‘For Coach Barnhart,’ East High Thunderbirds rally to come-back victory after learning mid-game of coach’s death

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There was not a dry eye in sight. Everyone was weeping, in the stands and on the field. Even the Bartlett team, a rival team for East Thunderbirds Post 34, was devastated at the Matson Invitational Tournament on Sunday, played at Bartlett High School.

As the game between Thunderbirds and the Fairbanks 49ers Post 11 commenced, Coach Jeff Barnhart was nowhere to be seen. This was unheard of — a coach not showing up for a game. Usually Barnhart shows up 90 minutes early to help the team warm up.

The game started without him as the other coach, Kurt Solberg, went to Barnhart’s house to check on him. He found him unresponsive. Coach Barnhart had died overnight.

Solberg returned to the game, still underway at Bartlett High, and pulled Barnhart’s son, Zack, out of the dugout to tell him his dad was gone. Zack’s mother had been called and she was there as Zack received the tragic news. Word spread. The whole team was in shock.

Don Winchester, Matson Tournament director and Kathleen Navarre for American Legion Baseball then explained to parents, grandparents, the Fairbanks team what had happened.

“Before Don even told the fans, all the kids were pulled onto the field, and the kids said we’re ready to play for him, but it was up to Zack if the game would continue. Zack decided, ‘Let’s play for coach,'” said one of the parents.

The Thunderbirds were still down. In fact, the East team had been perilously close to being “mercied out” at one point. But East rallied from being down eight runs, and pulled to a tie, ultimately winning, 16-15.

East Thunderbirds Post34 team after their win on Sunday.

Zack Barnhart, with the loss of his father fresh on his heart, batted leadoff to start the nine-run rally in the sixth inning with an RBI single. Then, Thunderbird Jacob Hulst hit a two-run home run in the fourth inning, scoring Zack, who had walked. Andrew Malone had two runs and that included the winning run.

Zack batted with bases loaded at the top of the sixth, and and got a single and drove in two runs, bringing the team within one, said Winchester.

“Especially for a kid who just lost his father, that is worth noting. He was named co-player of the game,” Winchester said. “It was a wonderful game. They were down and came back, and Zack was a huge part of that.”

“Fairbanks banged out 13 hits and got five RBIs from Shaun Conwell, who was 3-for-5. Tyler Moore tripled and scored four runs. Miles Fowler and Caden Davis each had two hits and combined for five runs and three RBIs,” said Van Williams, ALB Media Director.

There was no chance that the 49ers had thrown the game, Winchester said. “I know the coach and he’s a gentleman. Coach Rod Perdue is going to play to win. It would be a slap in the face to a team not to, and he is not that type of person.”

The 31 runs were the most for a game in the this year’s eighth annual Matson Invitational.

The tournament continues through Tuesday at Mulcahey Stadium. For information about the games, visit Alaska Legion’s web page at this link.

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