Dan Fravel paused for eight seconds to gather his emotions.
“You’ll understand here in a second,” the Bellefonte coach said, tears forming in his eyes.
He paused for another 20 seconds as he looked out at the Bellefonte baseball field after practice Friday. A tear ran down his left cheek as he remembered a former player named Danny Williams who led Rising Sun High School to a state championship in Maryland in 1997.
Williams died in 2011 at the age of 32.
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“I was lifelong friends with him, helped him through some very tough times of his life,” Fravel said, his voice thick with emotion. “But the bonds you make on the ball field and the memories that you create last forever.”
The memories are coming back to Fravel during Bellefonte’s run to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals. Fravel led Rising Sun to two state championships during his tenure as head coach from 1997-2004. Rising Sun captured the state title in his first year as coach, and now, he’s leading the Red Raiders through the state playoffs in his first year with Bellefonte.
Bellefonte (14-11) will face Hamburg (18-8) at 2 p.m. Monday at Greene Township Park in Scotland with a spot in the state championship game on the line.
Fravel had applied for head coaching jobs in the area since moving to central Pennsylvania after his time at Rising Sun.
He finally got an opportunity when he was approved as the coach at Bellefonte in February.
Fravel is honoring Williams by wearing his former player’s No. 20 for the first time in his career.
“When we got in the jersey bin, I stuck it in my bag right off the gate,” Fravel said.
In 1997, Fravel was two years removed from graduating from Penn State and not much older than his players.
Fravel said he had to earn their trust and respect.
He came to practice with energy and enthusiasm every day, and he was always willing to stay after to hit extra ground balls to players.
But it took some time for the coach and his players to figure each other out.
That included Williams, the team’s senior leader and star pitcher.
“I remember a couple of times he was out on the mound, one of our county rival games, and Dan tried to take him out of the game,” said Joey Class, who played on the 1997 and 2000 state title teams. “And he would bark back at Dan, ‘I’m not coming out of the game.’ They got into it a few times on the mound — nothing serious, but you could tell that Danny, he didn’t want to come out.”
In one game, Fravel called for an intentional walk of Elkton’s best hitter. Williams looked to the dugout and threw his arms up, unhappy with the decision.
“I then about blew my fuse,” Fravel said. “But I was 22 years old at that point and just sat back on my bucket and kind of bit my tongue and let the game play out. And then after the game, when we do our team debriefing, it was probably the first time the team saw me kind of pretty fiery about the situation.”
He complimented Williams on his competitive fire, but made it clear he wouldn’t tolerate that type of disrespect.
Williams bought in and pitched Rising Sun to the state title, finishing the season with a 9-0 record and throwing a complete game in the team’s 9-3 win over Easton in the championship game.
“He still is, to this day, the fiercest competitor that ever stepped out on the mound that I coached,” Fravel said.
Fravel shared that trait with Williams.
Sometimes, he threw live batting practice.
“He would challenge us,” Class said. “He would get on the mound and say, ‘Can you hit this?’”
Sometimes, he grabbed a bat and took batting practice.
During the offseason, he’d continue to challenge his players in pick-up basketball games.
“Just a grimy, midrange jumper, just Larry Bird-ugly player,” said Tom Eller, a member of the 2000 Rising Sun team. “Just made all the shots.”
His competitive nature rubbed off on his players.
“We were the most competitive bunch of guys ever,” Eller said. “We would get mad at each other over how many times somebody beat somebody else in Madden. It was crazy, and I think he instilled that in us, just being competitive.
“I’m a college coach now, and I think about that all the time like that’s the only thing that I want my guys to understand is just how important it is to be competitive and to compete on the mound and compete on the field every single second and never give up, and I think I got that from him.”
It translated to success on the field as Rising Sun rolled past St. Michaels 8-2 to win the state championship in 2000.
Eller, who is the coach at Harford (Md.) Community College, talks with Fravel two or three times a week. Class texts with Fravel occasionally. Fravel stays in contact with many of his former players.
And they get together every June for the DEW Hardball Classic, a memorial game for Danny Williams.
“We would do anything for each other,” Fravel said. “I’ve been to their weddings. I’ve been to their funerals. They have kids, I meet their kids.”
He formed a lasting bond with his former players through a shared love of baseball.
In his second stint as a head coach at Bellefonte, he still has that energy and enthusiasm while teaching the game.
“I just have the love and passion for the game,” Fravel said, “and I like to share it.”