By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Greg Van Sickler remembers the first time he played baseball against Jesse Henry.
That was four years ago, when the two played for opposing Northwestern District teams, not the Shenandoah Hornets.
Likewise, Henry, then a lights-out slugger for Warren County, remembers hitting against Van Sickler, then an ace pitcher for James Wood.
"I remember playing against him," Henry smirked. "I think he only pitched against us once though."
And the result of the duo's one-time meeting?
"He walked me," Henry said. "I don't know if it was intentional or not."
But Van Sickler admits -- he wasn't yet tossing the blistering stuff he hurled in 2007, when he struck out 68 batters and had a 0.79 ERA -- Henry was the last batter he ever wanted to pitch to.
"I had no idea what he was like until I actually met him," Van Sickler said. "I always thought he was like this hard, uptight guy, just in your face and what not."
Not to mention that, in 2006, Henry led the area with a .520 batting average, smashed seven doubles, seven homers, 29 RBIs and stole 12 bases.
He was a pitcher's nightmare and a coach's dream.
But the two, Henry and Van Sickler, were eventually reunited at Shenandoah in 2008, Van Sickler's freshman season, and the season Henry transferred to SU from Delaware Tech to be closer to his family.
Henry, that season, was also reunited with Shenandoah baseball coach Kevin Anderson, who coached at Warren County during Henry's freshman year. And while Henry's talent had surely boomed since his freshman year at Warren County, his work habits, his competitiveness, had been consistent for generations.
Henry comes from a long line of baseball players: His grandfather played in high school, as did his father, who, oddly enough, once played baseball with Anderson.
"His dad was one of the toughest competitors that I've ever played with," Anderson said. "I loved being a teammate of his, and Jesse has definitely inherited those character traits.
"I think, to the man, that every guy out there would say they just love playing on the same team with Jesse Henry."
Because Henry is the kind of player who won't stop churning, won't stop working to get better. This year, his senior season, Henry trails only Van Sickler and Kevin Brashears in batting average (.399). Only once this season has Henry hit worse than .300 in a single game, and he smoked the Fayetteville Regional tournament last week with an .395 average, earning him the tournament's Most Outstanding Player honor, and more importantly, guiding Shenandoah to its second consecutive South Regional tournament title.
Shenandoah will travel to Appleton, Wis., for the Division III World Series, beginning Friday, for the second time in two seasons.
Which comes as a relief to many of the Hornets, since Shenandoah was dubbed by D3baseball.com as the preseason favorite to win the South Regional.
"I was just nervous the whole time, because any athlete, all you want to do is just live up to expectations and surpass them," Van Sickler said. "And I'm just glad we finally lived up to our expectations to make it to the World Series.
"Now we have to surpass them a little bit."
But for Henry, the dawn of his senior season brought more than just expectations of a national tournament berth.
Anderson has built a system at Shenandoah based on the leadership of its seniors, and last year's seniors built the foundations of a competitive baseball program.
With the graduation of those seniors, Henry was unsure that he could carry the weight of the program as well as his predecessors had.
"That was probably the biggest pressure, personally for me, was having to fill the shoes of the seniors that left with what they did last year," said Henry, who had an unblemished 1.000 fielding percentage at shortstop in the USA South Tournament. "All 10 of us [seniors], I think, have done a really good job filling those shoes."
Henry was also named third team All-Region by the American Baseball Coaches Association, and made the USA South's All-Tournament team and All-Sportsmanship team.
Van Sickler and Brashears were both named first team All-America by D3baseball.com. Van Sickler was also named All-Region Player of the Year while Anderson was named All-Region Coach of the Year.
And while Henry may have had some reservations about how he'd handle the weight of the Shenandoah Hornets baseball program this season, there were few in the program who didn't believe, every step of the way, that Henry was the perfect fit in the perfect situation.
"Jesse is the epitome of a team player," Anderson said. "He puts other people's goals in front of his own, he goes about his business the same every day, whether you're playing a junior college game or you're playing in the South Region tournament.
"... He is a coach's dream."