Class 3A baseball state championship game
Who: North Hall vs. Pierce County
When: 11 a.m. Thursday
Where: Grayson Stadium in Savannah
Tickets are $12, per GHSA rules.
When Taber Mongero was about 7 or 8 years old, his father Trent allowed him to hang around the baseball field where he coached at Richmond County High in North Carolina.
Taber would sometimes stand in the outfield with the varsity players as they shagged fly balls, only to, as he put it, “chicken out and move” if one ever came near. But Taber didn’t have time to do so when power-hitter and eventual MLB draft pick Kyle Roller crushed a sinking line drive right at him one day during batting practice.
“The players would normally protect Taber, but the ball got there so quickly,” Trent recalled. “Kyle was the last person I ever wanted to rip a line drive at my son. It was a barrelled-up missile, and there was a little boy out there. I feared for his life. Everybody was holding their breath.”
They exhaled as Taber simply raised his glove and caught the ball.
“I held my own breath when it happened, too,” Taber said with a chuckle. “That was the very first time I caught one. Ever since then, I had the confidence to stand in there and catch a baseball.”
That occurrence simultaneously hinted at the caliber of player Taber would become and convinced Trent it was safe for his son to be around live baseball. They’ve been together on the field ever since, sharing a journey that has included 11 years at North Hall and tested their relationship as Taber grew from a batboy to a four-year starter for the Trojans.
The final chapter will unfold in the Class 3A best-of-three state championship series this week, starting with a doubleheader at 11 a.m. Thursday at historic Grayson Stadium in Savannah.
Should North Hall and Pierce County require a deciding Game 3, it will also be there at a time to be determined Saturday.
“It’s always been special to be around my dad on the baseball field,” said Taber, now a senior shortstop. “I’ve been around his teams since I could walk or even say the word, ‘baseball.’ On top of that, it’s just so special to have a chance to make a run like this with him.
“It’ll be the memory of a lifetime if we pull this off.”
Taber has been at the forefront of North Hall’s surge to its second state championship appearance, both of which have come during Trent’s tenure. He leads the Trojans in hitting, holds a .500 on-base percentage and is the team’s rock at shortstop.
The senior even served as the winning pitcher in what was arguably North Hall’s most important playoff contest, giving up three earned runs with eight strikeouts over six innings as the squad claimed the decisive Game 3 of its first-round series at Pace Academy. That was the second of eight straight victories for the Trojans en route to their first state title appearance since 2013.
Yet Trent spent the vast majority of the past four years keeping his son out of the limelight.
For starters, wife Sonya said Trent has always preached a team-first approach during his 25-year coaching career. But he was especially deliberate in that aspect once Taber made the varsity squad, carefully walking the delicate line between being a father and a coach.
“It’s a real complement to Trent that he often puts Taber’s success behind the team’s,” Trojans pitching coach Trevor flow said. “And it’s not like Taber wasn’t having success. Every season here, his stats have been just incredible.”
Though those close to the Mongeros said Trent has expertly navigated the tricky situation, he wrestled with the very thought of it years before Taber was even eligible for varsity.
“Coaching my own son is something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do as he was growing up,” the 11th-year North Hall coach said. “I started passing Taber off to other coaches. I intentionally had him play for one of the toughest coaches around here when he was about 12.
“I knew if he was ever going to play for his dad, he would endure a lot of unfair criticism or judgement. He had to be thick-skinned and know he was going to win or lose a job based on ability.”
As Taber moved away from his role as batboy — a duty he performed from his father’s first season with the team in 2007 until his eighth-grade year — and toward travel ball, Trent sought advice from others in the profession who had coached their sons.
They told him not to pass on the opportunity to coach his son and cautioned him to never bring home any criticisms from games or practices, which is a policy Trent has strictly adhered to unless Taber wants to discuss baseball.
He also picked up the tactic of allowing assistant coaches to give any in-game guidance to Taber, knowing it might be better received from someone who isn’t his father.
The matriarch of the family presented perhaps the most convincing argument.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You poured your heart soul into coaching other people’s children for 20 years, and you can’t miss doing that for Taber,” Sonya said. “It would be a decision that you’ll regret. He deserves that from you.”
Trent was swayed, but he almost immediately experienced the quandary he had long dreaded.
Taber as a freshman was pushing an upperclassman for the starting job at second base, a scenario Trent feared some could construe as favoritism toward his son. When he, Flow and assistant coach Gerry Pope convened to compare their desired lineups before the 2014 season, Taber appeared on every one.
“Unequivocally, we all agreed he should be starting,” Pope said. “But I think Trent still questioned it in his own mind.”
His doubts were dispelled when Andrew Smith, a four-year starter who Flow called the best player he has ever had, assembled the rest of that team’s senior class and approached the coaches about their intentions to start Taber.
When Trent told them his staff hadn’t yet reached a decision, Smith voiced his teammates’ opinion on the matter.
“He told us, ‘If you don’t start Taber, you’re hurting the team,’” Trent said.
The seniors’ endorsement of their coach’s son proved accurate — Taber started all 31 games at second base, where he committed just three errors while hitting .337 at the end of the order.
He slid over to shortstop and leadoff hitter after Smith’s departure and appeared there in every game over the last three seasons. Since then, Taber has let little by him in the field and finished among North Hall’s top hitters in terms of batting average and on-base percentage every season.
“Taber has earned everything,” Flow said. “He has never just been given anything. … The hardest person on Taber is Trent, but he has to be. His son has been a superstar for four years.”
Despite all Taber’s success, Trojans coaches and players said Trent has never been partial toward his son. Trent said he has strived for his on-field relationship with Taber to be strictly one between a coach and his player.
“Half the time, I forget they’re even father and son,” senior first baseman Jackson Latty said. “We as the players know Taber is out there because he deserves to be out there.”
For as much as Trent agonized over the balancing act of coaching his son, he said he aspires to serve in a fatherly capacity for all his players.
“Every player feels like they’re his son,” senior center fielder Dylan Lavender said. “Coach is straight-up with us about everything, and there is no favoritism. He always does his best to show respect and be fair to every player.”
But Trent’s approach to coaching doesn’t change the fact that he’s Taber’s father. While they successfully separate their relationships at home and on the diamond, Trent still tries to provide guidance for his son.
Sonya said that often comes in the form of books, usually biographies of baseball stars like Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia or Lou Gehrig. When Jeter’s first book came out, Sonya said her husband read through it first and left notes in it for Taber.
“Trent comes home and puts the ‘dad hat’ on,” said Sonya, a teacher at North Hall Middle.
Trent confessed he’s eager to play that role around the clock again, especially as Taber heads to Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina to continue his baseball career.
“I’m looking forward to becoming his dad full-time and being somebody he can lean on not as a coach, but as his friend,” the elder Mongero said. “He’s an adult now. I’ll still always be his dad, but he’s going to need the support system sometimes. I played in college and know how it goes.”
That doesn’t mean Trent won’t miss the time he and Taber have spent on the field together.
Before North Hall hosted its semifinal series against Calhoun last Wednesday, the coach was tending to Jody Davis Field at about 8 a.m. Taber offered to help, but Trent sent him to the dugout to stay out of the May heat.
As Trent gazed over to see his son sitting alone, he truly grasped the finality of their journey in the Trojans program.
“When he was a little boy, if someone would have told me he’s going to be good baseball player and love the game, and that I’d get to coach him in a state championship, I would have said that’s a fairy tale,” Trent said. “But here we are, living it.”
The fairy tale, however, will soon come to an abrupt end. Within the next week, Taber will play for a state title, graduate from high school and move to North Carolina to begin participating in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League.
But first the father and son will take the field as coach and player one last time, seeking to win North Hall’s first baseball championship in the school’s 60-year history.
It would be a fitting end for Trent and Taber, whose countless hours together on the baseball field have only strengthened the family ties they share.
“I’ve spent the last four years on the road with them in the summer and seen their relationship in things other than baseball. They do talk about other things,” Flow said. “But they’ve built such a strong bond through baseball. It’s part of their relationship and who they are.”
Added Sonya: “As long as Trent and Taber are physically able to go out and throw and catch and hit, they’ll do it forever. There will always be a bond between them, and baseball will be something that they share even as this season concludes.
“It will never end between those two. They will always have that.”