By Sports editor Brian Hoffman
Three William Byrd senior baseball players held private “signing day” ceremonies last week with hopes that their high school days were not over.
Tyler Dean, Dylan Hatfield and Isaac Fix have been teammates since they were eight years old. All three played on the Terriers’ varsity baseball team as freshmen, looking forward to the day when they would be the big dogs. However, they lost their junior season last year and a condensed senior season is not guaranteed with the coronavirus pandemic raging this fall.
“It was a bitter disappointment,” said Dean about losing last year’s season. “We lifted and trained and were really looking forward to it.”
“I felt like we had a shot to win it all,” said Fix.
Byrd graduated five seniors from that team but with plenty of talent returning the Terriers figure to make a run of it in the spring of 2021, if the season is played. In the meantime they’ve been playing for the Dirtbags travel baseball team, teammates as they’ve been since they were eight years old.
Tyler’s dad, Vinton’s Steve Dean, coached the three boys on the Team Virginia travel squad. Tyler and Dylan played on a coach-pitch travel team at seven years old and Isaac joined them on Team Virginia the next year.
“He was a good coach,” said Hatfield of Dean. “He didn’t let us slack off.”
“I enjoyed it a bunch,” echoed Tyler. “He was especially hard on me because he’s my dad, but I enjoyed it a bunch.”
Steve Dean and Fred Hatfield coached the boys for seven years in baseball as well as six years in football, having solid, competitive teams in both sports. They saw potential in the three young athletes and put in many hours working with them. As 10 year olds the Team Virginia squad traveled the east coast together and earned a birth to an invitation-only baseball tournament at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
“I wanted to give them a good foundation, and we were pretty successful,” said Steve. “I went through it with (older son) Stephen so I better understood what to look for, and all three of them were very hard workers. That’s why they are where they are.”
The three boys went through the Byrd system quickly. All three played on the middle school team as seventh graders, then moved up to the jayvee in the eighth grade under coach Larry Light and Tyler’s grandfather, Doug Pence. As freshmen all three played varsity baseball on a team dominated by freshmen and sophomore players, taking their lumps against older boys.
“We were always underdogs,” said Dylan. “We were always playing kids older than us.”
That season the young, but talented, Terriers never backed down. In fact, they finished with a respectable 10-12 record that was highlighted by a 4-3 win over Liberty Christian Academy in the regional playoffs. LCA was the defending Class 4 champion and heavily favored to repeat, but eighth seeded Byrd upset them in what had to be one of the biggest upsets in VHSL baseball history.
The next year, in 2019, the Terriers improved to 15-5. They met up with LCA in the playoffs again, this time losing 1-0 on a home run in the bottom of the sixth to end their season. Still, with 90 percent of the team returning and two years of varsity experience under their belts Byrd figured to be state contenders for the next two years.
Then the pandemic hit. The Terriers went through spring practice as usual and had played two scrimmages when the season was put on hold.
“It was surreal for a while,” said Byrd coach Neil Zimmerman. “We held out hope for a month or so that there would be some kind of district or post-season tournament. It wasn’t until late April when they closed the doors on everything that we lost all hope.”
It was a tough time for everyone involved.
“We weren’t allowed to have contact with the kids but we were texting back and forth,” said Zimmerman. “I knew they were hurting.”
Neil played on talented teams at Byrd and Ferrum College so he knew what they were missing.
“People find it hard to understand what these kids are going through,” he said. “I know what they’re missing. When you get to be juniors and seniors you get bigger and stronger and have that confidence you might not have had as a freshman. I felt like last year was going to be our year, and we didn’t get to play.”
That didn’t stop Dean, Hatfield and Fix from continuing to work toward their goal. All three have been recruited by major colleges and had committed to schools prior to last week’s official signing day. Dean and Hatfield are headed to Virginia Tech and Fix is going to Davidson.
Dean, the son of Steve and Michelle Dean, is a special case, as he could actually be drafted in the Major League Baseball draft as a pitcher after hitting 98 twice on the radar gun last summer, once in North Carolina and once in Georgia. The average speed of a major league pitcher is about 92, and anything over 95 is highly coveted.
Tyler routinely lights up the gun at 92 to 94 miles per hour with good movement. Some wonder how he is able to pitch so fast as a high school player?
“God, he blessed me,” said Tyler, who has studied with pitching coach Kirk Goodson, a former minor league pitcher in the Cubs organization. Goodson is an instructor with the “Backwards K Academy.”
Tyler is still planning on playing at Virginia Tech, but won’t rule out going pro “if the money’s right.” He has an advisor to help him through the process.
“I’ve always been a fan of Tech and it’s close by,” said Dean, who was recruited by the Hokies as both a pitcher and infielder. He’s been a reliever for the Terriers but has started games for the Dirtbags travel team.
“His future is pitching and he needs to be able to start,” said Steve Dean. “No scout is going to travel to Vinton not even knowing if he’ll pitch one inning of relief.”
Hatfield, a catcher and the son of Fred and Carla Hatfield, has been Tyler’s battery mate since they were eight years old. There’s a good chance they’ll continue that at Tech, which has been Dylan’s first choice since he was a little boy. Fred was also a baseball standout who played for legendary coach Chuck Hartman at Tech as an infielder in the 90s. Hartman, who recently passed, is a member of the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I grew up a Hokie fan,” said Dylan. “It’s been my dream school and it’s been my dad’s life as much as mine. He built a batting cage in our basement.”
Fix is headed to Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. Basketball star Stephen Curry proved you can make it big out of the Atlantic 10 liberal arts college and Fix chose the Wildcats after looking at a variety of schools.
“I just wanted to go to the best school I could,” he said. “When I went to visit I really liked the campus and the players on the team were all very welcoming.”
A tall lefthander, Fix has limitless potential. The son of Mark and Liz Fix, he throws in the low 90s and will only get stronger with a college weight program. And, lefthanders are always coveted.
The three boys, who have been close friends over the years, have been making up for their lost high school season with a summer of travel tournaments with the Dirtbags. The team is coached by Andy Partin and plays out of North Carolina. The boys have also played in tournaments in Georgia, Alabama and Florida with, and against, some of the top talent in the nation.
“We have two players on our team who are projected to be among the top 10 picks in the draft,” said Dean.
This fall Tyler, Dylan and Isaac have been working out at the high school with high hopes there will be a season. In the spring the baseball season usually begins with practices in February and games the second week of March. However, this year due to the pandemic football will be squeezed in between the winter and spring sports with baseball due to open practice on April 12, with games beginning April 26.
The start of practice overlaps with the new spring football season and all three are planning to play for the Byrd football team. Hatfield is the Terriers’ quarterback, Dean is a receiver and defensive back who earned post-season honors last year and Fix is also a receiver and d-back.
“These boys are the face of William Byrd athletics,” said Zimmerman. “This class is super talented and they kind of led the way. They’re not only good in baseball but in several different sports.
“If baseball is over tomorrow, it won’t really matter. They’re good kids and they have bright futures ahead of them whatever they do.”