Jared Gadd stepped up to the plate and delivered a two-run homer to put Paul Laurence Dunbar ahead 2-0 in the first inning of a game at Lexington Catholic on April 26.
A casual observer might have found his subdued trot around the bases unusual, as well as the relatively quiet celebratory gathering of teammates who greeted the sophomore as he made it back to home plate.
But there was a reason. Before the first pitch was thrown that night, Dunbar’s baseball team learned about the passing of Star Ifeacho, a sophomore on the boys’ basketball team who collapsed during an open gym at the school earlier that day and later died at hospital.
“When I went up for that first at-bat, I found out about five minutes before the game and I was really emotional,” said Gadd, who played basketball with Ifeacho. “I got up there and when I hit that home run I knew he was with me. I knew that he gave me strength to hit that home run. That’s how I’ve been getting through it, really.”
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No coach ever wants teenagers to have to cope with the unexpected loss of a peer, but Seth Knight believes his Bulldogs have done a “fantastic job” navigating the emotional trauma of the last week.
The tragedy has given the whole team — himself included — a renewed sense of purpose, away from the field and on it.
“Tomorrow’s not promised,” Knight said. “There’s no reason to not go out and leave everything you have on the field and play with the confidence that Star played with when he played basketball.
“It’s given us life perspective into what’s important.”
Ups and downs
Dunbar jumped out to a 6-2 start this season, picking up quality wins over Henry Clay and Male (both ranked in the top 20 now) with the only losses coming by one run to Scott County (currently No. 2 in the state) and East Jessamine. The Bulldogs won a run-rule contest over a Saegertown (Pa.) to start their spring break trip before finishing 0-4, albeit against a stacked slate of foes: recent state tournament participants West Jessamine and Greenup County along with early rematches with Scott County and Henry Clay, the latter of which a 14-13 slugfest that ended on a walk off.
The start of 43rd District play didn’t help the Bulldogs’ slump. Dunbar’s right-handed ace, Austin Shepherd, suffered an elbow injury while throwing a warm-up pitch between the fifth and sixth innings of what ended as an 8-5 loss to Lexington Christian. He was removed from the game and doctors later determined that he tore his ulnar collateral ligament.
The EKU signee will take a medical redshirt year while undergoing 9-12 months of recovery following Tommy John’s surgery scheduled for later this month.
Tim Lancaster has nicely filled the lead role, but sorting out Dunbar’s pitching rotation from will continue to be an on-going process as the season winds down, Knight said.
“Losing Shep hurt,” Knight said. “Anytime you lose a one or a two, or 1A/1B, it’s gonna change your season. We’ve had some pitchers step up and we’re still trying to get guys in the right role and see where our pitching’s headed.”
Shepherd has maintained a healthy attitude and presence on the team despite being sidelined. He likes the shape of the pitching staff and thinks the Bulldogs — 11-12 overall and 2-3 in district play — are positioned to make a run if the offense comes ready night-in, night-out.
“Our pitching and defense has always been strong,” Shepherd said. “Whenever the bats roll along, it’s gonna be nice.”
Dunbar won by at least six runs in all but three of its 11 wins this season, and in seven of those games the Bulldogs scored 10 or more runs. They’ve proven themselves more than capable of producing at the plate — just not necessarily on a consistent basis from game to game.
“It’s kind of been hit or miss,” Knight said. “It’s just about focus and intent when you go to the plate as the offense.”
‘We all play for him’
Dunbar found that focus in its latest district bout, a 14-4 shellacking of No. 13 Tates Creek on the road in six innings Wednesday evening. The Bulldogs were efficient, too, scoring their runs on 14 hits.
Gadd had four of those hits — including another home run in his first at-bat — in that contest, held several hours after Ifeacho’s funeral service.
“Star played with heart. He played with passion,” Gadd said. “We all play for him, especially me. He’s always gonna be in my heart. I’ll play for him every day.”
‘Star touched so many lives.’ Vigil celebrates Dunbar athlete’s life
Dunbar’s players are wearing black wristbands with a red star on them to memorialize Ifeacho through the rest of the season, however long it lasts. They’re confident they’ve got the ability to make it last longer than rankings or standings suggest.
They certainly don’t lack motivation.
“We found something to play for, and we’ve bonded through it,” said junior Alex Janes. “It brings us together.
“We’re all going through the same thing. We’re all wearing the same thing on our wrist to remind us of it. We’re never forgetting him while we’re on the baseball field.”