The 2019 Munford High School baseball season was unprecedented for the coach and players and maybe in the history of all baseball seasons.
If one wasn’t aware of what happened a few months before it started, the season would not have looked extraordinary. The Cougars went 12-21 and saw their season end in the district tournament.
Now, eight months after the season ended, the Cougar players and coach realize they were playing in a fog of sorts.
On Nov. 13, 2018, Chase Suggs, a senior on the 2018 team, died in an ATV accident. Less than three months later, on Jan. 27, Steven Kendrick, also a senior player on the 2018 team, died in a car accident.
The deaths were discussed, of course, and the team tried to move forward, but it was a struggle that played out on the field.
“It was always on our mind, but in my case I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to upset somebody and bring back those memories,” said Tristan Gourley, a senior on this year’s team and a lifelong friend of Chase and his younger brother Trent, who is a junior catcher. “It was always fresh. You had a game to focus on, but what was on your mind was Chase and Steve-O. You can’t get over something like that. You can’t talk about it or release your emotions because you don’t want to upset anybody.”
“Our goal was to win for them,” said senior Blake Reed. “We didn’t really talk too much about it, but the end goal was to win for them.”
“I know a lot of people on the team were trying to do something for them more than anything and I think that kind of got in the way of other things we needed to worry about,” senior Dustin Morris said. “Doing everything we could for them instead of doing it for other people.”
“They definitely had an effect on us,” said junior Hunter Reed. “The longer the season went along the more we learned and the stronger we got. You couldn’t tell by wins and losses last year, but if you watched how we played I think you can definitely tell how we learned and grew.”
The season started pretty well as the Cougars got off to an 8-4 start, but it hit a lull after that as Munford lost 14 straight.
Players failed to field routine pop-ups and ground balls.
“Things happened that you just could not explain,” said head coach Scotty Yount. “Plays that you make 99 times out of 100 were not being made … It seemed like every time there was a mistake made in a game we couldn’t get over that because we couldn’t get over the other.”
Munford lost five district games by one run after holding leads in most of them.
“It just wasn’t happening,” Yount said.
The team played better in the summer season that followed, but something still wasn’t right.
Then came the letter.
The week before Thanksgiving, the team’s seniors and Yount organized a meeting during which Yount read a 462-word heartfelt letter.
“When you hurt, I hurt, and last season I know we were all hurting together, every day at practice and every game,” Yount said in the letter. “I want you to know that you guys are by far the toughest young men I have ever had the pleasure of coaching and I am extremely proud of you and last season. I have never seen a team outplay their opponents more than y’all did only to keep coming up short. Things happened you just can’t explain and I think it just added to the hurt and all the emotions we were feeling, but y’all just kept coming, kept surrounding each other, kept on getting up and fighting to move forward.”
Munford hasn’t played a game since that meeting, which was held just after the one-year anniversary of Suggs’ death. In less than two weeks it will be a year since the death of Kendrick.
There is still some healing to be done, but the players and coach say things have gotten better since the meeting.
“It definitely needed to be heard,” Blake Reed said. “I think it got us past what everybody was thinking. What needed to be said got said. It brought us so much closer than any other past team. You can see it in everybody’s face. We’re always together, super close.”
“I feel like we were so lost in our surroundings, scared to hurt Trent and say the wrong thing,” said senior Kolby Slater. “But, after the meeting, I feel like we came together and embraced the fact that it happened.”
Earlier this week seven team members sat down with their coach and talked about Suggs and Kendrick.
“If somebody asked me about Steve-O, I’d be like, whenever you were around him, it was just great energy, very energetic,” said senior C.J. Bishop. “Every time he got up to the plate you just knew something was going to happen. Also, Chase, just great energy. You just loved to be around him.”
“Chase, man, he would walk out there on the baseball field and he was never, never in a bad mood,” Slater said. “He always had a smile on his face ready to do something big. Steve-O, he would be the one to call if you had a problem. He had your back through everything.”
Yount made everybody chuckle when he told a story about Kendrick wowing his teammates by hitting several home runs in batting practice. They ran out of balls so Kendrick ran behind the fence, retrieved the balls and carried them in his shirt back onto the field.
Junior shortstop Shane Cox talked about how Suggs, who played next to him at second base, gave Cox a hard time as a freshman.
“It was non-stop,” Cox said with a laugh. “He’d get on me about the littlest things. I loved playing with Chase. Being out there with him was probably the favorite thing of my freshman year.”
Exactly how this upcoming season plays out remains to be seen. The Cougars will win some games and lose some games. They might win the district and go to the state tournament, and they might not.
One thing is for sure: There won’t be a team that’s closer.
“Wins and losses are what they are,” Yount said. “There’s so many things you can’t control. Things don’t always turn out storybook, but there’s going to be a time when we’re dog piling and that’s when we’ll honor them. I can’t tell you when that’s going to be, but when we do, we’ll say, ‘This one’s for y’all.’”