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Two of the coaches this summer for the Southwest Trojans baseball team bring a unique perspective. Stuart Champion and Brett Hickman played on the West Brunswick High School baseball team that won the Class 3A state championship in 2004.
The memory of that season is still fresh in their thoughts, and Champion and Hickman say that season has valuable lessons for these Trojans, a junior American Legion team of West Brunswick ballplayers, many of whom will be on the high school varsity next year.
“The three years I was on the varsity,” Hickman said, “we won about 50 games. But I think that team was probably the least talented of the bunch. We weren’t as deep. We definitely weren’t as deep on the mound. We really rode two guys.”
But there was one important difference.
“That team just had a certain closeness about it,” he said. “We really seemed to care about one another. Five of the six seniors we’re best friends, and have been since the third grade, since we started playing together. There was a unique bond with that crew. I know it’s a clich, but it was really like a refusal to lose.
“Championship teams, really good teams, typically have that ‘it,’ that you really can’t explain.”
Hickman recalled the season began with uncertainty.
“We kept juggling things, kept juggling things,” he said. “We were just trying to find our niche, because we had lost seven or eight really good players from the year before. And I had to move from second to short. We were asking kids to do things they had never been asked to do. But by the time we got clicking—I got comfortable at shortstop and we were able to settle Stuart behind the plate, where he could really help us—that team just really cared about one another.”
Champion noticed the same thing.
“We were all about each other,” he said. “It wasn’t very much about individuals. We worked together. If one guy didn’t do something, the next guy did his best to help that guy out. It was a team effort. We weren’t scared of anybody. We played as hard as we could play. We played for each other not for ourselves. We played for the coach. The team chemistry was unreal. We didn’t have the deepest lineup, but our guys played hard—every play. Nobody took a play off, a pitch off. Everybody was ready. Everybody did his part. We had roles.”
Talent, of course, is essential, for any team to win consistently.
“We hit in big-time situations,” Hickman said. “The top five in that order did a lot of damage. I think we all hit over about .380. All had big-time years. We weren’t real flashy. We played solid defense. We made plays. We could lay down bunts when we were asked to. We could steal a bag if we were asked to. Just a really solid team. Not a great core of individuals like the team before that.
“We caught some breaks. We had two guys who get on the mound and get people out. That separates a lot of people in high school baseball. We could pitch, we were solid on defense and we had five guys who could really hit. That was pretty much that year in a nutshell. You have to have talent to win. We had talent.”
But the 2004 Trojans had another important element.
“I think great teams have something that you can’t necessarily coach,” Hickman said. “It is so unique, and I don’t know if it is explainable. If you go to battle every night, and every kid on the team ‘brings’ it every night, and plays like that, and plays the way we did—refusing to let the guy at second base down, refusing to let Stuart down behind the plate, Stuart refusing to let me down at shortstop—if you play with that kind of passion every night, then (winning) starts to happen.”
That is easier said than done.
“You can’t teach that,” Champion said. “You can’t coach somebody to be like another team. They have to want to do it. Maybe we can help relay hints and the kinds of things that make them start coming together. Guys actually caring about other guys and not worrying about ‘I’ should do this or ‘I’ should do that. The way we were is something that is pretty much unexplainable. The way were was a freak of nature, I guess.”
Hickman hopes he and Champion can convey some of the attributes a team needs if it to be a championship contender.
“I think the kids can learn a lot just the way Stuart and I talk to each other now,” he said. “Our relationship as best friends didn’t end (in 2004). We played for one another. You just can’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to come here and then we’re going to go our separate ways after the ballgame. Stuart and I play golf together probably once a week now. There is a foursome of us that was all on that team that play about every week.”
Champion and Hickman are optimistic about WBHS baseball.
“This core of players at West Brunswick is really, really good,” he said. “They’re going to have the talent to win, and they’re going to have the coaching. Coach A is going to put a team on the field that is going to compete and is going to play hard.”
Of course, they see things that need improvement.
“I think they have potential to come together as a really great team versus a good team,” Champion said, “I’m not saying guys don’t work hard. They do. But I think they can work harder.”
“They have to learn how to compete, every night,” Hickman said. “You have to chatter it up in the infield. I tell them every night before they take the field, ‘Take the field with a purpose.’ ”
“As former players,” Champion said, “we can help prepare these guys because maybe they relate to us a little better. We’re still young. They take it to heart when Coach A might yell at them or something and they don’t really understand. Brett and I tell them that if he is getting on you it means he cares about you. He’s a great coach.”
Hickman hopes for success.
“Nobody is a bigger fan than I am of the kids Stuart and I are coaching this summer or the varsity kids that are playing on the senior Legion team,” Hickman said. “I hope they get to experience the things we got to experience. It is the highlight of my life.”