Bond formed over tragedy led to West Forsyth’s storybook finish

West Forsyth catcher Zach French is hugged by coach Michael Hayden after the Titans beat Richmond for the 4A state basetball title, June 7, 2014 at UNC-Greensboro. French's dad died earlier in the year at a West Forsyth baseball game. (Walt Unks/Journal)

West Forsyth catcher Zach French is hugged by coach Michael Hayden after the Titans beat Richmond for the 4A state basetball title, June 7, 2014 at UNC-Greensboro. French's dad died earlier in the year at a West Forsyth baseball game. (Walt Unks/Journal)

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — As Zach French raced to the mound and jumped into the arms of pitcher Travis Holden, the tears he had been holding back for months finally came out, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

They weren’t just tears of joy — there was more to the moment than celebrating West Forsyth’s first baseball state championship.

For three months, baseball had been French’s sanctuary as West chased a fairy tale ending for a season that began with one of the worst horror stories imaginable: His father, Andrew French, suffered a heart attack March 5 while sitting in the bleachers during West’s game at East Rowan.

Andrew French died later that night at Rowan Regional Hospital.

The details of that night in Salisbury, and the days that follow aren’t clear to Zach, the Titans’ catcher.

“It’s really hard to describe — it all seems like a blur — that whole day, that whole week,” Zach said. “No one expected it to happen and it kind of threw us, it devastated all of us. We were in the middle of the game and we just saw him collapse and suddenly, the game was called off and I had to rush to the hospital.

“It’s just … there’s really no way to describe it, I was in so much shock at the time I didn’t feel anything — and afterward, everything just happened so fast.”

With West batting in the seventh inning, a woman ran on the field, yelling for officials to stop the game and call an ambulance because a man had collapsed.

When the West coaches and players realized it was Andrew French, outfielder Aaron Stamper gathered the players to pray, hugging Zach before they left the field to wait on the bus.

EMTs worked on Andrew French for about an hour — about 30 feet away from the Titans’ dugout — before taking him to the hospital. There, Zach and Alex Yoder, the Titans’ pitching coach, were joined by Zach’s mother, Janice, and waited until doctors told them that Andrew didn’t make it.

“It was awful; I don’t know even know what else to tell you. It was awful,” Yoder said. “It was tough, man. It’s still tough talking about it.”

Passionate about West Forsyth

Zach and his father had exchanged text messages before the game as they always did, but Andrew French was even more excited than usual because he was to fill in as West’s scorekeeper that night.

An actuary by day, keeping score combined his love of numbers with his passion for baseball, and most important, his children.

According to Janice, Andrew had built his work schedule around being there for his son and daughter, in particular making it to Zach’s wrestling matches and baseball games. Andrew had a strained relationship with his father and was determined to be there for Zach.

“He made it paramount in his life that he had a good relationship with his son,” Janice French said.

Andrew became a respected figure around the West program. He was at games and practices, and also gave his time and money to the West booster club to enhance the experience for everyone.

After unsuccessfully lobbying the booster club to buy a hot dog cart, Andrew bought and donated one to the school because he thought everyone deserved a hot dog at a baseball game.

“That’s the kind of guy he was — he wanted to make sure everybody had a good time and it was a pleasant experience when they came to ballgames,” Athletics Director T.R. Richards of West said.

‘Zach was just a rock’

On the night that Andrew died, West players took to Twitter, sending out messages of support for Zach and the quote that would define their season: “A team with something to play for can be dangerous, but a team for someone to play for is unstoppable.” The quote originated with third baseman Alex Vanderstok and was quickly sent out by others on the team.

“At that moment, we knew what we had to do — we had to come together,” Stamper said.

The team wore its jerseys to the funeral, which was attended by numerous players from other schools across the area, as well as the entire East Rowan team.

After a few days away from the team — Zach had actually wanted to go to practice the next day — he returned to practice because he felt like that’s what his father would have wanted.

“It was almost calming getting back to baseball. That’s the way me and my mom and my sister handled it — it knocked us down, but we got back up and started doing exactly what we were doing before,” Zach said. “It was calming for me; it’s always been that happy place, it was something me and my dad had always done,” Zach said.

In the days that followed, the West players and coaches talked about what had happened, but other than that, everyone tried to go about their business in the way that Zach was handling the situation.

“Zach was the one everybody leaned on; Zach was just a rock,” Richards said. “I kind of always thought, ‘Well, at some point in time he’s going to break down and we’ve all got to be there for Zach,’ and it might have happened in private, but I never saw it.”

Even through their conversations at home, Janice said that Zach has shown the same resolve.

“Those are the kind of images you never want to take with you the rest of your life … so I’ve talked to him a lot about a need to talk about that, and he seems very strong,” Janice said.

Subtle reminder

In West’s next game, the Titans smashed Parkland 19-1. That night, the team carried a subtle reminder of Andrew that would stay with them the rest of the season — Assistant Coach Jerome Cannon asked Zach if he could hang in the dugout the New York Yankees cap that Andrew was wearing the night he died.

“I loved that idea. He had always been at the games before, so I felt like a little part of him was still there,” Zach said.

The dark cloud that hung over the team quickly became something that built a bond for the players that extended beyond baseball.

“It was a subtle reminder, but I don’t know how to put it — there was a definitely a connection,” Yoder said. “It was something, like you don’t write a script for this — there’s no guide — but you felt a closeness within this group that was unique.”

Emotional moment

When the playoffs rolled around, West seemed to have something special going for it.

No matter what the circumstance, Titans pitchers always came through in clutch situations; the team got key hits up and down the lineup.

But in Game 2 of the NCHSAA Class 4-A state championship series against Richmond, it was Richmond that got clutch hits to push the series to a decisive third game.

In Game 3 later that evening, West jumped ahead 6-0 and never looked back.

“You take those four hours, that’s who those kids are; they shook it off, they keep on going and nothing is going to stop them,” Yoder said. “That’s really what it was, and I know that sounds cliché, but that’s the truth.”

When Holden struck out the final batter, French sprinted to the mound with the ball in his mitt before the emotional eruption that had been bubbling for months.

“He’s one of the strongest kids — if not the strongest kids I’ve ever coached or been around — but after we won it all, man, he lost it,” Coach Brad Bullard said. “I think he realized he did this, and we did this for his dad. It was tough on him after the game, but I think it finally sunk in that you know, his dad wasn’t there.”

As the Titans celebrated, Zach’s teammates told him that Andrew was with them and how proud he would be as they hugged.

“There were so many thoughts going in as we just did this for my dad; and another thought was, well he’s not here to see it but he was still kind of there.… I know he was a part of it somehow,” Zach said.

“I never really gave myself a second to let all sink in, and after I could finally relax and just take it in … it was just kind of all of the emotions hit at that one moment and it all kind of hit me.”

Letting it all sink in

West’s coaches knew that moment was coming, win or lose, as the end of the season marked the end of the brotherhood the Titans had built through the tragedy.

The place that Zach had gone to escape the loss of his father was no more.

“All those emotions and he finally let it go. I was happy he was where he was when he got the opportunity to let it go — he was with us, we won and you couldn’t write a better script,” Yoder said.

Zach, who graduated last week and will be attending N.C. State in the fall to pursue an engineering degree, said he’s at peace with the situation now.

And with the season behind him, he has been able to finally look back.

“I never thought about it too much when it was happening, and a couple of people came up afterward and told me … storybook is how this whole thing sounds, and when I look back at it, it really does,” Zach said.

“I think I’ll appreciate it even more down the road.”

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