Honoring an OCC legend

Jason Kehler, Orange Coast College athletics director, speaks in honor of the late head baseball coach John Altobelli at a ceremony before the team's first game Tuesday.

The clicking of camera shutters from assembled media was the most distinguishable sound coming from Orange Coast College’s Wendell Pickens Field Tuesday.

A new sign hung outside the ballpark reading, The House That Alto Built.

Following the death of OCC’s head baseball coach John Altobelli, along with his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa in a helicopter accident on Sunday, the Pirates baseball team voted unanimously to go ahead with its scheduled home opener against Southwestern College.

About 2,200 students, staff, community members, friends and family gathered to watch the Pirates’ season opener, which also served as a memorial for the Altobellis.

The afternoon began with the crowd sitting in shocked silence while trying to hold back tears. By the time the sun set on the field, the tears had turned to smiles and laughter. In just nine innings, strangers became a community, a community became a family and a family started to grieve.

“He loved opening days. On opening day, he was always super early but today I beat him to the field,” new head coach Nate Johnson said of his predecessor to the crowd prior to the game’s start.

From the moment he stepped on the field, Johnson’s reassuring leadership of a devastated team allowed the Pirates to overcome its numerous obstacles and enjoy the game.

Johnson said that playing the first game felt surreal but brought a sense of normalcy to a team and community still in shock. The massive outpouring of support has provided much needed healing to the team, the staff and the family, he added.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Johnson said of the number of people in attendance.

Student athletes from OCC’s volleyball, football, basketball and soccer teams as well as student athletes from Santa Ana College and Cypress College came out to support the Pirates.

Joshua Frimpong, a 22-year-old guard on the basketball team, said he’s felt the entire athletic department come together in the wake of Sunday’s accident and wanted to attend the game after seeing firsthand the bond between Altobelli and his team.

Pitcher Michael Ryhlick took to the field wearing number 22 for the first time since it was retired following sophomore Jourdan Watanabe’s sudden death in 2009.

Watanabe’s family and several of his teammates attended Tuesday’s game to honor the coach who led them through that difficult time.

“The Altobellis have an uncanny ability to help and provide strength. They need us now,” Watanabe’s brother, Lee Watanabe said.

The emphasis on family echoes throughout the baseball program and the entire athletics department. Altobelli’s brother, Tony Altobelli is OCC’s sports information director and prior to the game asked two favors of the crowd- to smile and laugh.

“What do you say we smile for three hours and have some fun?” he said.

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