Every senior on the Grayslake North baseball team has to make a speech at the beginning of the season.
About a week after tryouts, they all meet up on a weekend morning, dressed in nice clothes, and talk to the rest of the players in the program about how to successfully get through the season.
Contact information ( * required )
Parents attend, too.
"I was really nervous," senior pitcher Zach Friedman said. "I don't like talking in front of a lot of people."
And yet, Friedman forged ahead anyway. He's good at doing that.
In fact, that's exactly what he talked about. Forging ahead and being determined, even during tough times.
While most of his fellow seniors talked to the younger guys about practical matters such as eating right, time management and off-season workouts, Friedman talked about a matter close to his heart, about a matter of using his heart.
Without heart and determination and sheer will, Friedman probably wouldn't have been speaking to the baseball team that day. In fact, he might not have even been on the team at all.
As a freshman, he didn't make the coveted 'A' team. Instead, he played the entire season on the 'B' team.
Typically, freshman 'B' team players don't get very far. And that's true in most sports. 'B' teamers either get frustrated and discouraged by their perceived second-tiered place in the program, or they believe that the writing on the wall says that the spots in front of them for future seasons will surely be filled by 'A' teamers, so why even bother sticking with it.
But Friedman never bought into that. Neither did two of his fellow 'B' teamers that year. Friedman, Drake Davis and Kyle LaRocca never let go of their dream to play varsity baseball one day.
"I was proud to say to all the younger guys that day that I gave the speech that I was still standing, I was still here," Friedman said. "So many guys played when we were freshmen, probably more than 20. Now, there's like eight of us left and three of us came from the 'B' team. I wanted to tell the younger guys that if you feel like you're not fitting in, don't give up, that there still can be a place for you."
In fact, with enough work and desire, that place can be as a key member of the varsity. Freidman, Davis and LaRocca are living proof.
Friedman and LaRocca are valuable relief pitchers who sometimes start and Davis is the Knights' starting left fielder.
The three are the only former freshman 'B' teamers remaining in the senior class. And they wear that distinction as a badge of honor.
"Sticking through this is one of the highlights of my life," LaRocca said. "It wasn't easy. It was a very humbling experience. Coming in, I played (youth baseball) with a lot of the better players and I considered myself to be one of the better players, too.
"To find out that you're not isn't easy. It's kind of a shock actually. It's a shock to your system to basically be told that you're not as good as you thought you were."
But even the shock of his life wasn't going to keep LaRocca away from the love of his life, the game that he's played faithfully and happily since he was just 4 years old.
That's a common thread that weaves through all three 'B' teamers' stories.
Love of the game made it too difficult to walk away, even when they were frustrated, humbled and tempted to explore other interests.
"There were some days when I had to wake up at 4:30 in the morning for practice and I would think to myself, 'Why am I even doing this, just to be on the B team?' I was pretty successful at baseball in middle school and it was so disappointing to be on the 'B' team," Davis said. "But I never let myself think like that for very long. I knew why I was sticking with it. It was for the love of the game. I love baseball so much. I've been playing baseball since I was 5 years old. I didn't want to give it up. I wouldn't know what to do without baseball, and I didn't want to give up without reaching my final goal.
"My dream had always been to play varsity baseball. That was my ultimate goal and I just had this drive to do that."
The fact that Friedman, LaRocca and Davis have reached their ultimate goal speaks volumes about them as people. They beat the odds.
"It says so much about how determined they all are and how much they were all willing to persevere to reach their dreams," Grayslake North coach Andy Strahan said. "And the thing I liked the most is that they all had such great attitudes all the way through. None of them ever pouted or moped around.
"They all just came in ready to work and get better and four years later, they are all major contributors on varsity. It's a great story."
It's a story that Friedman, LaRocca and Davis hope gets told over and over again.
"Every time I look at the guys on the freshman 'B' team, I think that maybe one of those guys will surprise everyone someday, too," Davis said.
"I hope some of the younger kids can look at us and say, I can be just like them. I can be in the same position if I stick with it," Friedman said.
"The coaches have told us to take some of the 'B' team guys under our wings," LaRocca said. "I just tell them that even though they're on the 'B' team, they can still make it. If you persevere and stick with something, you can do anything."