Seven Mesquite baseball players kicked around a hacky sack before practice on Wednesday, laughing, bantering and generally acting as carefree as high schoolers should.
When coach Jeff Holland walked up, the teasing didn’t stop, it just switched targets. Senior Zach Davies, the team’s best pitcher and leadoff hitter, started giving Holland grief about an upcoming radio interview, asking him if he was going to trip up on his words and telling Holland it would be wise to give a shout out to his wife on the air.
The family-like atmosphere — down to the playful ribbing — is a hallmark of a Holland-coached team.
“He makes it seem like he’s a player with us,” center fielder Lane Doty said.
But a little more than one year ago, Holland wasn’t sure if he would even be here in 2011.
While last year’s team enjoyed a final record of 28-7 and a trip to the state semifinals, Holland went through much of it with his teaching position up in the air. The Gilbert school district was having financial troubles, and dozens of teachers were in jeopardy of losing their jobs, including Holland.
“It started in November or December, and we were supposed to hear by January 30,” Holland said. “And then January 30 turned into April. It was scary. It really was.”
Never one to mince words, Holland told the Wildcats about his situation, and how this might be the last year for them to be together.
“We’ve grown up under him,” Davies said. “Every year he tells us, ‘The one thing I can promise you is honesty.’ He’s going to tell it like it is. And he mentioned it to us last year. He said, ‘Let’s try to go out with a bang and win it this year.’ He wanted a state title for all of us because he didn’t know if he would be back.”
During the waiting period, Holland said he found solace on the baseball field.
“This was a coping skill out here,” he said. “It took my mind off everything. Being on a baseball field is the most relaxing thing in the world.”
Good news finally came in mid-April, as Holland learned his job and coaching positions were safe.
Gilbert coach Matt Gutierrez has been playing or coaching against Holland since they were 10, and he was happy to hear his friend kept his job.
“He built that program,” Gutierrez said. “Everything they’ve accomplished is because of what he’s done.”
Although Mesquite fell short of a title last season, the talent coming back promised to keep the team in the mix again this year.
Davies, Doty, Garrett Jeffries and Nick Rosales lead a core of players that have been together for a long time and have high goals.
How high? The team set out to go undefeated this year.
“When we lost that first one, we were (upset),” Davies said.
Mesquite has only lost three games out of 25 this season, and has been the top-ranked team in the state for the majority of the year.
With an eye on a state title, the players said adjusting to a new coach could have been troublesome.
“Without coach Holland it would have been a different atmosphere,” Rosales said.
Said Davies: “If we had a new coach, we wouldn’t have known what he was like. We would have been more reserved. We might have stressed a little to try and do as much as we can, instead of just being the team we are.”
With Holland still in charge, there aren’t any worries about that.
“This is my extended family,” Holland said. “I may yell and scream, and 10 seconds later we’re cracking a joke together.”
The Wildcats may be loose at practice, but when a game begins, they are ready.
The senior core is intent on making a run at a championship after falling two games short last year.
“I think about it a lot,” Rosales said. “If we would have won that game, we would have gone to (the finals), and I’m pretty sure we would have won the championship. It’s a big motivation for me, and pretty much everyone on this whole team.”
Holland led Mesquite to a runner-up finish in 2008 and a trip to the semifinals in 2006, in addition to last year’s semifinal berth.
He said this team’s chemistry reminds him of successful teams from the past.
“All 20 guys, they’re all in,” Holland said. “On paper, if you look at us from a physical standpoint, we’re not going to intimidate anyone, but we’re going to go out and compete.”
Doty said it comes from the top.
“There couldn’t be a better coach you’d want to win for,” he said.
For the foreseeable future, Holland is going to be that guy at Mesquite.