By Kyle LoJacono
The Freedom baseball team suffered a major loss on March 18, but it wasn’t in a game.
Patriots sophomore pitcher Taylor King lost his 50-year-old father, David, on that date; the final day of spring break. His teammates learned of his devastating loss the next day at school.
“That was a rough week for us,” said third-year Freedom coach A.J. Leppla. “We had a big tragedy losing somebody in the family, but we’re looking to build together through that adversity. … Before the year I told the team about a friend from college whose 2-year-old daughter past away from cancer, and our guys have kept her on their mind. Then this hit a little closer to home for them. They’ve talked about playing for something bigger than themselves.”
The Patriots (12-4) are wearing David’s initials DK stitched onto their hats and also spray paint those letters behind home plate and on the pitcher’s mound for home games. Leppla said they want to make the playoffs for the first time in the program’s nine-year history to honor David’s memory.
Freedom had difficulty playing its first game after learning of the death, falling 11-1 against Class 7A-District 9 rival Steinbrenner on March 20.
“There was a lot going on with the team when we played that game,” said senior catcher Eric Schindler. “We played about as bad as we have all year.”
The Patriots pulled together quickly and responded with a 9-5 win against district opponent Gaither on March 24.
“We came together nicely and played like we can,” Leppla said. “Mr. King would have been proud.”
Junior second baseman/pitcher Chandler Chapman, who was recently named to the Perfect Game USA All-American team as an honorable mention, said the win over Gaither shows how far the squad has come
“We would have never done that last year,” Chapman said.
Freedom, which is still looking for its first winning season, is off to the best start in program history and has added reason to finally make the postseason, but nothing will come easy in 7A-9. Four of the five teams in the district have a winning record.
“We’re excited, but we’re keeping a level head about it,” said pitcher/shortstop Kyle Schindler, Eric’s twin brother. “We don’t want to get too excited because we haven’t done anything yet. It doesn’t matter what we do now. It matters what we do in districts.”
Junior third baseman/pitcher Johnny Keigher said the tough district is making the team play its best every night.
“Having a very difficult league makes us have to step up our game,” Keigher said. “We know we have to play really well to make it. It makes our game that much better.”
Keigher transferred this season from Jesuit, which finished as the 4A state runner-up last year. He said the postseason is a constant topic of discussion.
“We talk about it all the time,” Keigher said. “It’s basically our main goal to make the playoffs. We want to make sure we get there.”
Leppla, who came to the Patriots three years ago from Wiregrass Ranch, said he knew the team would have strong pitching and solid defense, which gave him confidence they could compete.
“Pitching and defense wins championships,” Leppla said. “Look at what the Rays did last year. I mean they just found a way to win with pitching and defense, and that’s what we do. I knew we wouldn’t be great offensively, but it’s been the timely hitting that’s helped us.”
Leppla said the hitting has started to come around lately.
“But it’s going to have to keep getting better,” Leppla said. “We need to make sure we’re getting timely hits to support our pitchers.”
Freedom travels to district-leading Steinbrenner on April 5 at 7 p.m. The 7A-9 tournament is at Gaither, with the finals on April 26 at 7 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches