By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER - Kevin Anderson sits behind home plate, staring out across Bridgeforth Field.
Players are stretching near the warning track, getting ready for another day's practice. The sun is shining, the wind blowing just enough to require a light jacket. Final exams are over and the Southern Regional tournament is about to begin for Shenandoah University's baseball team.
But amid the sunny skies and plans of baseball ahead, Anderson and his team have a dark cloud hanging above them. Their minds wander and their hearts are heavy, not because of final exams or the upcoming tournament, though.
The Hornets are still mourning the loss of one of their own. Nearly three weeks ago, former Shenandoah player Preston Tarleton was killed in a car accident. Now, his family is left to grieve, along with the coaches and players who stood beside him on the field just two years ago.
"He was a great teammate," Scott Van Dusseldorp said. "He was soft-spoken, would do anything for the team and he was always there for you if you needed anything. I've got a lot of memories with him and I'm glad I had the chance to know him."
Tarleton was a part of Shenandoah's baseball program for four years, playing 78 games in left field for the Hornets. His former teammates described Tarleton as a quiet and well-mannered, someone who went about his business and always kept to himself. He had dreams of playing baseball and hopes of graduating with a degree in business administration, both of which came to fruition in 2008. But his passion for the game began long before that.
Growing up, Tarleton had two loves, baseball and fishing. The former took up most of his time, beginning when Tarleton was just 5 years old playing in the Brunswick Little League. When he was 12, Tarleton helped his team capture a regular-season championship, along the way tying Willie Sowers' single-season league record for home runs with 16. In the postseason, Tarleton hit seven more to cap an amazing season.
At 13, Tarleton joined the Brunswick Eagles and led his team to district and state titles in the Babe Ruth League. In his team's lone appearance in the regional tournament, Tarleton pitched a three-hit shutout against Western, N.Y., leading his team to a 3-0 victory.
By that time, college scouts had noticed Tarleton's talent on the baseball diamond, and several schools wanted to make him a part of their team.
"He ended up looking at five other schools," his father, Mark Tarleton said, "but at one game coach Anderson came up to talk to him and I could just tell that this was where he was going to play ball."
Sure enough, Preston Tarleton chose Shenandoah, and joined one of the top Division III programs in the country. As for his parents, Mark and Hypatia, the thought of sending their child off on his own for the first time certainly raised cause for concern. But watching their son head off to Shenandoah, they knew he was in good hands.
"When you let a kid go away for the first time, it's one of the hardest things," Mark Tarleton said. "But we were able to sleep well at night knowing he was in a good place with good people."
While on the Hornets, Tarleton became one of the team's most-respected players, being elected class representative each year. He didn't speak much, but when he did, his teammates listened. When prospective families and players would visit Shenandoah, Tarleton welcomed them, making them feel just as comfortable on the campus as he did.
"When parents met Preston Tarleton, they said, ÔI want my son to go to Shenandoah University,'" Anderson said. "When players met Preston it was like, ÔMan, this is a good group of guys.' He was a good, young family man. When he'd get a day off, he'd want to go home and go fishing with his grandparents or dad, where maybe some other guys on a day off you might be concerned about. Not Preston, though."
While baseball was his passion, fishing was Tarleton's escape. His father said he was never happier than when he was on a boat or on the side of a lake, "just himself, a fishing pole and a little country music in the background."
When Preston Tarleton graduated in the spring of 2008, the job opportunities were scarce, so he moved back home and went to work at his uncle's business. He had higher ambitions, of course, but for the time being the job was a paycheck and left him time to fish and spend time with his friends.
Then, on the night of April 25, Tarleton was hanging out with some friends who decided they wanted to go bowling. Tarleton wasn't feeling great - a noisy bowling alley didn't seem like the best place for a nagging headache - so he decided to skip the adventure and stay behind and catch a ballgame on TV.
When the game was over just after midnight, Tarleton got into his truck and headed home. He was less than a mile away when the truck skidded off the road and continued to move through a field and into some nearby woods before smashing into a tree.
The Tarleton's next-door neighbor spotted the truck and went to look. When she saw what had happened, she called for help. She couldn't tell it was Preston inside. But when Mark Tarleton got to the scene, police broke the news to him.
"They rushed him to the hospital and he was there for four days," his dad said. "I just can't figure out why. Why didn't he hit the brakes? It was only a slight dropoff from the road ... maybe he fell asleep or the air bags deployed and knocked him unconscious. I just don't understand why."
At the hospital, Preston Tarleton slipped into a coma, increasing the chances that these would be the final days of his life.
"His dad called me Monday morning and we had had our baseball banquet Sunday night," Anderson said. "His dad called me Monday morning and told me of the accident and that it did not look good. I stayed in contact with his parents and some of the former players through the surgery and when he went into the coma. I think the deciding factor was really Friday when they found out Preston was an organ donor and that's just the type of person he was. Even when he wasn't around, he was still affecting other people."
After four days at the hospital, the situation didn't improve. Then, at 11:48 a.m. on April 30, 23-year-old Preston Tarleton died.
For someone who touched so many lives throughout his years, news of his death hit close to home. From the family members suddenly left without a familiar face, to the former teammates who had the privilege of playing with him and the coaches who helped groom him into a young man, Preston Tarleton's death left everyone who knew him shocked and saddened.
"There was always something nice you'd hear about Preston," Hornets sophomore Mike Minch, who grew up in the same town as Tarleton, said. "He was just a great kid, great to hang out with and had a great family. It's just a tragic accident."
It's been nearly three weeks since Tarleton's death. But as Anderson sits at Bridgeforth Field, watching his team prepare for practice, the Hornets' skipper can still feel him there.
"I can vividly remember," Anderson said, gazing out to left field. "I can see right now. He was one of the most well-prepared, hardest workers. He'd know today he needs to wear his sunglasses, he'd know which way the wind is blowing. He was a great mentor. It just really doesn't make sense."