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Lizi Arbogast / The Outlook Benjamin Russell coach Richy Brooks described Neal Fenn, pictured, as 'the consummate teammate' and was exceptionally proud Fenn got in some playing time this year before the season's end.

It’s always tough to graduate a large group of seniors from a single sports team. With that comes a lot of questions about what’s next for the program and how it will replace so much talent and leadership.

That has become even more difficult this year after the spring sports season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Benjamin Russell’s baseball team felt the hit hard. The Wildcats had nine seniors on this year’s squad and after making it to the quarterfinals of the Class 6A playoffs a season ago, they had extremely high expectations. Now, they’ll never know what could have happened.

“I don’t want to use the word cheated because it’s nobody’s fault what happened,” Benjamin Russell coach Richy Brooks said. “But at the same time, we feel like something is always going to be missing. We’re not going to know what could’ve happened and that’s tough. As a team, we’ll never get to find out but they were a close group, so they’ll definitely be missed.”

Brooks also had a special connection to this particular senior class as he was coaching his son, senior Cade Brooks. This was the third and final Brooks boy coach Brooks had the opportunity to coach.

“I’m fortunate in that Cade liked to work,” Brooks said. “He liked to do things on his own; I didn’t have to make him do anything. I was never forcing him to do something but something we stressed to all of them was they did have to put in extra time and effort to be successful, and Cade did that.”

Brooks will continue his baseball career at Southern Union and the opportunities should be boundless as he played first and third base as well as hit for the Wildcats.

Also moving on to the next level is Brett Pitts, who signed with Chattanooga Valley, and was the defending Outlook Baseball Player of the Year. Pitts was a four-year player for the Wildcats, starting at catcher early on, moving to shortstop for the last two years and finishing at third base.

“He also always pitched for us and has always been a good hitter,” Brooks said. “He’s another kid that’s going to stay extra and always working at getting better. When we were able to move Brett to shortstop, that made us better as a team.” 

Both Ty Brown and Denzel Greene are also moving onto the next level but as football players rather than baseball players. Both took up extremely important positions in the outfield, which Brooks thought was a big strength for the Wildcats this season.

“Playing right field at the (Charles E. Bailey) Sportplex is a very difficult thing to do, and we didn’t want anybody else playing right field besides Ty,” Brooks said. “Another thing with Ty is he was always going to give you his best effort. Sometimes he tried too hard because he wanted to be so successful.” 

Greene had arguably one of his best seasons on the diamond this year and Brooks attributes a lot of that with Greene no longer playing basketball. Although Brooks is a big proponent of being a multi-sport athlete, people playing basketball are always a little behind the eight ball simply because of how the seasons overlap. 

“Denzel missed his entire sophomore year from an injury; he tore his knee out (in football) and worked real hard to rehab it,” Brooks said. “This year, he didn’t play basketball and he was hitting the best he ever was because he had gotten a lot more practice in. He became our leadoff hitter and had really been doing a good job there.” 

Similar to Greene, Joe Young also played basketball for most of his high school career but stuck strictly with football and baseball as a senior and that paid dividends. As a first baseman, Young was the most improved defensively, according to Brooks.

“Before that, we couldn’t play him at anything but (designated hitter),” Brooks said. “But Joe works hard every day and he comes to practice every day and I don’t have to worry about him working hard. He was the power hitter in the group, and when he got on a hot streak, he could be a fearsome hitter.” 

Like many others, Ryan Willis was also a multi-sport athlete and shined on the football field as well as in baseball. He’s been with the Wildcats since he was a freshman and did a little bit of everything.

“He’s just been a solid guy for us,” Brooks said. “Sometimes things come when you get older and stronger and when he did that, things started to come to him a little bit more. He’s always been a guy that’ll work extra and work hard.”

Willis plans to go to Central Alabama Community College but is unsure whether he’ll continue his baseball career at the next level.

One player who truly did almost everything for BRHS was Colby Riddle, who spent time as a pitcher, an outfielder, a catcher and a second baseman. Finally, he seemed to have landed a role as the starting catcher and was beginning to excel before the season’s end. Like many others, Riddle also played basketball but that never stopped him from being a team leader.

“Colby is one of the most likeable kids on the team; his personality is just great,” Brooks said. “Colby’s attitude was always stellar. If Colby came in in a bad mood, you knew he was sick. He was just always happy go lucky.”

One of the latest bloomers, so to speak, for the Wildcats was Dawson Trapp, who didn’t start playing baseball until he was 12 years old.

“He probably improved as much as anybody we had,” Brooks said. “Dawson wasn’t a starter during his time here but he was always a good teammate and somebody enjoyable. He was solid enough for us to put in there and he was one of our strongest kids.” 

The final senior was perhaps the glue that held it all together and he did so by being a great teammate. Neal Fenn finally got a little playing time this year at pitcher and catcher and for that, Brooks was extremely grateful especially after what Fenn did for the program.

“If you look in the dictionary and see the word teammate, there’s Neal’s picture,” Brooks said. “Neal got as much joy out of watching our team succeed as he did his own success. He cared about his teammates. I’ll be honest: I’ve coached I don’t know how many hundreds of kids in my 31 years doing this, and Neal ranks right up there with the top teammates I’ve coached.”

It’s going to be nearly impossible to replace a group with nine guys like that.

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.