MASON, W.Va. — Gone … but most definitely not forgotten.
In fact, Gary Clark’s presence in the Bend Area may have never been stronger than it was during the 2016 Wahama baseball season.
Clark — who passed away after a six-year bout with cancer on the final day of 2015 — was a staple in the Wahama community, rather it being as a member of the inaugural 2010 Athletic Hall of Fame class or as a contributor of White Falcon sports stories for over four decades with the Point Pleasant Register.
Clark, however, was more than just a supporter or a coach of the Red and White. He served as an inspiration to all that came in contact with him over the years, mainly due to his athletic achievements, his honesty and his passion for doing things the right way.
And when that unfortunate day came as the 2015 calendar year ended, the entire Bend Area — a term that Gary coined in his Wahama stories to represent all of the areas in the WHS school district — felt the magnitude of that loss.
Since the start of 2016, the Wahama family has started putting the pieces back together as the Red and White try to move forward after losing one of their finest individuals.
It hasn’t been an easy process and there is still a long way to go, but the one thing that has helped everyone get back to a sense of normalcy is knowing that Gary’s memory has allowed a lot of people to move forward in a positive direction.
This latest baseball season — which ended up being Wahama’s first-ever back-to-back Class A championships — definitely had a Gary-type feel to it, particularly on the final day as the White Falcons trailed 4-3 coming out of a rain delay in the middle of the fifth inning of the Class A title game.
And, as WHS assistant coach and athletic director Ron Bradley noted following such a triumphant campaign, it was a year that everybody could take a real sense of pride in — especially those with the better seats up above.
“Honestly, his presence was there throughout the whole season. We found ourselves constantly talking about him and how nobody loved Wahama more than Gary,” Bradley said. “You know, I really felt his presence with the way things played out throughout the state tournament.
“I can tell you that all of us as coaches are pretty proud of the way things turned out in the end, but I promise you that nobody would have been happier right now than Gary.”
At the beginning of the 2016 baseball season, the White Falcons painted a large 44 in a circle in the home dugout at J.C. Cook Field — representing the number that Gary wore in high school. Later, the team decided to add both Gary’s initials and his number to a patch that they wore on the backs of their hats.
“In all honesty, I think Ricky (Kearns) was the first to mention putting something on the back of the hat,” WHS head coach Tom Cullen said. “I was wanting to do something with the number forty-four, but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. As it ended up, a handful of coaches and players came up with that idea. Even his tribute was inspired by people working together, which was fitting.”
When Wahama hit the road during the tournament, Cullen specifically took a red Wahama jersey with 44 on it so that it could hang in the visiting dugout.
“That’s why I kept taking the forty-four jersey to all of the road games in the postseason, because we weren’t leaving home without taking a piece of Gary with us,” Cullen said. “We wanted the kids to see it in plain sight, knowing that they would remember that we were playing for something bigger than ourselves. It’s just a jersey with a number, but it helped all of us to know that he was there with us.”
WHS assistant coach Phil Hoffman noted that both the patch and the jersey did keep the kids focused on playing for something bigger, but he also believed that those items stood as a symbol of what playing baseball at Wahama was truly all about.
“I think that in looking back, the kids really took on a lot of Gary’s mannerisms. They checked their attitudes at the door and showed respect to both the game and the community by representing the Wahama family with class,” Hoffman said. “They were less worried about their individual accomplishments and were more interested in making the group better. That was exactly how Gary would have done it and would have wanted it, so that was the thing that really stuck out to me about this season.”
The White Falcons finished the year with a 22-11 overall record, won a share of their third straight TVC Hocking title and captured the program’s eighth consecutive Region 4, Section 3 crown before posting a pair of shutout wins in their second straight Region 4 championship.
Wahama — behind a strong outing from starter Philip Hoffman — dominated Man by a 3-0 count in the Class A state semifinal, then the Red and White battled both the elements and a feisty Wheeling Central Catholic squad before claiming a thrilling 5-4 victory for the 2016 title.
The White Falcons — at the beginning of the year — knew that they were wearing a big bull’s-eye as defensing state champions, particularly since everybody else at the Class A level wanted what Wahama had just accomplished.
Cullen, however, believed that Gary’s passing gave his team a little bit more incentive in trying to become the first Bend Area team to win back-to-back state championships in any sport.
When asked, Cullen acknowledged that Gary Clark may have played his biggest role yet in Wahama sports this spring — albeit in a different kind of capacity.
“He probably had more to do with this title than last year’s. We were going for a repeat, but everybody is playing this game every year to win a state championship,” Cullen said. “Gary gave us something else that was worth playing for.”
With the program’s fourth baseball title now in hand after also winning titles in 1996 and 1998, the Wahama faithful can now sit back and enjoy something that each individual knows Gary himself would have enjoyed being part of.
In some ways with his absence, that part is still hard to deal with — rather it be for the players, the coaches or the supporters in the Bend Area.
Then again, as Coach Hoffman pointed out, who knows how much of this could have been possible if it wasn’t for Gary’s countless contributions to the White Falcons during his tenure.
“It’s funny because when the four of us were sitting on buckets during a game, we had close to 100 years of coaching experience between us,” Hoffman said. “Yet, when a big situation came up, we almost always deferred to Gary to see what he thought. He just had a wealth of knowledge about this game, the kind of knowledge that left any of us almost feeling inferior in those situations.
“Gary always thanked us for letting us be part of the team and allowing him to work with the kids, because it was something he truly enjoyed. In reality, we were the ones that should have been thanking him for making us a better team and better people. If it wasn’t for Gary, I don’t know how much of the last two years would have happened.”
This year’s roster took a great pride in honoring Gary’s memory, especially on the final day of the 2016 season as they hoisted the Class A championship trophy. In at least knowing and being around Gary Clark, they joined a fraternity that covers over four decades of the greatest athletes in Wahama’s storied past.
The trio of baseball coaches interviewed all had sons that played baseball at Wahama while in high school, and each of those young men are probably better individuals for having known and been around Gary Clark for a brief spell — or at least that was the belief of Coach Bradley.
“I think all three coaches would agree that we are very proud and fortunate that our sons got to know and be around Gary during their high school careers,” Bradley said. “He always had good advice to pass along to the players and the kids really looked up to him. He was always looking out for their best interests and tried to make them not only better players, but better people in general. And he never expected anything in return.”
If Gary ever did want anything in return for his efforts, Saturday’s final outcome against Wheeling Central Catholic would have been his only request.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.