Halley Relishing First Pro Season

 

Shane Halley delivers a pitch during a game on July 6th. (Jarah Wright)

Shane Halley delivers a pitch during a game on July 6th. (Jarah Wright)

Idaho Falls pitcher Shane Halley sat at a picnic table staring out at the field.

“People take the game for granted,” Halley said. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t take anything for granted and to use any day that is blessed upon you and try to make the most of it.”

For Halley, it’s been a long journey to finally fulfill his dream of playing professional baseball like his grandfather Jim Kennedy did with the Chattanooga Lookouts.

“Growing up, he was my favorite person to talk to about baseball because he still had a growing passion for baseball even though he didn’t play.”

Halley wanted to follow in his grandfather and father’s footsteps and go to the University of Tennessee but he ultimately decided on the University of Virginia.

“My grandfather played at NTSU and my dad played college football at the University of Tennessee,” Halley said. “My whole life I had wanted to go to the University of Tennessee but the year I was getting recruited, their coaches had gotten fired and Virginia called me down for a visit and I fell in love with the campus and the coaches.”

Halley arrived at the University of Virginia in 2009 and split duties pitching and playing in the outfield. Halley said his freshman year was difficult and he had to work hard to make the transition to college ball.

“My freshman year was hard because I had all three coaches on my back if I did anything wrong so I was kind of a head case. It was definitely tough because I’d have to hit and pitch and deal with all three coaches at the same time,” Halley said. “The coaching staff is extremely tough but they get the best out of their players. It took me awhile to really buy into their system and when I finally did, things worked out very well and I started playing the best I’ve played in a long time.”

Halley put up big numbers throughout his career at Virginia with a breakout senior year. During the 2012 season, Halley pitched in 50.1 innings striking out 46 and holding opponents to a .183 batting average. It caught the attention of the Kansas City Royals and he was drafted in the 20th round of the 2012 draft.

“It was a blessing. You’ve worked towards this your entire life to finally get to that point,” Halley said. “To see your name and have family, friends, and coaches call you, it’s exciting. I was so thankful because all the hard work and the trials and tribulations I had gone through up to that point paid off in the end.”

Finally part of professional baseball, injuries began to slow Halley down.

“When I was drafted, I was dealing with an oblique issue. I was rehabbing from that in Arizona for about a month and a half. I was finally getting back on the mound and was excited to pitch,” Halley said. “There was a guy doing bucket and balls were all over the place so I was like alright, I’m going to help this guy. I’m bending down to pick up a ball when a ball comes over the screen and smoke me in the face.”

The ball did its damage causing a broken orbital bone, broken nose, and caused several teeth to fall out. However, the injury got worse over the next few days.

“KC told me to wait because they would take me to their doctors in a few days. Three days after I was hit in the face, I had been spitting up blood and my roommate Kyle Zimmer comes in and was like man that’s a lot of blood,” Halley said. “He called his dad who was a cardiologist who told him to take me to the ER. We’re going to the ER and I stand up and a pool of blood starts from my nose and we can’t stop it.”

Halley had lost a clot. The emergency room in Surprise couldn’t stop the bleeding so Halley was rushed to the emergency room in Phoenix.

“I experienced the worst pain I have ever felt in the form of the ear, nose, and throat doctor,” Halley said. “I had lost so much blood that I had to have a blood transfusion.”

It took three months to fully recover from that injury and Halley said it had lingering effects.

“I came back for instructs and pitched well. But coming back was tough because I had lost so much blood, I was anemic for most of the season,” Halley said. “I’d be winded after throwing 10 pitches so it was rough.”

Going into his first full spring training, Halley knew something was up with his arm.

“Usually I can hit my spot pretty well but I wasn’t hitting my spots so I knew something was wrong,” Halley said. “I finally went to the doctor and he said it was a bone bruise.”

After rehabbing for five to six weeks, Halley began throwing again but noticed his arm wasn’t any better. He was sent back to Kansas City where they found a 65 percent tear in his UCL which required him to have Tommy John surgery. He rehabbed from Tommy John surgery and pitched well before the Royals assigned him to Idaho Falls for his first professional season in baseball, almost two years after they had signed him. Halley said he is grateful just to be back playing and that he couldn’t have done it without the two most important things: family and faith.

“There have been ups and downs and when you’re at your lowest, family and faith have pulled me through,” Halley said. “It was tough dealing with the rehab and being out of the game for two years. Being out here and trying to make the most of it is the most important thing I’ve tried to take into the game. I just want that opportunity to finally have a good time and have fun playing which is what I’m doing this season.”

Fitzsimmons’ Unique Path To Pros

For Idaho Falls pitcher Jon Fitzsimmons, it was just another night at the office. In front of a crowd of 2,812, he was called upon in the seventh. He pitched for two innings giving up one hit and one earned run while walking one and striking out two batters during the Chukars game on July 18th.

For his parents, it was an entirely different experience. His mom sat anxiously in her chair with her small, black and white dog while his dad went up to the fence to take pictures not wanting to miss a moment of the action. They will never forget this game because it’s the first time they were able to see their son pitch professionally.

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Fitzsimmons looks in for the pitch. (Jarah Wright)

Fitzsimmons played multiple sports growing up in Canada including hockey and soccer but he soon decided to pursue baseball after seeing a friend at a soccer game.

“Before I played baseball, I played soccer but I saw one of my friends show up to my soccer game and he had a hole in his baseball pants from sliding into second base,” Fitzsimmons said. “I thought that was cool and something I wanted to do so I started playing baseball when I was six.”

With no high school baseball teams in his native London, Ontario, Fitzsimmons tried out for summer travel teams hoping to play in tournaments and be seen by college scouts.

“I tried out and made the team. We traveled to the US and played in tournaments in Michigan and Ohio trying to get exposure so we could play in college,” Fitzsimmons said. “We played in the Canadian national tournament that was 18 and under and we won it. It was our team from London, Ontario as opposed to all of the other provinces who had all-star teams.”

Fitzsimmons said networking plays an important role in continuing on to play college baseball.

“Most of our opportunities came from coaches who knew college coaches and have played and have those connections. That’s how I ended up at Canisius College,” Fitzsimmons said. “It was my only Division I option. There were a couple of junior college options but I wanted to go to a four-year program. The head coach there is Canadian and he runs a really good program. He really knows what he’s doing with the pitchers there and it was only three hours away from home so it was a pretty easy decision for me to go there.”

While there, an issue came up that had a significant impact on how Fitzsimmons pitched. He had to get glasses.

“My freshman year of college we never really played any night games but when we did, I stopped being able to see the catcher’s signs and the catcher would have to do a series of signs with his mask and his chest which my coach didn’t really like,” Fitzsimmons said. “It was even worse the summer before that because it got to where I couldn’t even see the catcher’s glove so I got a pair of glasses so I could see the signs.”

With his image corrected, Fitzsimmons learned how to control his pitching and become more consistent under the direction of head coach Mike McRae. That guidance led to Fitzsimmons having a breakout year in 2012 that led to making the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All-Academic Team as well as being named the MAAC Relief Pitcher of the Year. During the 2013 season, the team made program history by not only winning the conference championship but making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Fitzsimmons also became the program’s fourth baseball All-American. After a successful college season, Fitzsimmons went on to play for the Wilson Tobs of the Coastal Plains League, a collegiate summer league. He made the All-Star game and things started rolling quickly after he was spotted by a pro scout.

“I got picked up the day after the All-Star game. Casey Fahy, the Royals scout, asked if I wanted to play for them. I didn’t know you could sign as a free agent as a junior but I said I wanted to so we drove to my host family’s house and we signed the contract,” Fitzsimmons said. “Then he drove me to Burlington, North Carolina and they flew me here (Idaho Falls) within a week.”

Fitzsimmons earlier this season. (Jarah Wright)

Fitzsimmons earlier this season. (Jarah Wright)

Last season, Fitzsimmons pitched in 11 games allowing nine runs and 15 hits while walking eight and striking out 13 with an ERA of 4.00. So far this season, he has continued to improve pitching in six games allowing two runs and six hits while walking seven and striking out 11 with an ERA of 1.69. With improving numbers, Fitzsimmons said he’s just glad his family finally got to see him pitch.

“The summer I signed, they were going to come down and watch me pitch in North Carolina where I was playing and all of a sudden I was coming here,” Fitzsimmons said. “They’ve only seen pictures so I think they’re really just happy to come out and be able to watch me throw.”

College Fencing Grows In Popularity

I’m about to take down a blog I started in college for an online media class when I came across this story that I wrote last April. In addition to covering football, basketball, and softball in college I covered unique sports like lacrosse, rugby, and fencing. Here’s a peek into college fencing at the University of North Texas.

The University of North Texas fencing club is one of the oldest running sports organizations on campus. No one knows just exactly when the club was founded originally but fencing on campus does go all the way back to 1941 where it was documented in a yearbook, according to the UNT Fencing club website. It is also one of the oldest rec sports on campus with the club dating back to 1974.

Members of the fencing club joined the team for different reasons. Fencing club president Roberto Guerra began his fencing career five years ago even though it meant making sacrifices.

“I lived in Austin and we (family) would drive at least an hour away just so I could fence,” Guerra said.

Guerra gave up playing football to pursue fencing because he said football just didn’t appeal to him.

“I played on both lines: offensive and defensive and I just got tired of it. Fencing allowed me to do something most sports don’t,” Guerra said. “I think it’s mental and physical all at the same time. In fencing, I got to play chess in my head with another person where I don’t know what they’re going to do but still react to it.”

After studying the sport through high school, Guerra realized that fencing was exactly what he wanted to pursue.

“I came to school knowing that I’d be fencing so I looked for schools specifically with fencing,” Guerra said. “Only the top schools have them but those are too expensive.”

Dues for UNT club members is $20 which covers equipment, competitions, and travel. The fencing club received $5,000 from the Recreational Sports Department this semester, according to Billy Matthew, the Assistant Director of Intramurals and Sports Clubs. That money comes from student services fees which is paid through student tuition. Billy Matthew said the process for receiving the money is complex.

“Each club makes a presentation before the recreational board followed by a question and answer session,” Matthew said. “Then the board makes their recommendations on who should get much and then they allocate the money.”

As president, Guerra presented the fencing club’s presentation and he said worked hard to get to a leadership position with the club which has been his favorite thing since joining.

“I started off coming in as a regular fencer,” Guerra said. “Then I got elected as vice president for a year and then after that became president.”

Although the club recruits for new members, the number of fencers has remained relatively the same. But Guerra said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“On terms of membership, the club hasn’t grown but in terms of types of members, it was improved,” Guerra said. “We’re bringing in more experienced people.”

One of those experienced fencers is fencing club historian Stephen Koch. Koch said his interest in swords and weapons led to him discovering fencing.

“One day in 11th grade I just decided to look up fencing clubs in the Dallas area,” Koch said. “I found one called Fencing Institute of Texas and I fenced there for nearly three years.”

Despite adding multiple experienced fencers, the club hasn’t discouraged other UNT students from picking up the unique sport. UNT student Gibran Castaneda has been a member for two years and came in as a newbie. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he walked through the doors of the Bahnsen Gym.

“The first day was a bit intense and it wasn’t until after the drills that they realized that I was new,” Castaneda said. “After practice the first day, it was really fun. Since then, I’ve been coming almost every day it’s been open.”

After surviving the first day of practice, sophomore business major and new fencer Tori Maher was the only one left standing of her friends.

“I signed up at orientation and a couple of my friends signed up with me,” Maher said. “They quit after the first day because it was intense and they were like there is no way I’m putting in that much effort.”

Maher said Hollywood sparked her interest in fencing.

“I saw it in The Parent Trap and thought it was pretty cool so that swayed me into joining,” Maher said. “It’s a pretty cool sport and it’s very unique.”

The club is made up of fencers of all skill levels from the experienced like Guerra to new fencers like Maher. The team regular competes in Southwest Intercollegiate Fencing Association competitions against clubs from high profile schools such as Baylor University, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University.

Koch said competitions are fun to participate in and it’s always a challenge which gives him an adrenaline rush.

“It forces you to think on your feet while thinking with your feet,” Koch said. “You have to constantly move back and forth keeping your distance from your opponent while planning strategies on the go and trying to get around your opponents defenses.”

While Maher and Castaneda said they enjoy competing, another reason keeps them coming back week after week: the people.

“Everybody is willing to help you out and teach you different things,” Maher said. “Everybody’s friendly here and real open to new people.”

“It’s the people here. They are very nice and friendly and I guess the whole sport of it. It’s the friendliness,” Cataneda said. “It’s a very friendly sport. Before you do your bout, you salute your opponent and after the bout you shake their hand.”

Many of the fencers added that they plan to pursue fencing after college and hope to find ways to keep participating in the sport. But for now, they’re content learning more about the sport they love.

Ballpark Bucket List

Being a sports journalist brings many special moments. As someone passionate about the game of baseball, I always get excited traveling to minor league ballparks that I haven’t been to. I decided to make the trip from Melaleuca Field, home of the Idaho Falls Chukars, to Memorial Stadium, home of the Boise Hawks which was about a four-hour drive away. The drive was scenic with cliffs, plains, and of course the Snake River which I crossed about five times on my trip. I stopped halfway between Idaho Falls and Boise in Twin Falls which has the coolest spot to stop for lunch: Shoshone Falls.

Shoshone Falls (Jarah Wright)

Shoshone Falls (Jarah Wright)

There is an awesome ledge that juts out a few feet so you can take amazing pictures like this and a fun walking trail around the rim which definitely did the trick when it came to stretching my legs. Refreshed, I went back to the car to wrap up the rest of the four-hour journey. I asked some of the guys in Idaho Falls what I needed to see on this quick trip to Boise and every single one of them said the blue football field at Boise State University. The “smurf turf” as it known affectionately by the locals was replaced in 2002 from blue Astro Turf to blue Astro Play Turf. For more information about the stadium itself, here’s the link to the Albertsons Stadium page on the Boise State University athletics site. For me, it was cool to see it in person.

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Boise State’s Blue Turf

Sadly but not surprisingly, visitors are not allowed on the Big Blue so I walked around the school’s Hall of Fame for a bit before heading out for the reason for the trip: to see the Boise Hawks play. Memorial Stadium sits close to the State Fairgrounds which ended up being great for parking close to the stadium.

Memorial Stadium from the parking lot

Memorial Stadium from the parking lot

After picking up my ticket, I headed inside and was lucky enough to score a pretty good seat considering the crowd of 1,340 that gathered on Wednesday night. The Hawks are affiliated with the Chicago Cubs and were taking on the Hillsboro Hops, the Class A Short Season affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was a pretty great game. Both teams were scoreless heading to the top of the third when the Hops plated two. Boise answered back with catcher Mark Malave getting on base after being hit with a pitch which sent the crowd into delight seeing as he was the designated beer batter for the inning. (Basically, cheap beer if he gets on base which he did.) One out later, Giuseppe Papaccio walked followed by a single by Jeffrey Baez to load the bases. Rashad Crawford then hit a bases-clearing triple to give the Hawks a 3-2 lead. Crawford scored on a single by Mark Zegunis to end the inning with a 4-2 lead. Boise plated a run in the fourth and the fifth to make the final 6-2.

Erick Leal got the win. (Jarah Wright)

Erick Leal got the win. (Jarah Wright)

To round off my trip, I had to see the state capitol. That was another must-see before I left for Idaho Falls. The building didn’t disappoint but don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

State Capitol building (Jarah Wright)

State Capitol building (Jarah Wright)

Standing directly beneath the dome looking up. (Jarah Wright)

Standing directly beneath the dome looking up. (Jarah Wright)

With another successful sports trip and stadium number 16 under my belt, I headed back to Idaho Falls but I highly recommend everyone checking out the beautiful city of Boise. It’s definitely a hidden gem.

For those interested, this is the list of the 16 ballparks I’ve been to so far.

Major League Baseball:

Texas Rangers-Ballpark in Arlington

Houston Astros-Minute Maid Park

Washington Nationals-Nationals Park

Tampa Bay Rays-Tropicana Field

Colorado Rockies-Coors Field

Chicago Cubs-Wrigley Field

Minnesota Twins-The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome

Minor League Baseball:

Frisco RoughRiders-Texas Rangers Double-A

Round Rock Express-Texas Rangers Triple-A

Oklahoma City RedHawks-Houston Astros Triple-A

Salt Lake Bees-Los Angeles Angels Triple-A

Boise Hawks-Chicago Cubs Class A Short Season

Idaho Falls Chukars-Kansas City Royals Rookie Short Season

Mobile Baybears-Arizona Diamondbacks Double-A

Pensacola Blue Wahoos-Cincinnati Reds Double-A

Tampa Yankees-New York Yankees Class A Advanced Affiliate

Chukars In Motion

A few people have been asking me about how the Idaho Falls Chukars have been doing this season and how they look on the field. So in response, here are some of my favorite pictures from the first month of games at Melaleuca Field.

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Jon Fitzsimmons

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Cesar Gonzalez

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Alexis Rivera

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Cesar Gonzalez

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Corey Toups

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DonAndre Clark

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Emilio Ogando

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Alexis Rivera

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Alec Mills

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Parker Morin

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Desmond Henry

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Eric Skoglund and Ryan O’Hearn

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Eric Skoglund and Ryan O’Hearn

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Sam Lewis

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DonAndre Clark

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Luis Valenzuela

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The Texas Two-Step: College teammates play together in pros

Corey Toups, on the left, and Ryan O'Hearn advanced together from Sam Houston State University to the Idaho Falls Chukars.

Corey Toups,left, and Ryan O’Hearn advanced together from Sam Houston State University to the Idaho Falls Chukars.

“A hard-hit ground ball heads to shortstop Corey Toups who fields the ball cleanly to make the throw over to first baseman Ryan O’Hearn for the out.”

It’s a sentence that many Sam Houston State University baseball fans have heard and Chukars’ fans might hear more of this summer as the two Texas teammates made their way to Idaho Falls this summer.

The two had different paths to college ball. Toups went to the Woodlands College Park High School in The Woodlands, Texas which is about 30 minutes from Houston.

“I was playing for Coach Washburn there. He’s a great coach. I think he really got me to the next level,” Toups said. “I think it was my senior year, I mean it was probably late May before I even got a call from a college and it was Sam Houston State. It was my only offer other than Texas State which was a walk-on. Sam offered me a scholarship so I went there.”

O’Hearn went to Frisco Wakeland High School in Frisco, Texas which is about 45 minutes minutes from Dallas.

“I played for Barry Rose. He’s a good guy. I didn’t really have a good junior year and then my senior year I kind of went off and I think I hit .500 with a bunch of home runs,” O’Hearn said. “I made second team All-American by Baseball America. I had a few offers out of high school but I thought I was going to go the junior college route. I really like Grayson Junior College and then got a really good scholarship offer from Sam Houston.”

The pair met freshman year and became fast friends.

“We had no idea who each other was,” Toups said. “I was roommates with a guy who doesn’t play anymore and Ryan was roommates with this guy…”

“That I really didn’t get along with,” O’Hearn added. “Me and Corey just hung out a lot freshman year. We became roommates for our sophomore and junior years and rented an apartment together.”

“And we were bus buddies on road trips,” Toups said. “Now we’re bus buddies and roommates again in pro ball. Over the course of the daily grind, we built a good friendship.”

Both faced similar battles their freshman year at Sam Houston State as they battled against older players to win their positions at shortstop and first base.

“It was me and three other guys who were all older than me. Coach Pierce just basically told me you’re got a good opportunity to come in here and battle for a spot so you’re going to have to work your butt off,” Toups said. “That’s what I did. I had a great fall and then during the spring during intersquads, I did well and won the position. I didn’t expect it but it was what I wanted and I had my goal set on that.”

In 2012, O’Hearn played in 61 games and Toups played in 62 games, both as true freshman. With solid season under their belts, it looked as if the pair was going to continue holding down the BearKats infield until Toups suffered a season-ending injury.

“I injured my left knee in pre-game before our third game of the season which was against Texas State. We got these brand new spikes from Adidas. The spikes were like gigantic, like an inch long. I went to go cover second base during in and out,” Toups said. “My cleats got stuck in the ground and I turned. My knee dislocated and I tore my medial patella tendon. I had to have surgery for that and I rehabbed for like five months.”

Over the next five months Toups underwent extensive rehab to return to the baseball field by July.

“When I first got the surgery, I couldn’t bend my knee at all. Not even like 180 degrees which is straight. I was on a wall for a couple of months just slowly and surely bending it until I could get the range of motion back,” Toups said. “Once I could bend it fully, I ran and squatted trying to get all of the strength back in it.”

The pair had strong seasons with the BearKats this spring which led to both of them being drafted.

“I was in my living room with my parents, brother, and sister standing by the computer waiting to see or hear my name get called. It was pretty nervewracking,” O’Hearn said. “I remember after I got called I talked to Corey and he said he had gotten a call from Justin Lair, the area scout, and I told him you want to go and it worked out.”

Both were excited to be drafted and didn’t expect to end up with the same team sharing the same infield.

“At the beginning we thought that we were going to be sent to separate rookie ball teams because I had been told that I might go to Burlington,” O’Hearn said. “Then I found out I was coming to Idaho with Corey and I was excited and maybe a little bit relieved because I knew someone really well going into it.”

Both have adapted well to Idaho Falls and have one thing left on their minds.

“We just go out there, expect to win, and have a great time.”