Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Tampa's Schrader carries spirit to D-II baseball series

Nine innings separated the University of Tampa from the NCAA Championships, the de facto Division II baseball world series. Senior Jake Schrader, who had spent a lifetime pursuing this precipice, suddenly couldn't decide if he wanted to stand at it.

His heart told him to back away, to go see Mama Gene one last time. Surely the rest of the Spartans, hitting .323 as a team and unbeaten in the South Region tournament, could manage one win in two tries at home against West Florida without their brawny third baseman.

"Oh yeah, he offered," said Schrader's mom, Laura, the youngest of Mama Gene's five kids. "He said, 'Mom, I'll go with you.' I said, 'No. She'd want you to be here.' "

Jake knew that. Before the foot and back problems, before the diabetes became overwhelming, Imogene North "Mama Gene" Jones loved watching him play in person. If she couldn't be there, she'd call him, finishing with her well-worn exhortation: Hit one for me.

"Nothing was good enough but the home run," Laura said with a chuckle.

So in the end, Jake Schrader acquiesced. As the rest of his family prepared to go see Mama Gene in nearby Zephyrhills, Schrader emerged from a recent slump with a second-inning homer to right center off an 0-and-1 fastball. It wasn't enough; West Florida won the first game 7-2.

A winner-take-all final in the double-elimination tournament immediately followed. As relatives and friends shoehorned into Whitfield Funeral Home for the viewing, Schrader paid his respects the best way he knew how.

With another bomb, this one a three-run shot to left in the sixth inning.

"I'm not a big, showy person, I don't like to do the heart tap and all that," said Schrader, a former Pasco High shortstop twice named the Tampa Bay Times North Suncoast Player of the Year. "But I knew she was watching over me, so that was enough."

An hour or so later, he caught a popup to third for the final out, capping a 20-7 win that clinched the Spartans' fifth NCAA Championships berth in eight seasons. The celebratory pile was as suffocating as it was surreal.

"He got squashed in there," senior teammate Adam Pendleton said.

The next morning, Schrader, youngest of 80-year-old Mama Gene's 11 grandkids, attended her funeral in her native Dade City.

"He played this tournament with a heavy heart," Spartans coach Joe Urso said. "And to hit two home runs and catch the last out … I know he was proud about that."

Life can be fickle that way. You enjoy the most gratifying season of your life, embark on the final ascent to its summit, hear from a few big-league scouts along the way, then watch fate's curve try to buckle your knees.

Fortunately for the Spartans, Schrader always has managed to bash the curve.

Reared in the San Antonio Dixie Youth leagues, he hit .554 with 13 home runs his senior year at Pasco High. As a freshman at St. Johns River State College in 2010, he set the program's single-season record for homers (20).

In two seasons at UT, Schrader has 16 homers while gravitating from first base to third. Entering the NCAA Championships in Cary, N.C., he leads the team (43-11) in homers (eight) and ranks second in slugging percentage (.525) and RBIs (44).

"Sometimes these kids come in as junior college transfers and it takes them a little bit to settle in because the expectations are so high here," said Urso, who slid Schrader from first base this season to maximize his offense's potency.

"But Jake, this second year, came into the first weightlifting session of the fall and took over the team. His leadership abilities are through the roof, and he's been outstanding."

Schrader was helping rake the pitcher's mound after a team picnic put on by some parents two Mondays ago when his dad, Terry, called him over to the fence and broke the news about Mama Gene.

"It was just like a ton of bricks fell on me," he said.

The first three South Region games, all Spartans wins, he went 0-for-9. Laura texted him a bible verse, about remaining thankful to God through both fortune and adversity.

Older sister Katelan gave him an orange-and-blue bracelet she had made in memory of Mama Gene, a passionate Gators fan. Teammates showered him with support.

"Coach said, 'Get Schrader through it, pick this man up through the tournament,' and that's what we did," Pendleton said. "We just played hard and tried to back him up as much as we could, on and off the field."

Yet the most powerful four words of encouragement came from the octogenarian voice in his mind, the one with the rich Southern twang. The voice he couldn't shake, wouldn't shake.

Hit one for me.

"She would've hollered loud," Laura Schrader said. "She was so proud."

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