The Willard Tigers have had a week to catch their breath after qualifying for the state finals. A former coach would tell them to “suck it up” and continue being the best version of themselves.
The best version of Ethan Thompson has emerged in the Class 5 playoffs. He hit the go-ahead, three-run homer in the quarterfinal win over Glendale.
“I saw everyone coming out of the dugout and I freaked out a little bit inside,” Thompson said this week after one of the team’s final practices.
The Tigers are two wins away from becoming Willard’s first state championship team. They will play Marquette in a state semifinal Friday night.
Every team at State has been tested, but very few programs have faced the type of hardship Willard has. The Tigers have dedicated the 2019 season to a coach who can no longer join them here on the top step of the dugout.
Justin Atchison played for Willard’s final four teams in 2012 and 2013. After playing two seasons at Evangel, he returned to his alma mater to coach baseball and football.
An avid hunter, Atchison went out on the first day of deer season last fall, November 10. He died that day after an accident in the field. “Atch” was 24.
“It happened the day after my birthday,” Thompson said. “The last thing he said [to me] was ‘Happy birthday’ and ‘I love you.'”
Head Coach Scott McGee said he has never worked with a coach who maintained such close relationships with players. Atchison was a role model and a motivator.
“It’s different when you’re spending over 300 days a year with someone between football and baseball and then, all of a sudden, they’re gone,” Thompson said.
Atchinson’s death was a shock across the Ozarks community. Many local teams sent condolences to Willard after his sudden passing. Just a couple week’s after his death, the Tigers resumed offseason workouts.
“There was this period of great remorse where, honestly, as a whole program, we felt sorry for ourselves,” McGee said. “Being able to recognize what he brought to us has really, really helped.”
In March, on a bus trip to Oklahoma, McGee and his staff witnessed signs of healing. Atch’s catchphrases, like ‘be the best version of yourself” were coming back.
In what has become an historic season, the city of 5,000 has honored and celebrated a young man’s passion for this program.
“We’re a small town. We’ve got kindergartners who knew him,” McGee said. “The whole community being together has really helped.”
After defeating Glendale in last week’s quarterfinal, junior Rhett Anderson presented Justin Atchison’s parents with the game ball.
“The one person who cared about this program as much as Coach McGee was Atch,” Thompson said. “We know deep down all of us are doing this for him, to build on his legacy and become the first state champion.”
Honoring their friend and coach, a team became the best version of itself.