Growing up as a young boy I always loved the game of baseball. I loved hitting the baseball, running the bases, catching game winning fly balls, and celebrating a snack with teammates after the big game. Back then, I never really thought baseball would help me meet some of the most influential people and make such a great impact on my life. Now that I am done playing, I have realized that there comes a point in life where sports can teach you a little something about the bigger game, the game of life.

Born and raised in Chandler, Arizona I started my career at 5 years old. I played all the way through high school and was awarded a scholarship to Chandler-Gilbert Community College. After my two years there, I was offered five Division I scholarships from Pacific University, Gonzaga University, Southeastern Louisiana University, McNeese University, and Stephen F. Austin State University. None in the state of Arizona. For the first time ever, I had to make a decision that would impact me for the rest of my life.  My parents gave me the following wise advice, “Make sure you like the coach.”

After taking a few recruiting visits to programs at Pacific, Southeaster and McNeese something just didn’t feel right. The coaches all seemed to be great, but didn’t really care much other than winning and losing. Insert Coach Johnny Cardenas from Stephen F. Austin. On the day of my fourth visit I flew from Phoenix to Houston – roughly 3 hours from the university. I anticipated an assistant coach to come pick me up as the other universities had done. When I landed, coach Johnny was waiting for me along with the whole staff of the SFA baseball program. We then grabbed lunch and proceeded to make the three hour drive to Nacogdoches, Texas.

As the ride began I remember feeling a little nervous, almost like I was getting settled in for a three-hour job interview. By the time we arrived at the university those feelings made a significant change, I was ready to sign the papers and start my playing career as a Lumberjack. We talked about things like family, golfing, fish and had tons of laughs. I could tell Coach Johnny Cardenas genuinely cared about me and the other players he brought to the program. By the end of the trip, I signed the papers and was sad to have to wait a semester to go back.

Most people say coaches only genuinely care when they want something. This was not the case with Coach Johnny Cardenas. I played my two years at SFA for Coach Cardenas and had an absolute blast. Coach Cardenas never changed, either. I was able to play ball to the best of my ability because I knew the coach trusted me, and I trusted him. Our relationship to this day has not changed. To this day, we speak roughly once a week via phone call or text. Who would have ever thought you could learn so much from one person in a three hour drive.

– Mackenzie Handel