As if the season isn’t challenging enough for the Cherry Hill East High School baseball team playing in the rugged Olympic Conference American Division, the Cougars have been playing without their head coach.
Erik Radbill took ill before the season and hasn’t been able to coach. He was hospitalized for about 18 days according to legendary longtime Cherry Hill East head baseball coach Dave Martin, who is currently an assistant.
“He got the flu and he got pneumonia and then he got a staff infection,” said Martin, who has been helping out as an assistant the last seven years after serving 32 years as the head man and winning over 500 games.
“He has been in our thoughts and prayers since Day One,” Martin said. “You never want anyone to go through what he has gone through.
“The coaches have all rallied behind him.”
So, indeed, the Cougars’ 7-13 record going into Wednesday’s game at Cherokee is certainly misleading considering East must play Shawnee, Eastern, Lenape, Washington Township and Cherokee twice in league, but it is especially admirable considering the Cougars are playing without Radbill.
“We definitely play for him,” said senior captain Skyler Colton. “We know he is fighting … and we are fighting for him.”
Radbill is the leader of a tight team. The Cougars truly are a family.
Colton’s older brother, Griffen, is an assistant coach for his alma mater.
“It has been tough, we’ve been dealing with adversity,” Griffen said. “The program had to be changed around and a lot of things had to be moved with Erik out and Coach (Jason) Speller stepped up, he has done a tremendous job.
“We needed all the help we could get and I feel like everyone is contributing to the program to the best of their ability.”
Speller, a Cherry Hill West graduate in 2000 where he played football and baseball, has been the junior varsity and freshmen coach and so he assumed the head coaching responsibilities.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” Speller, a health and physical education teacher at East, said about the players. “They have done everything I have asked them to do. They have played very hard and the right way. Their attitude and approach have been phenomenal.”
Speller is in his 11th season coaching baseball at East.
“I’ve known all these kids,” Speller said.
Nick Cavaliere, Joe La Grossa and Dennis Gray also have helped fill the vast void as assistants.
“The coaches have all stepped up, especially Jason,” Martin said. “He has been terrific.
“And the kids have been fabulous.”
Cavaliere and La Grossa played at East like Colton.
“It’s like one big happy family,” Martin said. “They are all helping out as much as they can. It has been awesome.”
Griffen, 20, is a junior at Temple University.
“Its tough, I have to commute from Philly each day, but it is a passion,” Griffen said. “I enjoy coaching a lot, I love teaching kids the game.”
Griffen, a first baseman, was a .300 hitter as a senior for East. Skyler now plays first base.
“It’s an awesome experience,” Griffen said about coaching his brother. “I get hard on him but at the same time I love to see him excel on the field."
A week ago, Skyler belted a three-run homer to tie the game in the 7th inning at Bishop Eustace in an 8-7 loss.
“He has always been pushing me to be the best player I can be,” said Skyler. “All my family has helped me out, but he is here every day, making sure I never slack off and to be the best player I can be.
“I think I am a better player because of him, but not just me, everyone and a lot of people enjoy having him.”
The Coltons come from a famous and likeable sports family. Their father, Jerrold, is a well-known and respected sports agent and their great uncle, Jeff Millman, worked for the 76ers for five decades and the team’s lockerroom is dedicated to him. Millman passed away at the age of 67 in November of 2013 from cancer.
Also, their older brother Tucker played three sports at Penn Charter. Tucker, 22, is a senior at Drexel studying finance.
Griffen plans to continue the family’s long sports tradition.
“It is a passion, I realize coaching is something I want to do,” Griffen said. “To see these kids improve, there is nothing more rewarding.”
Skyler, who will attend Temple, believes his brother will make a terrific coach.
“I know I would vouch for him,” Skyler said.
It really is heartwarming to see how much the Colton brothers care for each other. And, with Radbill out, the Coltons are making this season more memorable than what the record shows in the standings.
“Those two are two of my favorite kids,” Speller said. “I coached Griffen for three years and Skyler for two years before they played varsity, so to watch them grow and to see their relationship, it kind of manifests on the team.
“The team loves them.”
Just like the team loves coach Radbill.