A sign was dropped off behind the backstop moments before Monday’s first step to recovery for Phoenix Bourgade Catholic’s baseball team.
“We (heart symbol) You Mr. Henke,” it read.
The flag was at half staff, as Bourgade and visiting Phoenix Christian players and coaches met behind home plate before the game. It was Bourgade’s first game since the death of 18-year head coach coach Greg Henke last Thursday at the age of 52.
Bourgade’s softball players, led by coach JinHee Huff, gathered into the tiny stands before the game just for the start of the game. They then left for their practice. Huff’s office was next to Henke’s in the counseling department at the school.
Several alumni, some dating to 1993, who remembered the impact Henke had on them as a student and a baseball player, were on hand to lend support.
Father Kurt Perera led the teams in prayer and dedication of the game to Henke, a fixture at Bourgade since 1988, fresh out of the University of Notre Dame.
“He made such an impact and influence in their lives,” Father Perera said. “They knew that he always expected excellence. They want to play for him. But obviously they’re sad, because they miss him. They are down because of that.”
Bourgade lost 9-0 to its rival, after which players came together in left field and listened to interim coach Ryan Lemke, who teaches off-campus.
Players and students have been provided grieving counselors since Henke’s death.
They voted not to play Friday’s game against Glendale Joy Christian. That game is being rescheduled for later in the season.
“It was absolutely a tough game to play,” Lemke said. “Trying to come back to something like that is a tough thing to do.
“Today was our first step as we try to move past it.”
Players had “G.T. 19” (Henke’s jersey number) embroidered in gold on the sides of their caps.
Dedicating the rest of the season to their coach, they’re going to be getting patches for their uniforms.
The players were mostly quiet throughout the game.
“We know he’s up there looking at us,” senior utility player Sam Estfan said. “We’re out here playing some baseball. We’re just trying to do our best.”
Senior infielder Sam Rivera said Henke’s death has brought the team closer.
“We know now that every time we’re on that field it’s for Coach Henke,” Rivera said.
Richard Lynch, a 1993 Bourgade graduate, wanted to be there for the school’s first game since the beloved coach’s death. He talked about the lasting impact Henke had on him.
“It’s stuff that doesn’t go away,” Lynch said. “They’re feeling it (the sadness). Some of my former classmates, they have kids coming through here now. It’s a generational thing. He left such a legacy.”
Principal Kathy Rother said the school tried to return to a sense of normalcy on Monday.
For the 5-6 team’s 11 seniors, Henke was more than their coach. He was their counselor, giving them direction on how to embrace the world after high school.
“His primary role here was as a counselor, and that counseling position is key to so many kids,” Rother said. “He would get them through high school. It was his thing. Especially the seniors, in their last year. He’d get them to stay on the right track.
“He was a full human being, a role model to a lot of these kids.”
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Luke Dreher, who graduated last May and played catcher for Henke last season, stood near the dugout encouraging players.
He remembered a man who kept everybody loose with his calmness and humor.
“I think more importantly he taught us how baseball related to us,” Dreher said. “His priority was basically school before sports. I always appreciated his help.”
This is the first step to healing, playing the game.
No matter how many counselors they speak to, the players know it’s about their bond that will get them through.
“There are counselors around to see what we need, but the best thing we have is each other,” Estfan said. “We’re trying to get together and get through the day the best we can.”
Services for Henke will be held Monday at 10 a.m., with a mass at St. John Vianney Church, 539 E. La Pasada Blvd., Goodyear. Burial will be at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, 9925 W. Thomas Rd., Avondale, at 12:30. A reception will be held at Bourgade Catholic High School at 1:30.