For most young athletes, their senior season of high school is their last opportunity to play the sport they love.
I don’t remember when I began playing baseball — I was still wearing diapers. I do remember showing up to Harney Little League in my rubber cleats and oversized T-shirt to pitch in the 100-degree sun. I remember my first majors’ hit, and I remember my last. I remember swinging composite bats that launched baseballs out of Jamie Johnson Field as if the bats were corked. Sadly, the yellow pipe lining the top of the fence was the furthest they flew for me. I remember training to play at the college level, as all high school athletes do, believing I had too much to give to the game I didn’t want to leave so soon.
Now, I’m a high school senior with no college offers. My final season of baseball has begun, and for the first time in 14 years, I won’t be spending my summer on the field. As my time in public education comes to an end, so will my time with cleats on my feet, and I will bid farewell to the game I gave so much of myself to.
Though sad, my path is familiar. According to CSS (College Sports Scholarships), there is only a 5.75% chance a high school athlete will go on to play an NCAA sport.
Regardless, the transition from a player to a spectator is difficult. Our last moments with the games seem forever away, and now they’re here. What is it like for an athlete to break up with their first love?
At seven years old, Lacey Farley began playing basketball. Two years later, she picked up a softball. Despite playing other sports, perhaps every single one except water polo, Lacey’s heart stayed with the first two.
“I couldn’t say which [of the two] was my favorite. If I couldn’t hit a shot one day, I would go hit a ball, vice versa. They balanced each other out.”
Lacey continued to excel, eventually becoming a two-sport varsity asset her freshman year at Central.
Then, in early 2015 (the end of her junior year), Lacey’s throwing shoulder began to hurt, turning her beaming path in a different direction. She tried playing through the summer softball season but couldn’t get the ball back to the pitcher without pain, a discouraging reality for a girl who once hurled lasers from behind home plate to second base. Lacey went in for an MRI in July and found a slight tear in the front side of her labrum.
“I took the month of July off, but I was dead set on playing fall ball. I made it through the season, but after the second day of state, I knew my shoulder was done. I went back and found my labrum had been completely torn on both the front and back sides of my shoulder. I had surgery on October 8th, four days after state ended.”
Lacey’s recovery had been steady, but melancholy feelings still lurked before her final season.
“I planned on playing softball in college. I even had eyes from Black Hills State as a sophomore. And then suddenly it came to an end. I just wish I could’ve played my last seasons to the best of my ability.”
Trenton Multz began playing football and basketball in 2nd grade, first for Upward basketball and flag football programs, later in YMCA basketball and midget football programs.
“Football was my favorite when I was young because I was bigger than everybody else. I could roll kids on the football field. But I still loved the sport of basketball. Basketball as a kid is special, and being a part of it was something I loved.”
Not only did Multz work his way up to Central’s varsity level in both sports, he also took the “hype-man” role to a serious degree. His energy didn’t go unnoticed, as he was awarded Most Motivational Player by his teammates his senior basketball season. Trenton says the essence of competition and relationships with teammates and opponents drove him to play sports for more than a decade.
“I’ve always enjoyed the art of competing. You develop a bond with teammates and a hatred towards other teams that you love beating. It’s cool seeing your teammates turn into The Kids You Grew Up With.”
As Trenton grew into a high school athlete, his one goal did not change.
“Two years ago, I didn’t have any specifics on where I was going. I wasn’t saying ‘Oh I’m going to go here or here or here.’ My one goal was to get better and better — just bust my ass and get better, and then I’d find out where that would take me. I didn’t play football my sophomore year, and I regret that because it put me back further than I should’ve been.”
“I’m not going to be that guy that says, ‘Oh I just didn’t get my opportunities.’ But it’s tough to know I’m not going to play.”
However, Trenton credits his coaches for putting him back on the right path.
“Coach Sales and Coach McCulley helped me out a lot with football. Coach Sales and the atmosphere he created, the way he united his players, made me fall back in love with the game of football. For example, I went to the first workout of junior year, where all the football players were going to meet Coach Sales. It’s the very first day, nobody has ever met him before, and he just starts screaming at us. Instantly I’m thinking, ‘This dude is ready. This guy means business.’ It really made me want to play for him. McCulley is just as good. His way of motivating players is second to none. Coach Sales, Coach McCulley, and the environment they created is why I’ll miss football.
“Coach Holzer was also our basketball coach sophomore year. He showed us we could be something by the time we were seniors. He had so much faith in our unit, and I think that brought us seniors (then sophomores) closer together.”
Unfortunately, like many high school athletes, Trenton saw his time as a player coming to an end.
“A couple schools talked to me about playing football, but I just couldn’t see myself playing in college, especially after the rough season we had. I didn’t necessarily lose my love for the game — when you say you lose your love it shows that you’re lazy– I just wasn’t interested in playing college football. I’d love to play college basketball, but that didn’t pan out for me.
“I’m not going to be that guy that says, ‘Oh I just didn’t get my opportunities,’ because there’s always room for improvement. But it’s tough to know I’m not going to play.”
“You’ve been a part of something your whole life, and now it’s like you’re on your own.”
Countless high school athletes have given their childhood to sports. We have happily endured years of practice, games, scrapes, bruises, aches, and pains, all drenched in our own sweat. We have discovered the limitations of our bodies, and then we have defied them, day after day, year after year. We have spent our days working hard for tomorrow, and then we have run out of tomorrows. The final buzzer rings. The final out is recorded. The clock up on the board has no more time to give us, and regardless of the score, we’re done. So why do we do it? Why spend thousands of hours practicing a craft if there’s a 94.25% chance we don’t use it after we turn 18?
“You’ve been a part of something your whole life, and now it’s like you’re on your own,” Lacey explained. “You’re used to being busy after school, to seeing your teammates, playing your sport, doing teammate stuff. Now, I have time and have to fill it with stuff, like a job, instead of being on the field or court everyday. It’s sad. It’s lonely. But I’ve learned a lot. Sports brought me friendship and motivation. They taught me life lessons. They shaped me.”
Backing Lacey’s claim, Trenton added, “Sports brought a lot to me. Obviously it brought everlasting friendships and great memories, but the biggest thing is the competitiveness.
“The other day I was sitting down with a few buddies and we were flicking cards, trying to hit things. We started trying to flick the cards into this little bucket, and when I finally did I was like, ‘Yeah we win!’ They got annoyed with me and said, ‘Uh… this wasn’t even a game.’ Just little things I find competition in. I want to be the best at everything, no matter how little, and that’s the definition of an athlete. In a sense, it’s an uncontrollable disease.”
Just like every athlete has a reason, every accomplishment has a process. There’s an art to preparation, whether it precedes a practice or a game or a season. This preparation, both mental and physical, is the most important part of the game. It’s the reason why athletes succeed. It’s the reason why they fail. This process is not easy, this pursuit of perfection. In fact, it’s the hardest part of a sport, and, ironically, the part no one sees. In the weight room, on the field, or in the film room, this process is what sets the tone for performance.
Being an athlete taught me to love this wicked, exhausting, ceaseless process. Being an athlete also taught me to use this process in everything outside of sports. Though athleticism wasn’t my ultimate gift, it taught me how to use my ultimate gift.
I believe everyone has a gift of their own. Some have unfathomable intelligence. Some can use their hands to create and construct beautiful works of art. Some can catch footballs with three fingers, run 40 yards in under 4.5 seconds, or throw baseballs faster than vehicles on the interstate. Some can go up on a stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people and not shake. And some can sit behind a keyboard at 2 a.m. on a school night and type something that someone might enjoy reading. Everyone has something, it’s just a matter of finding and utilizing it.
Every time I feel the flames in bottom of my stomach rise, I remember that baseball is only a game, and that’s why I play it.
The athletic process taught me how to go about life, but baseball taught me about myself, notably the heights and depths of my emotions. Baseball made me so happy. Hitting a solid shot, stealing a base, crossing the plate, making a diving play in the field. These things ignited me with energy. Walking back to a dugout full of kids waiting to congratulate me with high fives and fist bumps made me feel appreciated. The baseball field hosted a majority of my smiles. However, nothing made me angrier than baseball. I’m a passive human and I’ve never snapped before, but baseball, more than anything else, brought me closest to snapping. Making an error sucks. Striking out sucks. Being the last out sucks. Losing really sucks. But every time I feel the flames in bottom of my stomach rise, I remember that baseball is only a game, and that’s why I play it.
There are many reasons why I played baseball so long. I liked being part of a team. I liked being in the summer sun. I liked being tan. I liked smashing orbs with a stick. I liked having an excuse to run as fast as I could. But most of all, I loved baseball simply because it was fun.
When I find myself on base, the urge to take another possesses me. I scope the signs from the other side of the diamond and see one that allows me to run free. I take my lead, watch the pitcher’s front foot twitch, then pivot and churn my legs as fast as I can. I don’t focus on the score or the throw from home or the shortstop trying to bloody my nose with a tag, only on the dirt underneath me. I become aerial for a split second and glide into the rubber square, where I look and hope to get a gracious call from the umpire. I get up and shake the dirt from my pants. I brush off my browned uniform and dirt floats from its fibers. I turn and watch the dust fly towards left field. I taste the dirt. I love it. And I will miss it.
Austin Lammers is the Editor-in-Chief of the Pine Needle.