Mason Lambert needed to go to the baseball field at Colonel Richardson High one more time.
Not for a game. Not for practice. Not even to play catch.
He needed closure.
Lambert graduated Thursday in Colonel Richardson High’s auditorium — four family members were allowed in, all wearing masks, to watch Mason walk across the stage; only one family allowed in the auditorium at a time. That’s the procedure for Caroline County graduations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As he got in his truck to leave, he spotted the baseball field.
After a dream junior season — the Colonels ran the table, going 24-0 and winning the school’s second state title — his senior season was cancelled because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
He walked to the field with his dad and sat in the dugout one last time.
“(I thought) about all the hard work we’d been through and how I wouldn’t get to play out my senior year after training since I was in sixth grade and working so hard,” Lambert said. “That was the last time I’d ever be on that field as a Colonel, and it hurt.”
With their final high school season cancelled, the Colonel Richardson seniors all have to come to terms with the same: they won’t get to take the field in red and black with ‘Colonels’ across the chest ever again. They won’t get to defend their state championship.
It was news that was hard for all to swallow. But for Jake Towers, the news hit especially hard.
Towers was injured for the entire state championship season after tearing his ACL during his junior football season. He spent the year as the team’s manager and DJ for home games. He was there every step of the way, but he longed to play.
He was cleared to play sports in July 2019 and started playing football again in the fall. But three weeks into his senior football season, he sprained his ACL and MCL.
Towers was faced with a decision: play through it and risk further injury, or sacrifice the rest of his football career to ensure he was healthy for baseball season.
He chose baseball.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I probably could’ve ever made in my life. It’s my senior season of football,” Towers said. “I love football so much, I love playing it. The bond you have with your teammates during football season is nothing you could ever compare to. We had a chance to have a record-breaking season for our school and for our football team. Choosing not to be fully a part of that and not being able to play was hard, but I really wanted to play baseball. I wanted to go out there as defending state champs and just try to hold on to that title.”
Given all the struggle with injury and rehab Towers put into being ready for his senior baseball season, he was devastated when Colonel Richardson head baseball coach Ryan Blanchfield texted him that the season was cancelled.
“It took me a while to really get it through my head that I wasn’t playing sports anymore,” Towers said. “I basically lost two years of high school sports due to multiple knee injuries. And then I was ready and I was excited to play my senior year of baseball as defending state champs. And then I hear that it got cancelled. It sucked. Probably some of the worst news I’ve ever had.”
Though this isn’t the end of his baseball career, Jackie Zebron took similar action to Lambert when school was originally closed in March.
A week passed with no school and no practice, and Zebron missed baseball too much. He had to go back to the field. The future Chesapeake College Skipjack — who has future plans of entering Major League Baseball’s amateur draft — reminisced on memories from his high school career.
“High school baseball is different than any kind of baseball. The bond is so much different,” Zebron said. “So I went down to the field and I just stood behind home plate just looking at it like ‘This really could be it.’ And it turned out to be it.”
It’s a class — Lambert, Towers, Zebron, Nathan Brown, Gunner Johansen, Carter Ferguson and Elijah Stull — that gave their school everything they had on the diamond, and brought it much success. Many played multiple sports together. They’re a tight-knit group.
In their sophomore and junior years, they posted a combined 43-3 record. Zebron was a 2019 first team All-North Bayside selection, and Lambert was an honorable mention.
“(The class) brought a state title to the school. And not taking anything away from our guys last year, but (this year’s seniors) were just as much a part of it as (last year’s seniors) were,” Blanchfield said. “They brought a state title, a 24-0 season, to the program. They meant a lot to us. And they would’ve had a good year this year, no doubt about it. Would’ve had a great shot at defending it.”
Though this group of seniors was important in Colonel Richardson’s championship season last year, the Colonels were a senior-laden team. Half the team’s roster was seniors, many of which were key players — including the Co-North Bayside Player of the Year (Remy Mangum) and the North Bayside Pitcher of the Year (Jamison Covey).
So this year’s players heard lots of chatter that they’d drop off. They were eager to prove people wrong.
“I heard throughout the whole winter and fall, there’s rumors you hear (people saying) ‘Your team’s not going to be as good, you lost eight starters, eight seniors,’” Towers said. “I got tired of hearing people saying that and I just wanted to go out there and prove everybody wrong. I was excited about it. I couldn’t wait.”
“We were heartbroken because we couldn’t sit there and defend it from all the people that were talking about how we were only good because we had a lot more seniors than everybody else and all this other stuff,” Brown said.
It’s not just the chance at a second straight title that’s lost. No title is guaranteed, and it’s very difficult to go back-to-back.
It’s the little moments that go into a title defense season. The Colonels had looked forward to taking the field in the first game of the season, for the first time since they won the championship.
“That feeling would be great,” Zebron said. “I was thinking about that ever since the season ended last year. I was thinking about ‘I just can’t wait for next year, go out there, being state champions, going back out there trying to defend it again.’ It meant something special.”
“Oh my goodness, yes, (I was looking forward to taking the field as state champs). So much,” Lambert said. “All that hard work from last year, not losing a game, all the battles, all the practices, however many hours spent. We earned that. I wanted to hear that being said as we stepped on the field for the first time.”
All teams aim to win a championship at the start of their seasons. Individually, many athletes often picture going out on top — winning a title in the final game of their final season.
Seniors across the country lost their chance to pull that off. The Colonel Richardson baseball seniors had visions of doing it in a title defense season. But in a way, they still feel like they’re going out on top, having won a title in the last game they played in high school.
“My junior year, we went all the way undefeated, won a state championship,” Zebron said. “I feel like we could’ve made a good run this year too. So I feel like we had a strong run, and we came out on top.”
“I think they’ll think about it that way, yeah,” Blanchfield said, “but still in the back of their mind, they’re going to be like ‘Dang, I wish I could’ve... It could’ve been me as a senior doing it.’ But hey, that’s how it goes. Mixed emotions is a good way to put it.”
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