Memory of Teammate Spurs Stillman to Another Title
Special to Stillman
By Alex Scarborough Sports Writer
TUSCALOOSA | For the final time today, Josh Cagle will wear his uniform with his former teammate and best friend, William Stevens.
While others will put on a suit and tie to attend the funeral of Stevens, Cagle and the rest of his Stillman teammates will button up their uniforms and remember the life of their fallen friend.
Stevens, a Somerville native who died during the tornado that swept through Tuscaloosa last week, played three years on the Stillman baseball team before opting to focus on his schooling this season, taking upwards of 20 credit hours to reach graduation. He would have received his degree in social science Saturday.
Still, Stevens was a part of the team as the Tigers won the conference championship over the weekend in Albany, Ga.
Under the bright southern sky of west Georgia, Stevens' former teammates played the game they loved, recalling with each passing inning the life of a pitcher who many described as a constant team player, always there to encourage and lend a hand.
For the Tigers, the devastation in West Alabama that nearly leveled a city and overturned the lives of hundreds, managed to touch the soul of a team playing in its most crucial time.
When the tornado hit Wednesday afternoon, the team was en route to Albany, Ga., for its conference tournament. The No. 2 seed in the tournament, the Tigers were powerless as they watched the storm on television from the bus, seeing the tornado pass by the mall and rip through Alberta City.
It wasn't until the next morning that Cagle and the rest of his teammates heard the news of Stevens' death. Waking to what he called a “very, very blunt” text message, Cagle learned he lost his best friend a day earlier.
Stevens died when the home of two of his friends collapsed in on them. He was found on top of his friends, sheltering them from the debris.
For Cagle, pitching was the last thing on his mind. Stevens, a year younger than Cagle, was also a left-handed pitcher and helped show him the ropes his first few years at Stillman.
Cagle, a former standout at Tuscaloosa Academy, almost immediately became close friends with Stevens, hanging out and playing cards when they weren't on the field together. When Stevens decided to forgo his final season of eligibility, Cagle said he was disappointed, not knowing how much time they'd be able to spend together with baseball out of the equation.
After years of life together in the bullpen, sharing jokes and talking shop, Cagle and Stevens were at a crossroads. While Cagle had become a front-line starter for the Tigers, earning all-conference honors, Stevens was seldom used in relief and knew his career was coming to a close. Aware of the situation, Stevens turned his attention to graduation.
Despite Cagle and Stevens no longer sharing a baseball diamond, the two remained close friends, spending weekends together and catching up on life.
When Cagle received the text from teammate Lamont Ruttlen saying Stevens had died, he was at a loss, unsure of how he'd take the mound the following day for a team fighting to stay alive in the playoffs.
With Stevens' name written into his baseball cap, Cagle was certain what his best friend would have wanted him to do next.
“There's no doubt. I could just about hear him already in the dugout cheering us on,” Cagle said. “He was one of those guys that was always behind us.”
When Cagle took the mound Friday, he pitched like a man possessed, throwing a complete game and striking out 12 batters for the win. Stillman won the next game, and in the championship Cagle went to the hill once more, pitching the Tigers to a conference crown.
In the final game, Cagle threw all nine innings, striking out nine batters and retiring the final 10 hitters in a row.
Stillman head coach Donny Crawford called Cagle's performance nothing short of spectacular, lifting the Tigers to their fifth Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship.
“He pitched two outstanding games. One on Friday and one on Sunday,” Crawford said. “He had some guidance from above, there's no doubt. Cagle's a good young man, a good Christian man. He wasn't doing it by himself.”
After firing in the final pitch to catcher Patrick Chamberlin, Cagle finally broke down, letting the enormity of the moment soak in.
Chamberlin, who played with Stevens and called him a friend ever since his freshman year when Stevens would pick him up at the dorm to hang out at his pool, embraced Cagle on the mound in Albany, Ga., letting him know that Stevens was looking down on what they had just accomplished.
“After the game, me and Cagle looked up in the sky and said that was for him,” Chamberlin said. “That was amazing. No words could describe the feeling. We pushed through it. Me and Cagle really stuck together.”
Chamberlin and Cagle both agreed that whatever it was that led them to a championship, Stevens' hand was the guiding light. Remembering Stevens' No. 7 jersey throughout, Chamberlin drove in the winning run on an RBI single in the eighth inning Sunday, as Cagle earned the tournament's Most Valuable Player award.
“It was surreal. Going into the conference championship, I wasn't supposed to throw so much because I'd thrown so many pitches a couple of days before,” Cagle said. “At the end, everything kind of overtook me — thinking about him and what we just did. Right after the game (Chamberlin) came up to me and hugged me, saying, ‘That was for him.' I won't ever forget that.”
For two former teammates who went in opposite directions, Cagle becoming an outstanding starting pitcher and Stevens leaving the game he loved to pursue a degree, their bond was never broken.
When Cagle puts on his uniform for his best friend's funeral today, he will do it with a heavy heart.
“That means a lot to me. Some of the other guys didn't play with him, but for me, from my standpoint, that was all for him,” Cagle said. “To be able to wear my uniform one more time with him, that means a lot.”
Reach Alex Scarborough at email@example.com or 205-722-0193.
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