It has been more than six months since Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast and ravaged the city of New Orleans. More than 1,400 people from Florida's Panhandle to Louisiana died and damage was estimated in excess of $75 billion. Levees separating Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans were breached by the storm surge, flooding approximately 80 percent of the city, most of Saint Bernard Parish and portions of Saint Tammany Parish and Plaquemines Parish.
Cleanup and recovery from the storm will continue for years, and although the annual Mardi Gras revelry recently offered residents of New Orleans a reminder of how life once was in the Crescent City, most people who lived to tell their tale of Katrina say things will never be the same.
Despite the devastation, you don't have to look too far to find evidence that New Orleans is springing back to life. Signs reading "We will rebuild" can be found along the streets of some of New Orleans' most decimated neighborhoods, each week another of the city's signature restaurants reopens, and even the tattered roof of the Superdome is in the process of being repaired.
From the Superdome, travel less than three miles down Canal Street, near the intersection of Carrolton and Banks, and the haggard field near Jesuit High School's 80-year-old campus is rife with activity. It's the school's only available practice field, so space is at a premium, but on some days Jesuit's varsity baseball team carves out enough room to take infield and play catch. Other days, the team might have to travel more than a half-hour away to find a vacant diamond. All 23 players pile into their cars and caravan across town-the school's fleet of buses was totaled during the storm, and now, just like the practice field, one bus is shared by all of the school's organizations and athletic teams.
The Blue Jays, who were ranked No. 8 in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association poll, are preparing to defend last year's Class 5-A Louisiana title, which might seem overly ambitious under the circumstances. The fact they have enough healthy players to avoid using ghost runners during preseason scrimmages was an accomplishment in and of itself.
"We're constantly going to different fields for practice, and we're going to be playing at all kinds of places all season," senior shortstop Ryan Adams said. "Somehow, we think we can pull it out. But you know, the whole season is great--bonding together with my teammates. Just think of what everyone had to go through."
At 6:10 a.m., Monday, Aug. 29, Katrina made landfall near Buras, La., near the mouth of the Mississippi River about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans. By daybreak, the city was under the siege of the most destructive natural disaster in United States history.
A mandatory evacuation of New Orleans was issued, and Jesuit's 1,450 students were scattered across the country like debris on Bourbon Street. Many of them, including more than a dozen baseball players, sought temporary refuge to the west in Baton Rouge and to the north in places like Mandeville and Covington, La. Still other players wound up in Texas, Illinois, Florida and even New Jersey.
As news of the devastation spread, the players enrolled in local high schools and awaited word on how their school and their classmates fared. It was more than a month before cellular phones were functional, and Adams said his first contact with some of his displaced teammates was through text messages almost six weeks after the storm hit.
Because Jesuit is a private school, a large portion of its student body lives outside New Orleans' city limits. Damage from the storm extended hundreds of miles inland, but all of the Blue Jays' varsity players made it through the storm safely. The same couldn't be said for all of their homes.
As Katrina churned toward the coast the days leading up to landfall, Jesuit junior catcher John Faciane, his 13-year-old brother Josh and his parents prepared to evacuate their home, which was located near downtown New Orleans.
"We brought a Tupperware of some pictures, and I grabbed a couple of pairs of shorts and some shirts," John said. "I thought we were going to be gone for a few days."
More than three weeks later, Faciane and his family were finally allowed to return to their home, which had almost six feet of water in it.
"We had heard and saw pictures on the news (of the damage)," he said. "It hit me hard, though. I had no idea how bad it was going to be and it was sad to see everything was gone."
The Facianes bought a home in Metairie, La., and eventually began piecing their life back together. On weekends they wade through the wreckage near their gutted and moldy home, which they hope can be renovated eventually.
"We just go and clean up a little bit more," John said. "Just go check on things. It will be a couple of years, but we hope to get back in there."
Of the 455,000 people who once lived in New Orleans, 144,000 have returned. Katrina left 99 of the city's 117 public schools destroyed or badly damaged. Of the 60,000 students enrolled before the storm, just 9,831 had returned.
Yet at Jesuit, where funding and resources are far more abundant, almost 90 percent of the students had re-enrolled by Jan. 23, when the second semester started. Approximately 400 of them returned in the fall, when cleanup continued at Jesuit, which was flooded by more than five feet of water that filled the first floor of the four-story building.
Before the school was inhabitable, students went to class in the evenings at Saint Martin's Episcopal School in Metairie. Although the Jesuit coaches' offices and school gym were flooded, Jesuit's varsity football team managed to gather 35 players and play three games.
The timing was more conducive to gather a larger portion of the baseball team, but when coach Sam Dozier realized that every underclassman who earned a letter on last year's team had re-enrolled in time for the 2006 season, he was overwhelmed.
"Although kids were displaced, a lot of emotions were involved as far as decisions for families," says Dozier, who is in his first year as the head coach at Jesuit, a school whose list of alumni includes major leaguers Will Clark and Rusty Staub. "A few players lost everything, they're homeless, but they still came back and are living with friends or relatives.
"(Remaining out of town) and pick up the pieces and move on, that would have been the easiest thing to do, but our guys had a strong yearning to come back to Jesuit because of the brotherhood and camaraderie of the school. Nothing made that more evident than them all coming back and working through this adversity."
For the players, returning to defend their state title, regardless of the challenges coming back presented, is viewed as more of a formality than an act of courage. Many of them were courted by coaches at the schools they attended in the fall, some of which had successful programs of their own, not to mention a playable field right outside the classroom. But whether it was Jesuit's academic reputation, winning tradition on the field or each individual's drive to persevere-together-on Opening Day, Feb. 20 at Hahnville High, the Blue Jays were back, and ready to play. They won 4-0 and were off to a 10-0 start.
"We didn't have to convince everybody to come back," said Faciane, who prepared to strap on his catching gear, which he also packed that day he and his family left town. "Everyone wanted to come back."
Tolleson To Have Tommy John
Allen (Texas) High senior righthander Shawn Tolleson was off to a fine start this season. But after leaving his start March 3 in the third inning, an MRI revealed a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament. He was expected to have Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season.
"It was real tough," said Tolleson, who left the game after throwing a fastball to the second hitter of the third inning. "I'm disappointed, but there's a reason that everything happens. I'm sure God didn't want me to go through (the draft) right now."
Tolleson was ranked No. 18 in the high school class of 2006 entering the season. With a heavy fastball that sat at 89-91 mph, and an above-average slider, he was considered a potential third- to fifth-round pick.
He was lauded as much for his stuff as his performance as an amateur. Tolleson, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, was 1-0, 0.73 with 16 strikeouts in 12 innings with Team USA's junior national team last September, helding Team USA win a silver meal in the Pan-Am Championship in Mexico.
"I'm going to try to get the surgery as soon as (a doctor) can get me in," said.
Tolleson, who committed to Baylor. "That way hopefully I can throw next season."
AROUND THE NATION
• Less than a month into the season, the BA/NHSBCA poll had already seen turnover at the top. Three days after Monsignor Pace High (Opa Locka, Fla.) supplanted preseason No. 1 Russell County High (Seale, Ala.) atop the rankings, the Spartans suffered their first loss.
American Heritage High (Plantation, Fla.) sophomore catcher Adrian Nieto belted a solo home run off Pace junior reliever Chris Hernandez in the top of the ninth inning cap the Patriots' 8-7 upset.
Pace, playing without starting third baseman Chris Marrero who missed his third game with a hamstring injury, squandered a three-run lead in the seventh. Heritage twice executed successful squeeze bunts during the four-run rally, which gave it a 7-6 lead.
"We just didn't make plays when we were in position to win the game," said Pace coach Tom Duffin. "But we're going to be OK. I'd rather get it now than what has happened the last two years, that's for sure."
Duffin's program has been a mainstay in the national poll in the past three years, but has not advanced beyond the district playoffs in either of the last two seasons.
Heritage senior lefthander Jamie Dickinson pitched 5 2/3 innings of relief to earn the win.
• Arizona adopted a new format for its state playoffs at the 5-A classification. The postseason state tournament will be double-elimination, and for the first time the state's athletic association will seed teams based on regular season performance. "The old format was obviously good to us," said Hamilton High (Chandler, Ariz.) coach Mike Woods, who coached his Huskies to state titles in 2003 and 2004 before finishing second last year. "The problem was you'd end up with your No. 4 (pitcher) in the semifinals. It really made pitching depth the most important factor. We decided it would be a better test of who had the best team with a double-elimination tournament, and I'm in favor of it."
• The annual International Paper Classic in Georgetown, S.C., has become the unofficial kick-off for South Carolina's high school season and this year's event offered plenty of highlights. Riverside High (Greer, S.C.) won the tournament behind a bevy of precocious underclassmen. Riverside sophomore lefthander/first baseman Mike Roth was named MVP after winning his lone start on the mound and batting 5-for-12 with a home run and five RBIs, including three in the title game, a 4-3 win against Wren High of Piedmont, S.C.
Wren senior outfielder Jason Place, a third-team preseason All-American, went 7-for-11 with a double, home run and four RBIs during the tournament. "He's really interesting," said a crosschecker with an American League organization. "He's got unbelievable power and he can really throw."
• The hotel lobby at baseball's annual Winter Meetings is noted as the setting where baseball's blockbuster deals go down. It was there two years ago in New Orleans where Huffman High (Birmingham, Ala.) coach Demetrius Mitchell, networking, introduced himself to Cubs manager Dusty Baker. Mitchell has kept in touch with Baker ever since, and parlayed out of the relationship $3,500 worth of improvements to the Huffman baseball field, courtesy of Baker.
• Jeff McClasky's Northwest Rankin Cougars of Brandon, Miss., were off to a 9-0 start and had climbed to No. 14 in the BA/NHSBCA Top 25. McClasky earned his 500th career win with a 8-3 victory against Newton County High (Decatur, Miss.), although he was unaware of the milestone until the following week, when the local radio broadcaster inquired about it during a pregame interview. "I really just didn't pay much attention to it; you know those things come and go so fast," said McClasky, who is in his 17th season at Northwest Rankin, where he's 431-121.
• There are bad starts to games, and then there are bad starts like Pearland (Texas) High's unlikely beginning against Hebron High (Carrolton, Texas) at the Clear Creek Tournament. Pearland scored 15 runs on 16 hits in the top of the first inning--before the game's first out was recorded. Making the sequence more remarkable was the inning was played error-free. Pearland held on for a 16-3 victory.