WEST — When the fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Co., Nick Kucera and his twin brother jumped in their Ford F-150 pickup and rushed toward the flames.Kucera, 17, a pitcher for the West High School Trojans, said he was simply checking out what was burning. It never crossed his mind that he could be driving toward an explosion.I was just being a curious teenager, he said. Luckily, the windows were down when it went off.The April 17 blast rocked his pickup and shattered the rear window, leaving him and his brother with cuts and scratches but otherwise unharmed.His familys home wasnt as fortunate. Its now uninhabitable, and his family is staying with friends near Leroy, about 7 miles from West.But the tragedy hasnt caused Nick or his brother, Jackson, a shortstop, to forget about baseball. The windows of the familys red-brick home are covered by plywood spray-painted with Go Trojans and Win State.For the Kuceras and others in West, playoff appearances by the schools baseball and softball teams have offered a much-needed respite from the massive explosion at the fertilizer plant, which killed 15 people, injured more than 200, and destroyed dozens of homes and other buildings.Its great to have them out there playing again, West Mayor Tommy Muska said. Theyre out there playing their hearts out and doing what they love. With everything going on in town, its a nice distraction for everybody.Its been easier this weekGetting the players focused on baseball has been a challenge, said West baseball coach Cory Beckham.Besides the emotional toll, the schools in West were damaged in the blast, so the students are having to adjust to attending classes in the Connally school district, about 15 miles away.Nick Kucera acknowledged that it was hard to block everything out when the team played its first game after the explosion on the same day of a memorial service in Waco for the first responders killed in the blast.I tried to think about baseball, but it wasnt easy, Kucera said. I kept thinking about what was going on, but its been easier this week.Because West won District 17-3A, the Trojans received a first-round bye this week, a much-needed break to help the team get in the right frame of mind, Beckham said. The Trojans will begin their run in the playoffs next week.Large turnout at recent games has really struck a chord with the team.In our two home games, weve seen a lot of people in the stands, not just from West but from surrounding towns that have come out to show their support, said Beckham, who noted that teams from neighboring schools watched the first home game after the explosion.The players have noticed the difference.When you look up in the stands and see three times as many people as normal and everybody is getting interviewed after the game, its a little different, said Cole Anderson, 18, a senior outfielder and pitcher.Were going to stayLike the Kuceras, the Anderson family isnt back in its home.Though Andersons family lives across Interstate 35 from the rest of town, the blast caused structural damage to the home.As the crow flies, were less than a mile from the blast, said Coles father, Brian Anderson. My house is in direct line with the fertilizer plant and were up on a hill so there was nothing to break up those shock waves.The Andersons spent more than a week living out of a camper and are moving into a friends weekend house outside town. Brian Anderson and his younger son, Caden, were less than 500 yards from the explosion, but they suffered only minor cuts and bruises.Were going to rebuild somewhere but it will be in West, Anderson said. Were from here. Were going to stay.But Anderson, who owns the Pizza House and Geriks Old Czech Smokehouse and Bakery, said he isnt sure everyone will rebuild.Im afraid theres going to be a lot of vacant lots for sale, Anderson said. Those people that dont have ties here, theyre already packing up and moving out.Thats why baseball is so important, Brian Anderson and others said.It gives everybody a release, said David Woodard, Wests athletic director and head football coach.Woodards home was destroyed in the blast, and his two daughters were inside when the explosion occurred. They were not injured.Now his family is living outside town in a cousins vacant house with his in-laws.It gives everybody that opportunity for those two to three hours when our baseball and softball teams play to be with other people in our community and just enjoy a game, Woodard said. I think it means a lot that we still have athletic games going on.Were a baseball townThe West baseball and softball teams dont have their own fields. They practice and play on the Little League fields on the south side, away from the explosion site.A report presented to the West school board this week recommended that both the high school and intermediate school be demolished and rebuilt.Bids were scheduled to go out this week for a new athletic complex next to the high school that would include baseball and softball fields, as well as a new track and football practice field.I think its eventually going to happen, Woodard said. With all of the new construction of everything were doing, I think it will all just tie in together.Woodard expects the football team to be practicing and playing in West next fall. But having Wests teams still playing on those Little League fields brings a little familiarity.Its where its supposed to be, Woodard said. Everybody expects baseball and softball to be played on those fields, and thats what were doing. It hasnt changed a bit and right now, thats probably a good thing.Despite the distractions, expectations are high for both the baseball and softball teams. West won the Class 3A baseball championship in 1999 and lost in the finals last year.The girls softball team has been to state three years in row, and the Lady Trojans play tonight against Pollok Central after sweeping bidistrict against Taylor last weekend.Were a baseball school, said Beckham, a former assistant baseball coach at Brewer High School in Fort Worth. Kids grow up wanting to play baseball and theres a lot of competition for playing time. People expect to win here.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna