MAROA — Before the baseball season started, Maroa-Forsyth coach Sean Martin was bracing for a long year.
He knew the team had a strong group of five seniors, but Martin internally wondered how all the players, young and old, would jell together. Will Horve, who had been a key cog on the team during his high school career, had graduated, and some players who Martin thought would be on the team elected to turn their attention to other sports.
Then tragedy struck. On March 5, freshman player Cole Evans died unexpectedly. The Evans family are close family friends to Martin, and Cole was a "little brother" to the team. His older brother, senior Brock Evans, was the starting right fielder for the Trojans.
It put a screeching halt to baseball activities before the Trojans even played a game. Martin let his team grieve on their own schedule and return to baseball when they felt comfortable.
“I just reacted as a human," he said. "I won’t say anyone told me what to do or I read something. I was like, ‘You know what, this is real. When I think we need to practice, we’ll practice.’ We all just kind of leaned on each other."
In time, Maroa regrouped as best it could, galvanized, in part, by unfathomable tragedy. Baseball took a backseat to real life and the team looked at the bigger picture, with less of an emphasis placed on wins and losses. Then the wins came and kept coming. The Trojans finished 16-3 and 8-1 in a difficult Sangamo Conference before a one-run loss to eventual Class 2A state runner-up Pleasant Plains in the regional championship.
In all of Martin's 26 years of coaching, he'd never met a season quite like this one. His ability to steer the ship earned him the Herald & Review Macon County Baseball Coach of the Year for the first time since 2005.
“After what we’ve been through, losses in baseball games don’t mean anything," Martin said. "We kind of played loose and once we did that, we started beating some teams and won some games we shouldn’t have and had some comeback wins.
“Not only are we playing together, but it was like, ‘Man, not only are we winning some games, but we have some pretty good players,' and we started rollin’."
During a stretch from April 10-May 10, the Trojans won 10 consecutive games, with walk-offs and come-from-behind wins weaved in, including a win over Pleasant Plains. Even on the days when the furthest away from the diamond that Martin could be still felt too close, the Trojans kept pushing on. On lunch breaks when Martin tended to the field, he found himself immersed in tears.
“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it’s been pretty special," Brock Evans said. "It’s a season unlike any other with everything that happened before the season even. … Our backs were against the walls in the beginning. It would have been easy for us to say, ‘You know what, the odds aren’t in our favor. We’re not going to amount to anything.’
"We kind of went with the mentality that we’re going to put nine kids out there who want to play baseball and want to play and have fun. That resulted in putting wins on the field. That was what made it special and successful."
Maroa was powered by a deep lineup, which was anchored by Tre Corley and Ian Benner, and a pair of strong aces in Aaron Agee and Benner.
“I’m going to attribute our success to our five seniors," Martin said. "I’ve been doing this for a long time, 26 years, and I don’t think I’ve had a group of seniors come together and lead a team and have everyone on the team buy in."
Despite the stellar individual play and the mounting win totals, baseball still never took priority over real life. But from his spot in the dugout, or at as a third base coach, Martin saw his team, Brock Evans included, take the field and scratch out wins.
“I don’t know how in the world you did what you did because it was all I could do to walk out there this year," Martin said of Brock Evans. "For Brock to walk out there with everything he’s been through … it’s truly remarkable of what kind of person he is and what kind of young man he’s going to be because I don’t know how he did it.
“He was a true champion."
Brock Evans knows the fortitude that it took out of Martin to guide this season, between a dwindling roster and tragedy. Martin, he said, showed his true colors as a person. Those colors crystallized after the season-ending loss to Plains.
Saying goodbye to a senior class is never easy for Martin. This year was tougher than any other he's faced. Martin cried more than he's ever cried following the regional championship loss. When it came time to hug Brock Evans goodbye, they broke down. It was then that Martin let Evans in on just how much he leaned on his senior right fielder.
“Even though he’s 30 years my senior, he looked up to me, that really did mean a lot," Brock Evans said. "I guess I didn’t realize that until the season was over that everyone got behind me. It did mean a lot."