SELLERSBURG — It hasn’t been an easy year for Silver Creek baseball coach Joe Decker.
This was supposed to be a special year for the Dragons, but high expectations were put on hold when the March 2 tornado that devastated homes and businesses in Pekin and Henryville cost Decker’s wife, Stephanie, her legs after it caused the Deckers’ home to collapse.
For a while, it looked like Coach Decker was going to miss the season, but he was on hand to watch his team win two marathon games in come-from-behind fashion to capture the Class 3A Silver Creek Sectional championship.
The Dragons next task is to travel to Jasper, where they will face the tournament hosts — arguably the best Class 3A team in the state.
We talked to Decker about the challenges he’s faced, both on and off the field, in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Q: I know it’s been a difficult year for you, what with everything that happened with the tornado and your wife. Tell me a little bit about what this season has been like for you personally.
DECKER: “Personally, it’s been rough, but probably not why you’d think. It’s just been rough because the kids that are seniors this year are the kids that started with us as freshmen. That was our first year.
“We’ve really built a lot with them and they’re part of my family. And for me to not be able to be there for them the whole time was pretty rough on me. It’s pretty rough on Steph because she kept wanting me to go, and she knows how important it is for me to be there. And then I felt like I needed to be with her and help her do things. So from that aspect, it was pretty rough on both of us.
“It just was really — it was almost a relief that they were able to win the sectional, because if they wouldn’t have, I would have felt bad, just because I couldn’t have been there all the time. Don’t get me wrong — Ritchie (Ware) and my assistants have done an incredible job without me being able to be there all the time. But it still just made it where I felt guilty because I couldn’t be there at times when I felt like they needed me. So for them to win the sectional, I was really happy for them more than anything.”
Q: Let’s focus on the assistants. Obviously, everyone’s had to step up during the times that you’ve had to be absent from the team. Talk a little bit more about the job that they’ve done this year.
DECKER: “I’ve said, since I started back at SIlver Creek with this program the last four years, that without a doubt I’ve got the best assistants in the state, and that’s not an exaggeration.
“Ritchie Ware has kind of taken over the head coaching duties, and he’s had to deal with a lot of the administrative stuff that I usually deal with, and plus (the tornado) happened at the absolute worst time of the season, where we’re ordering jerseys, all kinds of stuff that I’m in the middle of doing, and then I just basically drop off the face of the map. Ritchie had to deal with all that stuff, and he started going through our athletic director, Larry Richmer, and Larry helped him a lot — just trying to get stuff organized, figuring out what to do and all that.
“What it did is it kind of bumped everybody up a spot. Ryan Wheeler’s our pitching coach, and he does a phenomenal job with our pitchers. He has great rapport with the players. Scott Jennings usually works with catchers, but he stepped in more to work with the hitters so Ritchie could deal with the head coaching responsibilities. And then on top of that, just dealing with when I could be there (and) when I couldn’t be there.
“We had a discussion at the beginning of the season. At the beginning I though, ‘I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to step back. It’s not fair if I’m there for the kids some, and then not there some, and they don’t know when I’m going to be there. They don’t know who’s going to be in the third-base box.’
“Ryan Wheeler kind of told me, he said, ‘Any day they can get you, they’ll take. They’d rather have you there some of the time than none of the time.’ So that’s kind of the approach we took. If I had family stuff going on where I thought the family needed me, I stayed away. And if it worked out that I could go to a game, I went to the game. In the end, I think it worked out fairly well.
“We went through some rough spots in the middle, and I think it made the kids tougher. And at the end of the season, they played their guts out Monday. I couldn’t be any happier for them on how it all turned out.”
Q: Let’s talk about the resilience your kids had to show on Monday. That was darn near eight hours of baseball that they had to play between those two games, and they had to come from behind to win in both of them. Talk about the grit and the emotion that your team played with on Monday.
DECKER: “Well, it’s one of those things — I personally, I didn’t think they had that in them. It’s such a different team than we had last year. Last year, we had a bunch of kids who got along well. They were very similar to each other. We almost had too many nice kids. This year, we’ve got a couple more kids who have a little attitude to them, and we have kids who don’t run around together, necessarily. But they’ve found a way to put it aside once they get to the baseball field.
“And the problem has been, some of the games where I wasn’t there, we felt like they had some quit in them. When things went bad, they kind of let it build. And when one thing went bad, it led to another and led to another. For them to turn around on Monday and just battle through. I said going into the North Harrison game, ‘If we can score first, I think we’ve got a shot. But if we get down, I think the first game just took too much out of us.’ Like I said, I was just amazed by it. When we got down 9-3, it was all but over. And then Hawn hitting the three-run home run was huge. It got us close enough to where you say, ‘Nine-to-six? Hey, I think we might be able to do this.’
“It maybe got to North Harrison a little bit too. I don’t think they played bad. They just didn’t score much after that. And then we just kept building on it. I think Robbeloth getting tired, and then the Arnold kid had already pitched on game, and I think that helped too.
“Just the determination — Lucas Barnett, I went out to take him out of the game at one point because he was hobbling all over the place. And he said, ‘Please don’t take me out.’ He almost had tears in his eyes. I was like, ‘You know what? I can’t take him out.’ It turned out to be the absolute right move, because he just battled and battled and battled.
“And Shae Durham was out of the game for, I think, five innings. He was so close to heat exhaustion we almost took him to the emergency room. If it had been upto his mom, he would have gone, but Shae, I think Shae told her no and he wanted to stay. He sat there for about four innings, and he was like ‘Coach, I can play.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Coach, please let me play.’ They just were determined.
“We’ve had a couple talks about everything that happened with my wife, more from the aspect of trying to put baseball in perspective. It’s just a baseball game. When stuff like this happens, you’ve got to put your family first, and those types of things become secondary, but we’ve also had the talk that I think she’s alive because she was an athlete before. She learned how to fight. She learned how to compete. She learned that pain doesn’t necessarily mean you just quit. I mean, a lot of things, and we’ve had those talks.
“I don’t know that that helped or any of that stuff, but they’ve played with more determination than any team I’ve ever seen. There’s so many places where they could have just quit and would have had nothing to be ashamed of with how they did, and they didn’t. They just refused, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”