RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Jeff Westhoff had to think hard when asked to remember the last time he played catch with his son James.
“I threw batting practice in New Richmond his freshman year,” he finally said. “And I can remember playing catch in the shed way back in the middle of winter but that was awhile ago. We had to break away a lot of ice to do it.”
Jeff and James got to play catch again Thursday night, May 28, at First National Bank of River Falls Field as the Wildcat baseball team honored James and the team’s three other seniors -- Austin Mueller, Joe Stoffel and Tyler Penny -- during a very special senior night celebration.
Thursday night would have been the Wildcats’ final home game of the season -- traditionally when a team honors its graduating seniors. But a traditional senior night, along with the rest of the season, was wiped away by the fight against the coronavirus.
River Falls coach Ryan Bishop, however, was determined to give the four players the send-off they deserved.
“When this all started I promised the guys that one way or another we would share the field one more time together,” he said. “Might not be the way we all envisioned it, but no question one of the most impactful national anthems I've ever toed the line for. Our final team break after the anthem will always hold a special place in my heart.”
The night started with each senior being introduced by a recorded message from former Wildcat Glen Pendleton before getting 15 minutes to share the newly turfed field with their family. Westhoff took a few swings from his dad and Mueller fired a few pitches to his father behind the plate while Penny lobbed pitches to his parents in the batter’s box and Stoffel bombed a few balls over the left field wall.
The bleachers were empty except for immediate family members, and people watched from dozens of cars lining the right field foul line and the hill beyond the left field fence. The event was also streamed live on Facebook and Instagram.
The night ended with Bishop and the four seniors standing in a familiar spot along the third baseline with their hats over their hearts as the national anthem played. When it was over they took one final team break before tipping their hats to a cacophony of car horns and blinking lights.
“That was amazing,” Penny said. “Being able to see everybody that’s out here around us and supporting us right now, and getting to have our last moments on the field alone. It’s pretty cool.”
“I don’t really have words for it, but it was something unbelievable,” Stoffel said. “I would say it was a better senior night than we probably would have had. It was more sentimental, and I think it meant more.”
Penny, Mueller, Stoffel and Westhoff started playing baseball together at the U10 level. They won an American Legion state championship together in 2018 and entered the 2020 season as defending Big Rivers Conference champs.
All four said missing their final season together has been tough, but they appreciated the opportunity to share the field one last time.
“Playing with them for so many years and being able to finish out my high school career with them is really heartfelt for me,” Penny said. “You don’t really get any better experience than that; to get to share the field with your teammates one last time as a Wildcat.
Wendy Penny said this spring has also been tough on the parents. She has volunteered on the board of the Dugout Club since Tyler’s older brother, Dylan, first picked up a bat, and she said it’s hard to think about everything Tyler has missed out on this season.
“When each date comes up you’re thinking, that’s just another thing they’re missing,” she said. “It’s hard. But I’m incredibly proud of how Tyler has handled himself. Just his outlook and his acceptance. They could all be really depressed but they’re not. And I think one of the biggest reasons why is the bond that they have. And that bond’s not going away. That’ll be there forever.”
On behalf of our 2020 Seniors ..... THANK YOU for making last night so special. Not the way we envisioned Senior Night, but no doubt a very memorable experience. More pictures to come. #BeTheLightWI pic.twitter.com/dKtOfrRZsU— RF Baseball (@RFHS_Baseball) May 29, 2020
Mueller said one of the reasons they’ve handled it so well is the lessons they’ve learned from their high school coach Bishop.
“He’s always taught us -- next pitch,” Mueller said. “Control the things you can control and move on. This is obviously a huge curveball, but at the end of the day you have to move on. We’ve had some pretty successful seasons and we should be grateful for that. It kind of sucks we didn’t get another shot at it, but we’ve done a lot and we have a lot to be proud of.”
Bishop couldn’t agree more.
“As coaches we often wonder whether or not our players understand our messages,” he said. “We hope that sometime down the road they think back and it helps them in times of adversity. This year‘s seniors were forced to put those messages into action, and they knocked it out of the park. Our coaching staff couldn’t be more proud of the way these four seniors led their teammates, and ultimately our entire River Falls baseball family through their attitude and perspective.”
Westhoff will be joining the U.S. Marines in the fall while Mueller will play football at St. Olaf University and Stoffel has accepted a football scholarship to North Dakota State University. Penny will join brother Dylan on the Lawrence University baseball team in Appleton. And Bishop had one parting message for each of them.
“Thank you to these four seniors and their families,” he said. “James, Austin, Tyler, and Joe, it is in times of adversity when a person‘s true colors show. As tough of a spring as this was with so many things taken away from you, you kept things in perspective in the greater game. You remained positive and respectful, setting the tone for the hundreds of other River Falls baseball players who the game will eventually return to. That men, is called leaving a legacy of greatness, the Wildcat way.”