Standing in the darkness, Taylor Keeney raked the infield as he had done so many times before.
This time was different for the East Central High School senior.
The fans had filed out of the ballpark after watching Preston rally to beat Keeney and his teammates 5-4 on Thursday night. The coaches and players had gone and the lights had been shut off. After raking the diamond, Keeney shared a tearful hug with teammate Jared Henfrey, then went to put away the rake in the storage shed below the press box, close the gate at the field entrance and head home.
But he wasn’t just closing the gate for the night or on the season — which ended with the loss in the district semifinal — or on his high school career. The gate was closing on East Central baseball, East Central sports, in general, and East Central High School.
Before the gate clanged shut, the gates holding back his emotions swung wide open.
“When you’ve started varsity here for five years — I’ve put in at least three or four hours on the field making it look the best in eastern Iowa every single day — it’s just hard to let go,” Keeney said as tears streamed from his eyes and choked his voice.
It wasn’t just about having played one final time with senior teammates Cody Johnson, Kyle Johnson and Josh Rathje. Or for that matter with the rest of his teammates: juniors Austin Daniels and Andrew Snodgrass; sophomores Henfrey, Ben Hildebrandt and Joe Kilberg; freshmen Vaughn Behn and Tyler Taplin; and eighth-graders Mason Christoff and Nick Wall.
The end of his high school career and the end of his high school and its baseball program are leaving voids that never can be filled.
“I think I’ll try college ball, but nothing will be the same as this,” said Keeney, who plans to attend Loras College in Dubuque in the fall. “It just won’t be.
“My brother played here; my dad played here,” Keeney said. “I can remember watching games growing up.”
The reminiscing wasn’t left alone to Keeney.
Junior Miller, who spent many years as East Central’s baseball coach and was in the third-base coach’s box for the final time Thursday, felt the emotions, too.
“I’m not going to kid you, this was an emotional day for our kids and for the old coach, as well,” Miller said. “We met here about 4:30 and we talked about that and said we’ve got one more to play. I told the kids, ‘Win, lose or tie, you were a great group to be associated with.’ And I wanted to get that out before the game even started.
“All day long — I’m kind of an old sap anyway — all day long it’s been emotional. All good things must end, as they say.”
For Miller, the good times go way back.
“My family moved to Miles in 1958, and this place has been a part of my growing up, a part of my adult life,” he said. “I guess I go back over 50 years on this field, from Little League on up. So of course it’s emotional. And it didn’t help that I had a nice bunch of men like this, too. You hate to say goodbye to these kids.”
They said goodbye to a season that almost wasn’t.
“They told us we couldn’t have the school, and we weren’t going to have enough for a team,” Keeney said.
Had that been the case, playing for Northeast or Preston — something many of the softball players, including Keeney’s sister Ryleigh, did this season — would have been an option. But not for Keeney. If he was going to play high school baseball it was going to be for East Central.
“I just wanted to play on this baseball field,” he said.
So he and his teammates recruited new teammates in the halls of the school, trying to build the numbers.
“We had about eight kids that were fulling committed, and we ended up with, I think, 13,” he said. “It took every day in school just begging kids to go out.”
Guided by Miller, the Raiders put together a solid season, going 9-9 in the Big East Conference and 11-12 overall in the regular season. For all the emotional pain brought by being part of East Central’s final team, it was a season worth the tears.
“We ended up about .500 in the conference and had a really respectable ballclub, which for a team with pretty much 10 kids that played all year, a respectable ballclub is saying something,” Keeney said. “We had a good year.”
Having it all end against Preston, the rival school from just down the road, didn’t make things easier.
“Those kids are my best friends,” Keeney said of the Preston players. “I hang out with them all the time. My sister plays for Preston; I’m going to go watch them at the state softball tournament. I’ll probably be at every one of their baseball games, rooting them on. That makes it tougher. It makes it much harder.”
For a while, it looked like the final season might last at least a few days longer. When Daniels hit a two-run home run in the top of the sixth inning it gave the Raiders a 4-3 lead with only six outs to go. The feeling only intensified when Daniels won a long duel with Craiton Andresen, striking him out on the 13th pitch of an at-bat that included eight consecutive foul balls, to start the bottom of the sixth. Then he struck out Alex Hinerichsen to end the inning with runners on the corners. They had a one-run lead with just three outs to go. They got only one of them.
“I was 100 percent sure we were going to win that game,” Keeney said. “It’s not the way it was meant to be, so I’m OK with that.”
Preston rallied with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, with five consecutive players reaching base, and suddenly it all was over.
The Trojans celebrated, the teams shook hands and the Raiders headed off to left field, sharing some final hugs before scattering.
But Keeney couldn’t leave. Not yet. There were too many memories.
“My favorite part is just working on the field,” he said, thinking back on all the memories of the field that’s barely more than an outfielder’s throw away from his home. “We play ball. That’s what we do in the summer. Miles is baseball. It’s not like any other big town where you go see a movie. We don’t even have a restaurant to go to. We just play ball.
“That’s my favorite memory of high school, just friends being up here playing ball.”
There may be more games on the field in Miles, but it won’t be the same.
“There was a little melancholy here tonight,” Miller said. “You can bet this is the last high school game we’re going to play on this field. This has always been a great place to play ball. We’ll miss that.”
Like Keeney, Miller leaves behind many memories on the field.
“I’ve always said that next to the birth of my kids and marrying my wife, I probably had the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life right here on this field, so of course it’s tough to say goodbye to it, but we’re hoping we’ll play some ball here next year,” he said. “I’ll probably be out here on my lawnmower next year doing the same thing. We’ll wait for a game. We’ll keep the grass cut and we’ll wait for a ballgame.”
Even if there never is another game on the field, Keeney couldn’t leave without showing it the proper respect, grabbing the trusty rake and making sure it would be playable when the sun came up Friday morning.
“I had to fill the holes,” he said.
And, though he was the last person out of the gate, he said he wasn’t alone.
“There’s so many greats that have gone through here,” he said. “It’s not just me leaving the field tonight. I know every player from East Central is right behind me.”