Pictured: Mark Brookes, shown during a May 2019 game at the Cougars’ home field, has been the coach and caretaker of H-K’s baseball program for nearly five decades.
By Paul Augeri
The continuing coronavirus pandemic has, if anything, taught us about loss. Loss of life, loss of interaction, loss of routines and pastimes and celebrations.
High school students, seniors especially, have been denied rites of passage perhaps taken for granted in the past — prom, a school trip, even their graduation day.
In sports, most senior athletes will not play competitively ever again. Connecticut’s spring season, which had been on hold since the time schools were closed in March, was officially canceled on May 5.
Adults are not exempt from frustration and disappointment. Haddam-Killingworth’s Mark Brookes, whose feet have been firmly planted on a baseball diamond every spring for the last 45 years, feels his own sense of loss on top of his players’ sense of emptiness.
“I’ve been able to adjust some, but I also remember being a high school player at Middletown High,” he said, “and it would have absolutely destroyed me if I missed a season for some reason.
“I miss baseball, there’s no question about it. What I miss most is the fact that coaching the kids, you get energy from the kids. This is a passion. I’m not young anymore, but they give me energy, so I miss the game from that standpoint.”
Brookes played the infield for John DeNunzio’s Tigers and was a senior captain in 1969. After a good four-year career at Maryville College in Tennessee, he returned to Connecticut and created the H-K program in 1976. He has averaged 15 wins a season over his four-plus decades as coach and is nine wins shy of 700 for his career.
He would have gotten there, too, in 2020, and the Cougars’ four seniors — first baseman Mike O’Toole, catcher Sam Erskine, pitcher Carmelo Rosa and backup catcher Peyton Frohlich – would have led the charge.
“I feel for them, I really do. It’s a terrible thing,” said Brookes, acknowledging the cancellation of the spring season as much as the pandemic. “But it’s something you can’t control, and I tried to tell the seniors that now’s the time to look forward and not back, that there is a lot more in life to experience and to be happy about, whether it’s college or whatever else you choose to do.”
H-K had a strong 2019 season by most standards – 14 regular-season wins, an appearance in the Shoreline Conference tournament championship game (won by Portland 2-1 in extra innings), and a 3-2 upset win over higher-seeded East Catholic in the Class M tournament.
As they are every year, the Cougars would have been Shoreline contenders again. They had a strong sophomore class – “one of the strongest sophomore classes I’ve had,” Brookes said — ready to blend in with the returning players, including current juniors Jimmy McGoey, Alec Erskine and Luke DiMauro.
Now, Brookes is hoping all will have an opportunity to play this summer – if there is baseball – either in an American Legion or AAU program.
“These kids had been working out all winter and they were just continuing what they did up until the season was called off,” Brookes said.
As the spread of the coronavirus intensified around the state in mid-March, the CIAC canceled the rest of the winter sports tournaments and postponed the start of spring sports practices. For baseball, it was the day before pitchers and catchers could start to work together under CIAC rules.
“I had met with the whole group once before, for sign-ups and all that,” Brookes said. “Lots of preparation was done prior to that week for pitchers and catchers – scheduling, budgeting, concussion tests, getting coaches certified.
“When we were called off, I kept messaging the players every couple of weeks as a way to look forward to the season and to give them a plan going forward if the season were to start April 20. When schools were closed until at least May 20, again I gave them more instruction about how to go about staying ready. And now we’re looking at the summer and if they can play at all.”
Like other coaches, Brookes now faces the challenge of keeping in contact with current players as well as getting to know both his current crop of freshmen AND those coming into the high school behind them.
“One interesting thing in missing a year like this, the incoming freshmen I didn’t know outside of the one meeting we had,” he said. “I haven’t worked with them. Now next spring, I’ll have another group of freshmen that I won’t know. I will not have worked with half the kids that are in the H-K program in 2021. I’ll know half and I won’t know the other half.
“It’s a strange thing. Almost like starting over, or pretty close.”
Brookes hosts an annual H-K alumni game every Memorial Day weekend. The coach’s former players are loyal and they come back in good numbers, but there won’t be a gathering this year.
“It’s too bad,” Brookes said, “but I’m asked them to stay in touch. I don’t want a year to go by without having contact.”