weeks, he brought the players together and did his best to offer some guidance. Fitz-Gerald’s son, Hunter, is a member of the team, so he was speaking as both a coach and a parent.

“I just talked about the resiliency that we have to have and we have to show; we have to be strong for those families that lost their loved ones,” Fitz-Gerald told PG this week. “They wouldn’t want us to sit there and feel sorry for ourselves.

“They would want us to move forward like we did and try and maybe give them something in our community and with our baseball program just to be proud about even if it’s for a short period of time.”

After the delay to the start of season, the Eagles finally opened at home against rival Cypress Bay on March 3 and came away with a 4-1 victory. They then traveled to Jacksonville to play at the Tournament of Champions, and promptly loss three straight games, before finishing the season on an 18-4 run.

“It was good for us to get away,” Todd Fitz-Gerald said of the trip to Jacksonville. “It was good for us to bond on the other side of the state and just be amongst ourselves. We came back and it just clicked for us and we made a good run.”

Hunter Fitz-Gerald is a senior corner-infielder who has signed with Florida Southern. He recalled that the start of the season was a bit of blur but the players’ were soon able to start sifting through their thoughts and emotions.

“We got back into baseball right away pretty much, and that’s what we tried to do to take our minds off of it, I guess, and not think about it; (baseball) helped out quite a bit,” he said. “ … It was hard at first but we did our best. We were all there for each other and we were really playing as a team and (for) each other. We tried to stay focused as much as we could and we always had each other’s back.”

Heinrich echoed his teammate: “We definitely bonded more as a team; we were a lot closer with one another. We just had each other’s back.”


… … …

THE 2018 SEASON MARKED THE FIFTH YEAR IN A ROW THE EAGLES had advanced to a regional final; they won a FHSAA Class 9A state championship in 2016. There is a solid system in place and when that system is matched with good players who are good kids, equally good things are bound to happen.

But make no mistake, last year’s team made it as far as it did riding on the wings of something that transcended talent.

“Our season was definitely fueled by emotion, no matter where we played, no matter who we played,” senior right-hander and Stetson recruit Kyle Yeoward told PG this week. “Every game was a pretty emotional game, win or lose. We just kind of did everything with emotion – even practices had a lot of emotion. We turned a bad situation into a better situation (within) the community.”

Heinrich agreed: “I definitely think part of it was emotion,” he said. “We were also trying to win for (the victims); we basically dedicated our season to all of them who were gone. We kept playing as hard as we could and tried to win as many games as we could for them.”

Now the question is if the Stoneman Douglas can keep things rolling this spring, advance beyond a regional final and return to the Florida Class 9A state tournament. It opens the season sitting at No. 30 in the 2019 PG High School Preseason National Top 50 Rankings and as the No. 7 team in the PGHS Florida Region.

There is a strong senior class, with guys like Fitz-Gerald, Yeoward, Heinrich and several others leading the way.

Among the top seniors are first baseman/outfielder Andrew Jenner (Winthrop signee), outfielder Gabriel Cabrera (Central Florida), infielder/right-hander Thomas Pogacsas (Newberry) and right-hander Luis Esposito (Broward College). Senior right-hander Luke Schiltz (Florida Southwestern St. Coll.) is a move-in from Cartersville, Ga.

The top juniors who were on the varsity last season as sophomores, include infielder Coby Mayo, catcher Colin Flynn (UCF commit) and outfielder Carter Brady  (Charleston Southern). These guys are all in this together.

“Obviously, the chemistry is there,” Coach Fitz-Gerald said. “We’ve got a lot of experience returning, especially in key positions, and then we’ve got some guys back that are healthy who were hurt a little bit last year. We’re ready to go in all phases: pitching, offensively and defensively. We should be solid all the way around; I really like this ballclub.”

The team isn’t living in the past but it is determined not to forget it, either. Fitz-Gerald said his message to the team this year is the same as it was a year ago. He acknowledged that everyone lost friends and even loved ones on that tragic day last February but he also reminded them – bluntly, perhaps – that they need to understand those people aren’t coming back.

“We can always honor them and we won’t ever forget them, but no matter what we do they’re not coming back, so we have to press on,” he said. “They wouldn’t want us to not move forward and they’d be disappointed in us if we didn’t move forward.”

Yeoward recalled how, after a period of mourning, the team went right back to work, realizing that it was “go-time” again. He said the players knew they had to “man-up” and be strong for other people whose losses may have been even greater than their own.

“Every time we played it was for the people that we lost in that tragedy,” Yeoward said. “It was for the community and that’s how we played our season.”

He expects more of the same in 2019: “This season I feel like is going to be the same high-intensity, high-energy games that we’ve always had, especially coming off of last year. We’re going to have the same energy – the same will, the same want – and we’re going to get it done.”

Added Hunter Fitz-Gerald: “I think we’re going to be really good this year. We’re starting to put all the pieces together, we’re practicing really well and I think everyone’s really focused this year. We’re all here for each other; we’re kind of like a family. We’ve got a good brotherhood going  with good chemistry between each other.”

… … …

THERE WAS AN OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT FOR THE ENTIRE Stoneman Douglas HS community from across the country in the wake of the tragedy from not only alumni – the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo delivered an emotional speech the day after the shooting – but from neighboring school districts.

Todd Fitz-Gerald told PG that his good friend Ray Evans, then the coach at nearby Flanagan HS, invited the team to come over to his school and practice during the time students and faculty weren’t yet allowed back on the SDHS campus. Numerous other districts came through with monetary donations while also offering emotional support.

“There was just a lot of support from a lot of those schools; It was really special,” he said.

Those schools’ baseball teams are also the Eagles’ rivals and the matter of winning baseball games can once again be the focus of everyone involved moving forward.

“The school is rockin’ and rollin’ and we’re kind of getting back to some kind of normalcy,” Fitz-Gerald said. “You have a constant reminder every day just having to see the (school) building, but the kids are doing good. As we’ve always said, the fall sports kick (the school year) off, so if the fall sports are successful it usually kind of carries over. … The players are loose, they’re excited and they’re ready to get going; we’re on a mission, so we’ll see.”

Heinrich, the senior right-hander, told PG that he felt the momentum created by the run to the regional final last year was certain to carry over into this season. He noted that there are four or five guys on this team who have been playing on the same teams since they were 8 years old and he called the chemistry the players share with one another “ridiculous.”

“There is definitely a lot of positive energy going into the season with our baseball team,” Heinrich said. “We’re brothers … and we all know each other and we’ve known each other our whole lives. Just coming together this last season for our seniors, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Fitz-Gerald acknowledged the positive energy level surrounding his program and added that he and his staff of assistant coaches all feel rejuvenated. “It’s exciting, it’s a rebirth, maybe. It’s just like, hey, it’s time to go,” he said.

With the one-year anniversary of the tragedy just a week away, the people within the baseball program – coaches, players, parents, friends – know that the events of a year ago will once again be at the forefront. The remembrances and reflections will be emotional and maybe once again lift these Eagles to new heights.

“The sky is definitely the limit,” the senior Yeoward said. “I don’t think anyone is going to be able to stop us if actually play how we can play and how we’ve been practicing. We’re a tight group and we stay together; we all stay positive and that’s how we’re going to continue to be.”

“We have each other’s backs – we’re always picking each other up – and just helping each other out,” Hunter Fitz-Gerald said, repeating the team’s mantra. “We’re trying to make each other better day-in and day-out.”

Coach Fitz-Gerald knows it’s important that the players and coaches – everyone at the school, for that matter – keep reminding themselves how fortunate they are and how lucky they are to be where they’re at in the spring of 2019. It’s something that can’t ever be taken for granted.

“You have to live life every day to the best of your ability and take every day for what it is because it could be your last,” he concluded.

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