From the Ground Up
St. Mary's Athletic Director James Joy peered outside one rainy winter afternoon and found Austin Schrader delivering pitch after pitch to catcher Chris Hoffman.
Despite the uncooperative weather, and the season still months away, the duo took to the diamond a couple times each week.
"I thought, 'These guys are nuts,'" Joy says. "A lot of kids won't do that. That was pretty impressive."
Perseverance — it's become the chief characteristic of the senior class on the St. Mary's baseball team.
Schrader and Hoffman as well as shortstop/pitcher Michael Brimble and shortstop/third baseman Juan Ramirez will get their first taste of the playoffs this season.
And few would argue there's a more deserving group.
After dwindling interest forced Joy to discontinue the baseball program at St. Mary's following the 2001 season, the four helped revitalize the sport as freshmen in 2006.
They survived a one-win season in their initial campaign and now have the program on stable footing three years later thanks to an enduring commitment.
"It's poetic justice to be a senior and make it to the playoffs," Schrader says. "We've worked really hard this year, and we did it."
The unique journey began in the spring of 2005 when three St. Mary's freshmen-to-be — Schrader, Hoffman and Brimble — expressed interest in playing baseball for the Crusaders rather than joining more established programs at other schools. St. Mary's granted players the option of playing elsewhere while its program was dormant.
Behind the three eager freshmen, a smattering of upperclassmen and Ramirez, who is from the Phoenix district and signed on later, Joy put the wheels in motion.
He hired Lonny Flora, a 1996 North Medford graduate, as the coach to undertake the rebuilding process. Eventually, more players came forward, and Joy earned assurance on the hefty investment by having players sign a contract in November that they would not quit the team.
"At that point, we had to commit to our conference and commit to a coach," Joy says. "We put a lot of money out there."
That first season brought its share of difficulties.
"It was pretty interesting," Joy says. "One player didn't have a glove or cleats or anything. He had played a little before, but it had been a while. The stuff he had didn't fit properly.
"One thing we talked to Lonny and the boys about was that they needed to be patient. Every attempt you have to play ball, you have a chance to get better. We owe a lot to those guys for sticking around. They could have said forget it. That shows a lot of mental toughness."
Flora insisted St. Mary's play a varsity schedule — "It wouldn't do them any favors sugarcoating it," he says — and the Crusaders finished 1-21 that season.
It was the first year of organized baseball for many players, and Flora spent considerable time teaching simple fundamentals, mechanics, rules and theories.
"It was a learning process," says Flora, who had to resign last season due to a job conflict. "Going into it, I knew we had to take our lumps. I could tell them until I was blue in the face how these other teams were going to have a lot more experience, but it was about them understanding, learning and playing."
Flora credited the players with keeping a light-hearted but focused approach through the trying season.
"We only won one game, but it was a really fun experience," Schrader says. "I was playing with all my friends. Everybody I knew was out there to get the baseball team started."
Says Brimble: "The whole time, I was just having fun playing baseball with my friends. I never thought about quitting."
Schrader says he recalls "a lot of home runs hit off me" in that first season.
The majority of those games ended via the five-inning mercy rule.
But St. Mary's sought redemption with a more experienced group the following season and posted a 10-13 overall record, 9-9 in conference. The Crusaders, behind standout senior Paul Hume, were 12-11 but missed the playoffs by one game last season.
"To see them go from that first season, to the improvement made in the second season, it was awesome," Flora says. "What I think says a lot about this team is how they came together. They had to count on each other and trust each other."
St. Mary's (9-10, 9-6 District 5) clinched the No. 3 seed into the Class 2A/1A playoffs this season and travels to face the No. 2 seed from District 2, to be determined this week, on Friday in the opener.
It's a sweet reward for the dedicated group.
"That group of kids really pushed themselves to get better, and we are just reaping the rewards of them working hard," first-year St. Mary's head coach John Cheatum says. "Those four guys have been great for us. They did everything they need to do to be a great baseball team. I can't speak highly enough of them and how much they've meant to the program."
These days, the St. Mary's baseball program is thriving. Numbers have increased, as has the talent pool, and there's a strong program at the middle-school level. Joy says he has no concerns about maintaining the program in the future.
"It took some time, but we've definitely become one of the stronger teams in our league," Ramirez says.
They've also left an indelible legacy — one of perseverance at its best.
"It's pretty rewarding," Hoffman says. "It's cool that we're the only people on the team that have been through it for four years and come back."
Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail email@example.com