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Why did he turn onto Lappans Road?
That's what Zach Lucas wondered as he watched the silver Honda S-2000 driven by his best friend, Brendon Colliflower, veer to the right on the way back from the senior prom just before midnight on Saturday, May 5. Everyone knew the faster route was Downsville Pike, with its wide lanes and broad shoulder. Oh, well, Zach thought, who knows with Brendon?
After all, Brendon wasn't like most kids in Williamsport, a town of about 2,100 in the northwest corner of Maryland, just across the border from West Virginia. Hemmed in by interstates, it's a place young people dream of leaving, a town on the way to everywhere but seldom a destination. Here U.S. flags dot porches, families swim in the muddy green Potomac River by the power plant, and jobs have been scarce since the leather tannery shut down eight years back. It's a baseball-mad hamlet where adults sit in their pickup trucks beyond the leftfield fence at Williamsport High and where the local newspaper streams Little League state tournament games on its website. A place where someone like Brendon, the 2011 all-county pitcher of the year, can become a hero.
Brendon was the rare high school ace who "pitched backward," relying on his precipitous curveball rather than his fastball to start off each hitter. But more than that set him apart. Tall and skinny, with fine, almost elfin features, he wore crisp Nike T-shirts and spotless Air Max shoes while his friends sported sleeveless camo and cutoff jeans. He went to all the parties but didn't drink, seeming both younger and older than 17. On Saturdays, when the other baseball players trolled for catfish, dips wedged into their lower lips, Brendon instead wandered the banks, hurling rocks over the hulking power plant. Life was too short to sit on a plastic bucket all day.
On May 5, though, he wanted to stretch out the night forever. So if Brendon took a longer route back from Shepherdstown, W.Va., if he dallied for the sake of dallying, it was with good reason, for Sam sat next to him. With dark blonde hair and large blue eyes, Samantha Kelly was homecoming queen and the star of the volleyball team. She mingled with adults as easily as with teenagers and took to Twitter not to gossip but to post maxims such as Don't be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. That she'd chosen Brendon—the kid who'd never had a serious girlfriend, who'd been shy and a bit of a goofball much of his life—came as a surprise to many. She attended all his games, and she was the only girl allowed when the players gathered at the Waffle House on Saturday mornings to eat syrup-drenched chocolate-chip waffles and fire spitballs. Brendon's teammates teased him—"She's too good for you," they'd joke, or "You better wife her up"—but they all saw how happy he was.
Now, driving home from the prom with Sam, she in a blue strapless dress and he in a white suit with a powder-blue tie, Brendon must have been exhilarated to rocket through the countryside, windows open to the warm spring air. From Lappans he turned left onto Sharpsburg Pike and then left again onto Rench Road, which wound through darkened farmland, with only grass and trees abutting the white lines. As they crossed the railroad tracks, Brendon accelerated. If he saw the yellow sign at the top of a small hill, the one that read 30 MPH with a left arrow, he didn't heed it.
Five hours later the cellphone of Williamsport High baseball coach David Warrenfeltz beeped, jolting him from an uneasy sleep. Upon grabbing the phone, he saw a backlog of text messages and missed calls and felt nauseated with fear. Please, not again, he thought, remembering a call he received at this time of the night three years earlier. That one was about Nick.
The two had met in 1994, on the baseball field, when David was seven years old. Though neither tall nor strong, David was the son of a coach, the kind of smart, unassuming player who would earn the tag of gamer. Nick Adenhart was the opposite, the boy the coaches talked about in low, admiring whispers. Whereas most kids threw in loops and arcs at that age, Nick reared back and cracked the mitt. Plenty of kids were afraid to catch him, but not David. Over the next half-dozen years the two would be a tandem, the cocky righthander and the smaller kid known to many only as Nick's catcher. They spent summers long-tossing, Nick pushing to throw from farther each time. Later David would look back on this time and credit two men with instilling in him the love of baseball: his father and Nick.
By the time Nick and David reached Williamsport High, Nick a class ahead, they were two of the best players on the team. But even though David was good, a savvy defensive catcher with in-the-gap power, he was nothing like Nick. By the spring of Nick's junior year, in 2003, major league scouts were flocking to his starts. They weren't disappointed; Nick's fastball was clocked as high as 95 mph. The Washington Post sent a feature writer to see him, the local cable channel carried two of Williamsport's games, and Baseball America dubbed Nick the top prospect in the country.
Then, in the final regular-season game of his senior year, Nick blew out his right elbow. Playing DH, he still led Williamsport to the state finals, nearly winning the school's first title since 1975. After the season, he needed Tommy John surgery; as a result he dropped from a top five pick in the 2004 draft to the 14th round, where the Angels chose him.