By Joe Pantorno, Sports Editor
Junior pitcher Jared Rogers is always confident when a pitch of his is hit to the outfield because he knows he has four players patrolling the open field. One of them, however, does not don a Hofstra uniform.
"We have an advantage against every team we play because not only are we such a close team... but we have an angel in the outfield looking over our shoulders at us."
Rogers is speaking of former high school teammate Kevin Gilbert, a standout outfielder who was teammates with the Hofstra right-hander and junior first baseman Jared Hammer at Hunterdon Central High School in Flemington, NJ.
"It's really a baseball town," said Hammer. "Flemington is basically a farm community that goes into the suburbs...it's a great place to grow up."
At Hunterdon Central, Rogers and Hammer, who are two years older than Gilbert, won two New Jersey State Championships in their junior and senior seasons in 2008 and 2009. Gilbert as a sophomore centerfielder hit a grand slam in the championship game in 2009 to lift Hunterdon Central to its second straight title.
"Hunterdon Central will always stick with me because of the careers we had there and the way we went out," said Rogers. "I'll always take it with me and it will be close to my heart for sure."
Hammer and Rogers made their way to Hofstra as they represented Flemington while bringing their championship pedigree to Hempstead. Both players received regular playing time under former head coach Patrick Anderson.
Back home at Hunterdon Central, Gilbert was preparing for his final year of high school ball before he went to Temple University. In his junior year, Gilbert was named first team all-conference, leading the Red Devils to win the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex County Championship.
"He was a great kid, he always worked hard," said Hammer. "He definitely brought a lot of enthusiasm and was a great character; someone you wish you had on your team."
The date was March 12, 2011 and Hofstra was down in Virginia taking on James Madison.
"It was our opening conference weekend and our athletic trainer came into the dugout and told me that my dad wanted to talk to me," said Hammer. "When he said he wanted to talk to me I knew something was wrong."
"I actually pitched that Saturday and I was just thinking about the game and then I was told my mom and dad wanted to see me," said Rogers. "My parents are ghosts right after the game. They usually don't talk to me or see me after the game, especially if I don't have a good start. I went out there and I saw my mom crying and I knew this was not good."
Gilbert was off to practice at 5:50 AM the day before in his 2008 white Mazda 3 when he lost control of his car entering an uphill curve. The car slid more than 300 feet before striking a tree.
Paramedics reported to the scene and found Gilbert breathing. He was airlifted to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, but his head injuries were too severe to save his life. He was taken off life support and passed shortly after. He was 18 years old.
"I couldn't believe it," said Hammer. "I get chills just thinking about him."
"I was just in shock at first," said Rogers. "I didn't know what to feel, I didn't know what to do or what to say. I remember I just went into the dugout and I broke down."
"Everything around me just stopped."
Away from home and unable to mourn with the community, Rogers and Hammer found solace in their team.
"It's great when you're not alone and you have someone to talk about this with," said Hammer. "I remember I just got on the bus and me and him were distraught and everybody just came on the bus and was patting our heads. If we needed anything, they were there."
Hammer takes the field, clad in Hofstra royal blue with one exception; a light blue wristband with Gilbert's name and number 12 on it. It clashes with Hofstra's color, but it clashes for a purpose.
"We were able to go to the funeral and we got these wristbands," said Hammer. "I've had this on ever since the funeral and I can't take it off."
"Every time I step on the mound I write his initials on the back of the mound and say a little prayer to him," said Rogers. "I let him know, 'this one is for you,' because I know he's up there watching me and up there helping me."
Hofstra has recorded one of its best seasons this decade with a 26-17 record and as the Pride nears the end of its season, Hammer and Rogers will continue to find strength from their angel in the outfield.