Zach English was playing basketball in a swimming pool with Coalson and Peyton Williams when 10-year old Coalson dunked the basketball right on English’s head.English, an assistant coach for the Piedmont Pride Southern Collegiate Baseball League team, had never been dunked on by a 10-year old, let alone in a pool.
“It was fun because he’s a little kid and he’s (a part of) your foster family so it doesn’t bother you as much,” English said.
English and the Williams boys aren’t part of an actual foster family. The Williamses are one of seven families that serves as foster families for Piedmont Pride baseball players during the course of their three-month season each summer.
Most summer college baseball teams use host families to house players. That’s not the case with Joe Hudak’s Piedmont Pride team.
Hudak houses his 28 players at Clinton College in Rock Hill, where they bond and get to know each other better. But the former Winthrop University baseball coach still felt like there was a missing component, that went beyond the baseball diamond.
Every Pride baseball player has a foster family. Foster families host their Pride players several times a week, taking them out to eat and cheering them on during home games at York Comprehensive High School. The families are also asked to donate money, which is vital to the organization’s existence.
“When you house your players together, then we have to take care of the meals and lodging,” said Hudak. “The cost for a summer for us just for meals and lodging is about $45,000 and we're a nonprofit, so, we have to raise it all and one of the ways that we do it is through our foster family program.”
'Doesn't want to let them go'
Renee Kimbrell and her family had never spent quality time with college-age athletes, but the Pride’s core values were all the motivation they needed to jump on board. They’ve now served as a foster family for the past two years.
“We love the fact that it’s faith-based,” said Kimbrell. “We love the fact that Coach Hudak gives these boys an opportunity to play through the summer and to teach them about how to worship and how to have faith and about God and the way they come together as a team. We wanted to be a part of that. He’s giving them opportunities to grow.”
The Kimbrells’ son, Gage, 10, was excited about hanging out with college-aged guy, who he looks up to as mentors and big brothers. The players have been over to the Kimbrells’ house for meals and pool parties. Kimbrell and her family also provide candy to the players during games. Hubba Bubba gum, Pixie Sticks, lemon drops, Air Heads and Jolly Ranchers keep the players busy during long summer innings.
The experience is meaningful for Josh Baker, who attends Louisburg College and whose hometown is six and a half hours away in Clarksburg, W.Va. Baker admitted that he does feel homesick at times and bad performances in games can sometimes add to the feeling.
The program is just as worthwhile for Pride players from nearby. Pitcher John Brocklebank is from nearby Waxhaw, N.C., but he hung out with the Kimbrells last season and has developed a special relationship with the family.
The Kimbrells’ most significant memory from the first two summers of being a foster family was when it ended. Gage was crushed when the players came by their house for the final time before heading back to college.
“I know the impact on him is that he’s gotten very close to these boys. They’ve made an impact in his life and he doesn’t want to let them go,” Kimbrell said.
'Honestly, like a second family'
David Williams and his family ensured that Baker felt right at home by preparing meals for him and giving him movie tickets and gift cards to PW’s Ice Cream and a Mexican restaurant.The Williams have two sons who play baseball and like the Kimbrells, they valued the family feel that the team gives them.
Williams believes the impact for his family stretches far beyond just having the players over to swim or have a meal. He said it’s valuable to have his family around people who do things the right way, no matter what it is.
Zach English hung out with the Williams family last year as a player. He showed Coalson some tips for playing first base, and Coalson in turn showed him no mercy in pool basketball. English is very appreciative of the experience he had with them, even though he didn’t know them initially.
“Just like when you meet a new person, you’re a little shy, a little hesitant about being open and 100 percent you when you meet them, but you know, I think after two, three weeks it’s honestly like a second family,” English said.
Alec Sutton and his family didn’t serve as a foster family initially, but after they had to team over for a meal and Hudak contacted them about helping in that capacity, it was a no-brainer for the family.
“Everybody thinks it’s all about what the boys get out of it,” Sutton said, “but we probably get more out of it than they do.”
Sutton said his 10-year old son, Xander, disappears as soon as the family arrives at Piedmont Pride baseball games.
“He’s in the dugout with the boys all the time and they treat him like he’s one of them,” Sutton said. “He’s in there catching bullpens or warming up the rightfielder or just shooting the breeze with them.”
Sutton won’t forget watching college-aged young men turn into 10 or 11-year olds in the family’s backyard pool.
“It was hilarious,” he said. “They’re playing sharks and minnows (and) wiffle ball in the backyard. Just those times when they are there at the house, it’s magical.”
What is the Piedmont Pride? How is the team doing?
The 2018 Pride baseball team is comprised of 28 college baseball players from 13 different states that spend their summer in Rock Hill playing in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. The players come from as far as the Dominican Republic and as close as Charlotte.
The team, which is opening a new facility in the fall of 2019, is 17-4, but its excellent record will be challenged during the next week when head coach and team founder Joe Hudak takes around a dozen of the team's players to the Dominican Republic for a mission trip. Find more information about the team, and its trip to the Dominican Republic, at www.pridebaseball.net.