OAKWOOD — Jake Shirley was trying to focus on baseball before Thursday’s game at West Hall, but it was clear by the tears in his eyes that there were more pressing concerns weighing on his heart.
“I feel if we could win, it would mean a lot to Brian,” said Shirley, a sophomore pitcher for the Spartans.
Every player for West Hall was playing with a heavy heart since the death of their friend and former West Hall player Brian Ernst, who died Tuesday following a lengthy battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma — a form of cancer.
To remember Ernst, West Hall and visiting Chestatee came together for a brief, but touching tribute before the game at Spartans Field. Both teams circled the pitcher’s mound — the position Ernst played — and paused for silence while a prepared statement was read aloud to remember Ernst.
During the game, Zack Sisk led Chestatee (6-0, 1-0 Region 7-AAA) with three hits and a pair of RBIs en route to a 12-6 victory. His second-inning double that scored a pair of runs for the War Eagles gave them a 3-2 lead.
However, what really counted was the story away from baseball.
West Hall’s (1-6, 0-1) players were wearing jerseys worn by Brian and his older brother, Brett, from the year they played together. Each jersey also had Brian’s No. 5 pressed on the arm.
Spartans coach Pete Allen says that a ceremony for the family is planned for later in the season.
West Hall’s coach and players are now most concerned with giving proper respect on and off the field to Ernst, who meant so much to the program when he wore the Spartans’ jersey.
“Brian inspired us all through his battles and showed us that there is so much more to life than just baseball,” Allen said. “Baseball is a great game, but what really matters is the relationships you make with the people on the field.”
The memory of Ernst as a baseball player and person extended to both dugouts. Chestatee coach Wes Gentry was Ernst’s junior varsity coach for two seasons at West Hall. He speaks glowingly of Ernst.
“I’ve coached in a few different states, and Brian is one of the best players I’ve ever coached,” Gentry said. “The sky was really the limit for him as a player.
“But he was really a better person than a baseball player … He was always smiling.”
Back on the field, the War Eagles jumped to a 6-2 lead with a two-run single to short right field from Ethan Stinchcomb in the third inning.
The War Eagles added three unearned runs in fourth inning.
The Spartans took an early 2-1 lead in the first inning with a two-run single from Aaron Lechelt, followed by a two-run single by Brandon Grindle in the second inning.
Grindle finished with four hits, including a triple in the seventh.
Chestatee visits Pickens at 6:30 tonight in Jasper. West Hall visits Johnson at 11 a.m. Saturday.