Wasson second baseman Alex Denniston looked at his new coach and wondered how long he’d last.
He sighs. He wondered the same about his school.
“I didn’t think our new coach (John Rae) would be around long,” Denniston said. “And I didn’t even know if there would be a Wasson to go to anyways.”
After years of rumors about the closure of the high school, new innovations led by principal Dr. Darryl Bonds, the 2012 recipient of the Youth Empowerment Award, has the school seemingly back on the right track.
As for its baseball team?
Even though Wasson’s diamond is only rented, John Rae, 62, has made it a safe haven for his players.
“We just have fun now,” Denniston says. “We go there and we think we are going to win every game.”
It’s been a long road to get to that mindset.
In 2011, Rae took over the Wasson baseball program and was the fourth coach in as many years.
The players thought he’d follow the pattern of Eric Ward, current Mitchell baseball coach Brett Humphrey and current Air Academy girls’ basketball coach Bob Wingett who all left the program after a season.
“There was a sense of mistrust my first year,” Rae said. “These kids didn’t think I would stay so there was a sense of distance. You can’t build a program without consistency.”
The struggles were evident.
In the team’s first 14 games in 2011 they were winless as the Thunderbirds were outscored 190-38. Their on-the-field performance mirrored many of the kids’ home lives, clogged with its frustrations and letdowns.
“For a lot of kids they brought a bad mindset to the field,” Denniston said. “I think coach saw that, cause then we had a meeting in the middle of that season.”
Rae, who drives an hour each way from Florence every day, sat his team down and opened the floor.
“What we talked about is between me and them,” he said curtly. “But it gave me a better understanding of where they were coming from and gave them a better understanding of where I was coming from.”
Later that week, on May 5, Wasson beat rival Mitchell, and its old coach Humphrey, for its first win of the season.
“Guys were talking about the plays they made and ‘did you see that’ kind of stuff,” Denniston said. “From there on out we had a new level of confidence.”
The Thunderbirds finished 2011 with one win followed by two wins in 2012.
“We were in a lot of games this season,” Rae said. “We just need to keep taking the steps to get where we want to be.”
Throughout the 2012 season things have seemed better for the school and its athletics, which included a round of 16 appearance by its boys’ basketball team.
But the struggles have not completely vanished.
On the baseball team, at least half of the players don’t come from a traditional upbringing, meaning raised by their biological mother and father.
“It is tough sometimes because I don’t always have all my players here,” Rae says. “That makes it tough on them and the team.”
And as for the school, weeks before graduation, Wasson was in the headlines again for the wrong reasons when police were called to break up a fistfight on its grounds.
“Bad stuff happens at any school,” Denniston said. “We had a bad reputation for a while because I guess it was just our turn.”
Next season, Rae expects Denniston to be the captain.
As a senior, it’ll be a long shot for Denniston to be on a winning team.
But as his eyes fade past you like he’s thinking, you can see his grin.
He’s glad to be a part of the change at his beloved school.
“The ultimate goal is to take this team to the state playoffs someday,” Rae said. “That’s the dream anyways.”