Verrado High School of Verrado, Arizona, defeated Notre Dame Prep 13-3 in the semifinals of the Arizona state high school baseball tournament Thursday.
It was supposed to be a joyous occasion — a chance to get pumped up and keep the school’s championship dreams alive.
And while celebrating the victory and looking forward to Tuesday’s state championship against Peoria Liberty is still in the cards, a heavy heart hangs over the locker room.
That’s because star pitcher Bryan McKinsey, the team’s closer, passed away the day before the game.
No word has come from the Maricopa County medical examiner as to the cause of death, but foul play is not believed to have been involved.
The tragic story made the local news in the Phoenix area, where reporters were at the game to capture the moment and tell the world about a team coming together for a fallen comrade.
Rocky King, the junior southpaw who started the game, threw his first pitch sidearm style, mimicking McKinsey’s signature delivery, according to The Arizona Republic.
The pitch was a strike, and the rout was on. Verrado scored seven runs in the first inning, King pitched four strong innings and the team got a memorable victory.
“First pitch, I wanted to drop down and throw side-arm just to honor him,” King said of his unorthodox opening delivery. “I wanted to do that for him.”
“Once I first stepped on the field, I was so emotional,” he added.
McKinsey had been excellent in his final game. On May 3, he came into the seventh inning of a 5-4 ballgame against the same Notre Dame squad Verrado beat Thursday, and despite giving up a baserunner, he otherwise struck out the side for the save.
“It’s the biggest game in school history, it wasn’t the biggest game in his life,” Bryan’s father, Daryl McKinsey, said of that last outing. “It wasn’t the biggest game of his life. It was a game. It was a game.”
Before Thursday’s contest, the grieving father said his son would have wanted him to watch to Verrado play in the semi-finals.
“This is where he’d want me to be,” Daryl McKinsey said. “I mean, after all, baseball is a big part of my life. It wasn’t my life. It wasn’t his life. He knew how to differentiate between game and life. He was pretty good at it. But at the same time, it was just a game.”
Bryan Fischer, the head coach for Notre Dame Prep, reached out to Verrado coach Mike Ward after his players decided they wanted to huddle with their opponents in a show of support before the game. Fischer sought Ward’s blessing for the gesture.
“I never batted an eye,” Ward said. “It’s an amazing group of young men and coaches over there.”
“Bryan McKinsey meant a lot to every one of us — every coach, every player, every person that is sitting in the stands that is from Verrado, this whole community,” he added. “That’s hats off to those boys. They’ve worked hard to get to this point. This sucks. It’s been a lot for them. But them battling through this, they amaze me. They amaze me daily.”
After King pitched the first four innings on Thursday, sophomore Colten Keith entered the game in the fifth and pitched the final three innings, holding Notre Dame scoreless and sealing the victory.
King summed up the team’s attitude heading into Tuesday as they try to get the school its first ever state title in baseball.
“The mindset is just to get a ring for him,” King said.
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