North Hall senior shortstop Jesse Strickland took a short lead off of first base against Chestatee on Wednesday.
Slowly, he inched further from the bag.
The fans in the crowd knew what was about to happen — even the War Eagles may have had an idea — but it didn’t make any difference.
When he took off, he made it safely. Four times in the game he repeated that ritual, and each time he slid safely into the next bag with a stolen base.
It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago, he suffered a tear to the Anterior Cruciate Ligament that kept him off the football field in the fall for the Trojans.
“It feels good,” Strickland said of his left knee after the game. “I guess it’s about 95 percent now. The knee itself isn’t quite there, but I feel like I’m 100 percent.”
Strickland’s injury came at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes passing camp, doing a 7-on-7 drill at Johnson High in July. When he planted wrong on his left leg, his knee buckled and popped.
“I could hear it,” he said. “Even some people that were on the sidelines said they could hear the pop, too. I knew something was messed up.”
And while Strickland identifies himself as more of a baseball player, one of his first realizations following the injury was that he had lost his senior football season.
As a member of the North Hall football team, Strickland had a hand in a number of phases of the game. He was a receiver, a defensive back, and a kickoff and punt return specialist.
“I would have played a lot,” Strickland said. “And I love baseball, but there’s something special about playing on Friday night, too.”
It was a disappointment, to say the least. From the sidelines, Strickland watched as his teammates struggled early in the season, turned it around in the middle and fell just short of a state playoff berth at the end.
It was difficult, Strickland said.
“I was pretty angry,” he said. “I didn’t know why. Why now? Why my senior year? That was the hardest part.”
But his anger didn’t last long.
By the third game of the season, he was helping his position coaches with the younger players on the team.
Off the field, meanwhile, he worked. Three times a week, he worked out early in the morning for an hour and a half. Despite the difficulty, knowing he could be back in time for his senior baseball season was enough motivation.
“It was a process,” North Hall baseball coach Trent Mongero said. “He rehabbed for a few months, and it was a challenge. But he got after it.”
Incredibly, Strickland was back on the baseball field by Christmas, when he played in a tournament in Florida.
“I think his being a good athlete already, not to mention young, helped in the recovery process,” Mongero said. “He probably responded faster. I know he did everything he needed to get back, and he was rip roaring and ready to go. He was ready in his head a few months before his knee was ready, probably.”
Considering the key piece Strickland is to his team, Mongero is thrilled to have him back for a final season.
His numbers thus far have shown no signs of the injury. In 16 games, he has 17 RBIs, 19 runs and nine stolen bases. He had a .455 batting average before a 2-for-2 day against Chestatee on Wednesday.
According to Mongero, he has turned himself into a real college prospect over his two years as the starting shortstop for the Trojans.
Perhaps his most important contribution, however, is his leadership and perspective on sports gained from the experience of missing his final high school football season.
“Having an injury like that puts a perspective on everything,” Strickland said. “You can’t take it for granted. You have to play every game like it’s your last; you have to practice like it’s your last practice. That’s what I keep telling the guys.
“Nothing is guaranteed.”
Mongero said that perspective has paid off in a big way for Strickland as well as the team.
“He’s really evolved as a leader,” he said. “He’s really kept the team focused, this year especially. He’s just a guy we can count on to get out there and work hard every day and lead by example.”
Strickland still wears a brace on his left knee. Mongero said he wasn’t sure if he needed it physically, but it helps get over the mental hurdle the injury presents.
And the shortstop will go out each game for the rest of the season doing all he can to help his team win. Either way, though, he’s just happy for the chance to be out there.
“He’s going to give you everything he’s got on the field and off,” Mongero said. “He’s got a new perspective. A lot of young kids don’t realize how long they’ll play, and it’s given him a healthy perspective on what it’s like to be without the game he loves.”