You won’t find many teams more complete than the Willard Tigers.
Hitting, pitching, defense, it’s all there.
Well, it’s almost all there.
“It took three days for it to set in for me, and still at times it’s tough,” said Willard Head Coach Scott McGee.
Six months ago, former Willard player and assistant coach, Justin Atchison died in a hunting accident.
“I wasn’t sure how to react, it didn’t really hit me,” Willard junior Grant Harris said.
The Tigers were faced with the loss of not just a coach, but a friend.
“Any time you needed him, he was the guy you could call,” said Willard junior Garett Rice.
One of the best pitchers in Willard history, Atch’s dependability was only surpassed by his passion.
“[He was the] ultimate competitor, sometimes he would argue with his teammates and stuff because he wanted to win so badly, and he always thought he knew the right way,” McGee said.
It’s a fire the current Tigers carry with them.
“We play with such tremendous emotion, which is something he always preached,” McGee said.
“Every time we step out on this field for a practice or every time we play a game, he’s with us,” Harris said.
That’s even true in the literal sense, as Atch’s number four covers a patch of grass behind home plate at Willard’s home field.
It’s the same number as the number of runs the Tigers scored to beat Glendale in the state quarterfinals.
“After the game, Coach McGee said, ‘how crazy is it that we scored four runs?’ It could be a coincidence, but it just feels right,” Rice said.
“Atch was just as big a part of that game as we all were,” Harris added.
That’s how it’s been all season, with Atch seemingly guiding the Tigers to their first Final Four since 2013.
It was then, when Atch pitched the Tigers to that season’s quarterfinal win.
“That was one of the best days for our program,” McGee said. “And I know from talking to him [Atchison] it was one of the best days of his life.”
So, when Rice throws the first pitch in the state semifinal, it’ll be on the same mound that Atch commanded in the program’s last trip to O’Fallen.
“It’ll be hard,” Rice said. “Until I settle in, it’ll be hard.”
But just like his number continues to cover part of their field, the Tigers know Atch will be with them at state.
“He’s gone, but not forgotten. He’ll never be forgotten,” Rice said.