Powhatan High School senior D.J. Herring actually started out playing football when he was younger. But, in reflecting on something his mom would tell him, Herring said that whenever he was at football practice, there was always a baseball practice going on, and his attention was always on the baseball field.
His mom talked to his dad, saying: “I think he’s meant to play baseball,” to which his dad agreed.
So after two to three years of being on the football field, his parents moved him over to the baseball field when he was still in elementary school. His foray into baseball was later than most – he had played just one season of coach pitch before transitioning to baseball with the student-athletes pitching – but he really fell in love with the game.
“I never looked back once I started playing baseball,” Herring said. “That was just my sport and I’ve just loved every minute of it.”
His fellow Powhatan High School varsity baseball seniors, Caleb Kersey and Brandon Eike, have both been playing since they were around 4 years old. Eike started playing T-ball for the Dixie Youth League and stuck with it ever since then.
Kersey first got into the sport because of his grandfather, who put the bat in his hands when he was little. From that point on, Kersey loved baseball.
“He has a lot to do with everything I achieved,” Kersey said. “He was the first real coach I’ve ever had.”
His grandfather knew whenever something was wrong mechanically, and he knew how to fix it, which helped Kersey a lot in the long run.
“He still helps with everything,” Kersey said, “and can always tell when I need to fix my swing or something simple.”
Kersey loves the game, especially the competitive part of it. Just when you think you’ve got the lead, the other team can have a big inning, he said.
“I also like baseball because of how much time it takes and the work you have to put in to be good,” Kersey said.
Eike loved how hard the game of baseball was.
“It was always a challenge and I always liked to be challenged in what I did,” Eike said. “I just really picked it up from there and enjoyed it – the challenge of it.”
For Herring, there was just something about having good chemistry with eight other guys on the field at one time.
“Most everybody on the baseball team, they all talk 24/7. They’re all at the gym together, they’re all practicing together, they’re all hanging out with each other on weekends,” Herring said. “When a team has good chemistry, they’re going to be a hard team to beat, and last year, we were a hard team to beat.”
Powhatan, which featured some standout freshman contributors, several seniors and a ton of depth, achieved a 12-7 season in 2019 and delivered multiple memorable moments. In a home game versus Orange County, the Indians had tied the visitors 3-3 and took them all the way into the eighth inning. That’s when Kersey unleashed a big hit to put himself on second base. From there, his teammate, Aidan Voorhees, laid down a bunt. The visitors tried to retire Voorhees. But the throw skipped past first base.
He raced all the way home, crossing the plate to notch the walk-off run and lift Powhatan past Orange, 4-3 on Voorhees’ bunt.
A week before that at home, Powhatan had walked-off against another opponent – Monticello – via the 10-run mercy rule in five innings.
Powhatan did so off of Herring’s sole at-bat at home in 2019.
Herring all-in-all had three at-bats total that year – “I didn’t care – I had just wanted to make the team so badly. Just getting those at-bats was just something extra,” he said – and in that at-bat, he drilled a line drive into center field to bring home the walk-off run and ensure Powhatan’s winning score of 11-1.
“I just remember seeing that ball come off the bat,” Herring said. “I remember I just started throwing my hands in the air when I was running down to first base.”
Eike, who’ll be attending the University of North Carolina and playing for the Tar Heels as a two-way player, showcased his explosive versatility throughout all of last season. In the same game that he batted 3 for 3 with two doubles and two RBI in Powhatan’s 5-1 Senior Night win over Albemarle, he struck out 15 batters as the winning pitcher. In Powhatan’s 11-0 regional tournament win over King George, Eike again struck out 15 batters, tossed a one-hitter and batted 2 for 4.
One of his favorite memories came from his sophomore year, when he and his Powhatan teammates walked-off against Hanover in the 2018 regional semifinals to reach the state tournament.
“That was pretty awesome, that night,” Eike said. “Just the crowd and just how we came back was awesome.”
Eike played rec league ball in his early years, competed for Powhatan Middle School, joined the high school varsity level as a freshman and played travel ball since he was 9.
He played for RISE Baseball a while back and then mainly with the Canes the past two summers.
Last summer, he and his Canes National 17u team won the Perfect Game WWBA 17u National Championship, 8-3 over Dallas Patriots 17u Stout, at the LakePoint Sports Complex in Georgia on July 5.
They also won the Wilson Premier Championship East (2020 Grads) title, and Eike was named the tournament champion.
He started every game with Powhatan High School since ninth grade, originally playing at third base before shifting over to shortstop. His postseason accolades included making the All-State and All-Region teams as well as earning Region 4B Player of the Year honors in 2019.
“I think I just brought energy, and just giving it my all every day,” Eike said. “Every day I come out and try to set the tone with hard work, and that’s just probably what I lived off of my four years here, just working hard every day, getting better.”
Powhatan head baseball coach Gregg Conner, who will be inducted into the Virginia High School Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2020, described Eike as a quiet guy who leads by example.
“He works really hard,” Conner said of Eike. “He works hard at practice, he works hard on his own. He does all the little things that it takes to get where he’s gotten.”
Kersey played for numerous travel teams, including the Powhatan Bucks when he was in coach pitch and the Powhatan Predators when he was in 12u. He also played showcase for RISE.
He’d always told coach that he could play anywhere in the outfield. His main position for Powhatan in high school was center field.
For the varsity team, he brought speed, the ability to get on base and the ability to make the plays in the field to help out his pitchers.
Kersey was an impact player at the plate in games during his junior season. He led his teammates with three RBI in Powhatan’s 12-0 five-inning rout of Louisa when he walked in a runner with the bases loaded, then hit a two-run single in the following inning. In Powhatan’s 11-1 rout of Monticello, Kersey sparked a seven-run second inning when he delivered a two-run, go-ahead triple. He also scored twice both in Powhatan’s 5-1 win over Albemarle and in the 11-0 regional triumph over King George.
“I really felt he was going to have a big breakout year,” Conner said of Kersey. “He got his chance to play some last year and really worked hard at his game.”
Prior to varsity, Herring’s years of playing baseball were with the Powhatan Little League. Most recently he competed for the Powhatan Majors under head coach Jamey Richardson, and the Majors overcame a rough season to not only play in the 2019 Dixie Youth Baseball World Series, but also win a game in the Series, 7-2 over North Carolina in Louisiana’s sweltering heat.
“We went down there and we had two days to ourselves before open ceremonies. They introduced all the teams, and so our first game, we went out there high-spirited,” Herring said. “From the get-go, man, we were just on them . . . I remember our coaches were so excited. We went back to the hotel and everyone was so wound up.
“We were just ready to go. It was a great experience being around that group of guys,” Herring said. “That win in Louisiana, we earned that win.”
When Herring didn’t make the baseball team around his 10th grade year, he was distraught because he had worked so hard to try and make it. But his dad was the one who kept telling him to just keep being a team player – keep being that guy who always has his head up.
Herring would go on to make the varsity team his junior season.
“I always kept my head up high and I always brought everybody else up, and Coach Conner told me that he kept me on the team because I was such a great team player, and that is something that I’ll never forget,” Herring said. “He always told me that I was always there keeping everyone’s head up, making sure everybody was tuned in, ready to go, and it was just awesome playing on that team.
“That is something I’ll cherish forever.”
Conner said Herring brought leadership and maturity to the team and worked hard at being a leader.
“You have to have some seniors step up and lead the way and set examples and make sure guys are doing what they’re supposed to do,” Conner said, “and he did a great job of that.”
For Kersey, it was the friends he made and the coaches on the team who made Powhatan baseball a unique team to be a part of.
“That was the best coaching I’ve ever had,” Kersey said.
In 2019, Powhatan had three coaches – Conner, former longtime Cosby head coach Tim Lowery and longtime Powhatan coaching legend Bob Baltimore – who combined for 122 years of coaching experience at that point.
“That’s just something you don’t really find anywhere,” Eike said. “There’s always something to learn every single day, no matter how good you are.”
“One of the greatest aspects of Powhatan baseball is the coaching staff,” Herring said. “During study hall, sometimes the players would go down and see coach and just sit in there with him and talk for a little bit . . . you could just pick up things that you didn’t know before, and all you had to do was just sit there and listen.
“He’s just such a smart person on the baseball field. Whenever he was talking, I was always right there, just listening, just soaking it all in.”
All of the coaches were great, Kersey said.
“Coach B (Baltimore) had the jokes, Coach Conner had the knowledge and some jokes here and there, [Duane] Partusch always knew what was wrong, and [Eric] Mead knew how to fix a swing,” Kersey said.
“You know when you walk on the field every day what they expect, and you just know you need to get the job done, no questions asked,” Eike said, adding that he enjoyed every single one of his teammates.
“They’re all unique in their own way, brought their own little thing to the field every day,” Eike said. “I feel like we meshed well together.”
“Everybody pretty much is hanging out and doing something with another guy on the team, always,” Herring said. “We always get together and we go to Gold’s Gym up in Westchester and we go fishing, we go to Drive Shack, and we like to do a bunch of fun stuff together. We all have just close friendships and we’re all tight and we all get along and that’s just the best thing about being involved with a group of guys like this.
“It’s just your chemistry and your relationship. It outweighs anything else, honestly.”
“I really had some good friends that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” Kersey said. “The teammates were amazing and I wish I got the chance to play with them.”
A promising season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic
Going into this season, the expectations, Eike said, never really changed; the coaches never really looked at who they’d lose from season to season.
“We’d still have the same expectations year in and year out, which I really liked,” Eike said. “No matter how many arms we had, how many position guys, it was always the same expectation: go out there and play hard.”
“We always had high expectations,” Kersey said. “I just wish we could’ve proved it because I felt like we were underdogs moving to a different division.”
Powhatan had moved from the Charlottesville-heavy Jefferson District to the Dominion District, where the Indians would face neighboring teams from Chesterfield County and South Richmond.
Herring said they had players who “just started living in the gym.”
“We were ready to eat this year, because people were thinking that we weren’t going to be so good because we’d lost our catcher and a couple outfielders.
“We were ready to go out there and we were ready to prove everybody wrong,” Herring said. “We were ready to go 20-0, honestly. We had that mentality this year.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the nation, and a few days before Virginia High School League’s spring sports could enter the regular-season stretch, the seasons were postponed, and then cancelled altogether.
Herring remembers how, on that Friday, March 13, they were taking batting practice, and the manager told them school had been cancelled for two weeks due to the coronavirus.
“We all stopped, and we all sat there,” he said. They were all frozen. As they sat there, Herring texted his dad, asking, “What do you think’s going to happen?” And Herring’s dad told him: “I would prepare to not have a season.”
“I remember just reading that – and my dad’s usually not wrong about stuff like that, I always trust my dad – and I remember just reading that and my heart just sunk,” Herring said. “I thought about my grandparents because they had always told me to keep trying, keep pushing yourself in the gym and you’ll get that starting spot one day, you never know. But I remember working so hard to try and get better at my trade – and I remember just thinking . . . man, I don’t know if I’ll be able to play this year or not.
“It’s like someone took all the emotion out of you and you’re just there. It was a very crazy feeling. Very crazy feeling. You just felt empty, like you had worked so hard for something and then it just all just stopped instantly. It’s just over.”
“I was really upset, mad at first because I had high expectations for the team and the season,” Kersey said, “and it sucks that we couldn’t show it.”
For Eike, losing his senior season has motivated him even more to get ready for college baseball next year. He knows that, when he arrives at UNC, and with all the seniors from this year coming back, it’s going to be harder.
“I’m going to have to really prove myself,” Eike said, “and come ready to roll.”
Kersey looked at all this as: everything happens for a reason. So he’s been working a lot on fixing the little things in his game so that he can play at the next level.
For Herring, it’s given him motivation to appreciate all the moments he’ll have in college.
“That is one thing that I am learning from this, that nothing is permanent. Even school can be cancelled for three months,” he said. “It shows me that, when I go to Virginia Tech, that I need to soak up as much of the experience as I can while I can get it, because one day – when I graduate or if I transfer and go someone else, who knows – but one day, that experience is going to be over.”
But he will have those memories to take with him.
Going into the future with life lessons from the game
Herring plans to major in biochemistry at Tech and hopefully become a high school science teacher. Kersey is looking into studying international relations and business, and he’s definitely looking to play at the next level. In addition to playing for the Tar Heels, Eike plans to major in exercise and sports science and hopefully become a physical therapist.
From baseball, Eike learned to always keep your head down and put in the work.
“I don’t worry about outside noise,” he said. “Just keep your head down and work and it’ll pay off.”
For Kersey, baseball made him realize that you can always come back, no matter the circumstances. Helping him create some of the best moments of his life during his baseball journey were his family and friends – especially his mom.
“I would like to say how she did an amazing job for putting me on the right path, especially as a single mother.”
One thing Herring will never forget from baseball is that, no matter how distant you get with the friends you used to play with, they’ll always greet you and talk to you as if you still play with them.
“I know, if I saw these guys on this team 10 years from now and we haven’t talked hardly since high school, I know I could still walk up to them and be like, ‘What’s up? How’re you doing?’ And they would immediately act the same way,” Herring said. “The relationships you build with baseball are unmatched.”
Conner said Eike, Herring and Kersey continued to uphold the tradition of what Powhatan baseball does through their roles as seniors who led by example and worked hard.