Panthers honor late teammate

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WOODLAND PARK – The Woodland Park High School baseball team gathers in center field prior to the first pitch of each game. In the middle of the group is a baseball lying on the ground inscribed “PK6.”

The initials stand former teammate Paul Kekich, who wore No. 6. Kekich died last summer along with two classmates while returning from a Boy Scout camp in Wyoming.

“We go out there and pray,” said senior captain Max Levy. “We’re trying to connect with each other and trying to connect with Paul.

“We thank God for the day and the privilege and opportunity that He has given us.”

On April 5, the Panthers honored Kekich in a pregame ceremony at Panthers Field at Meadow Wood Park. The emotional and inspirational event was followed by an 8-1 Woodland Park victory over Mitchell as the two clubs squared off in a Class 4A Metro League game.

“Hopefully this lights a little bit of a fire in us, Levy said.

Woodland Park players and coaches presented three signed baseballs to members of Kekich’s family; his father, Gary, mother, Alanna Purling, and younger brother, Jason – a member of the school’s C squad team. The baseballs were inscribed with the words “We love you, Paulie.”

The ceremony also included the dedication of a sign in the shape of a sun near the right field scoreboard. Written on it was the number “6.”

The sun represented Kekich’s engaging spirit and personality, as well as his favorite song: “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles. It was played over the loudspeaker before the game as many in the stands on the field were overcome with emotion.

“This means everything to me and my family and my other son,” said Gary Kekich, who wore Paul’s No. 6 Panthers jersey. “This is where he spent most of his time. He loved this field. He loved to play here.”

Kekich’s No. 6 will never be worn again by a Woodland Park player.

Woodland Park public address announcer Larry Ingram read a prepared speech put together by Woodland Park mayor Dave Turley, Woodland Park baseball coach Cliff Richardson, and Woodland Park assistant baseball coach Jeff Gwinn. The players also had a say.

“Outside of being a talented player, Paul had a fun-loving attitude that was contagious,” Levy said.

Kekich’s mother said the ceremony helped with the healing process.

“We’re coming together as a community,” Alanna said.

“We’re like a family here. These are kids we’ve known since they were little. This means so much.”

Woodland Park senior catcher Evan Lays also praised Kekich. “He’ll never be forgotten,” Lays said. “Paul was always looking out for everyone. Now he’ll always be looking over the field.

“He was a really great baseball player. He would have been a big help to us this year.”

Also recognized at the ceremony were four other Woodland Park classmates who met untimely deaths in the past year. The list included Alex Regan and Nick Naples (the two students who were in the car crash with Kekich, former baseball teammate Chris Driscoll (who passed away earlier this year in Missouri) and Kevin McDonald (who passed away in a car accident last fall while on his way to school).

Woodland Park’s baseball caps this season also pay tribute to Kekich, as well as Regan and Naples. The initials of each student are embroidered on the back.

“Paul has been an inspiration to us all season,” Richardson said. “This is very healing for us.”

With heavy hearts, Woodland Park took to the field and enjoyed its best all-around game of the season.

Starting pitcher Evan Lays threw a complete-game five-hitter and struck out 10 in the process.

Woodland Park’s offense wasted little time making a statement, scoring three times in the bottom of the first inning. Levy singled home Dakota Herman with the first run. Two batters later, a Logan Watters single plated Levy and Lays.

Woodland Park scored in each of the first five innings and had nine hits in all. Levy and Cody Hedges had two hits apiece.

The Panthers stole 12 bases as a team, led by Watters’ four. The Panthers began the week with its league opener at Coronado on April 2. That resulted in a 3-1 loss as five errors led to all the Cougars runs.

Temperatures were in the 30s as a light rain fell.

“I don’t know what the deal was,” Lays said. “Maybe it was the weather, but both teams had to play in it.

“I feel like our defense can be really good. We just haven’t showed it so far. We still have time to get things going.”

Woodland Park senior right-hander Jeremy Gwinn turned in another gem, striking out 11 and allowing three hits in six innings. Gwinn’s ERA fell to 0.45 covering 31 innings.

“We just had to make seven outs behind Jeremy and we had a hard time doing

that,” Woodland Park coach Cliff Richardson said of the team’s shaky defense against Coronado.

“We thought we had this figured out. We got things figured out and then we went into spring break. We have to figure things out.”

Levy had the only Panthers hit – a single to lead off the fourth inning.

“We lost a game against a team we probably should have beaten,” Levy said.

The Panthers’ have three games this week, starting April 9 at Wasson. They play non-league game at St. Mary’s today and then host Harrison on Friday.

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