Many high school student athletes dream of making it to the state competition in their sport, but few accomplish it four times in the span of one year.
Kenai Central senior Ethan Oliver can be included on that list, but the last 12-plus months of his life have seen more ups and downs than is usual for a multi-sport high school athlete.
Starting in October 2011, Oliver has been to four state championships in three separate sports. He was a part of Kenai’s state championship winning football team in 2011 as a junior, the first school to win the medium-schools state title, then continued on to the Kenai basketball team, which competed in the 2012 state tournament back in March. The team officially finished fifth in the tournament. Over the summer, Oliver took his baseball talents to the Kenai high school team that competed at the state tournament in June, then helped the Post 20 Legion AA Twins to a remarkable state championship in August.
Unfortunately, his year came to a premature end later in the same month, when he suffered a major leg injury as a senior in Kenai’s second football game of the season against Colony. Yet, throughout the healing experience, including months of physical therapy and simply learning how to walk right again, Oliver has kept an optimistic face on.
“I definitely consider this a successful year,” Oliver said in a recent interview. “A state championship in football, a state berth in basketball, a state berth in high school baseball and then a state championship in legion baseball. My middle brother Luke has three rings from football and a ring from baseball, my older brother Gresham doesn’t have any rings, and I have a football ring and a baseball ring.
“It was probably one of the best years I could’ve had.”
Oliver said his favorite sport is baseball, and he can back that up with his performances on the diamond. While he wasn’t the usual starting pitcher for the Kenai baseball team in 2012, he managed to close a couple games out this year when the team needed him most.
But before 2012 even began, Oliver was already finding success on the athletic front.
As the 2011-12 high school academic year dawned, the Kardinals found themselves in the midst of trying to become the first school to win a state title in the newly-created medium schools tournament. Oliver, a junior then, played a variety of important positions, such as wide reciever on offense and cornerback on defense, but found himself mainly as a running back. That year, he received minimal minutes.
In the playoffs, Kenai upset cross-town rival Soldotna 28-12 to make it to the state championship game, and a week later, defeated Homer 26-14 to take the crown.
Fast forward a few months, and Oliver was a part of the Kenai basketball squad that also made the trip to state. Armed with a talented core of upperclassmen, such as AJ Hull, Bo Reilly, Shane Spalding and Colton Hayes, Oliver again found himself a second-string player, but still managed to contribute on the offensive front as a point guard and forward. That team qualified for the state tournament last March and ultimately lost to Juneau-Douglas 51-38 in the fourth-place game. Oliver recalls the team as the closest basketball team he’s been apart of.
“It was a successful season as far as being a team and connected to each other,” Oliver said. “The year before, you could say there were some problems and discrepancies. There wasn’t much of a team factor off the court, and this year there was more unity both on and off the court. It seems like we were able to put everything together, with the swingers coming up from JV, and we all knew what to do and how to get it done on varsity.”
When the weather warmed up, so did Oliver. As part of the Kenai prep baseball team, which was only a second-year squad, he helped the team to a 7-2 league record.
In the final game against Wasilla that determined who goes to the state tournament in late May, Kenai coach John Kennedy brought him in to pitch with two runners on base and nobody out with the Kards clinging to a 2-0, seventh-inning lead. Ethan got the job done, as the Kards beat the Warriors 2-1 which earned them the second seed at the state tournament.
“Oh man I was nervous. I absolutely don’t like pitching,” Oliver admitted. “I don’t find myself to be good at it, but if I am doing good, I’ll try and stay another inning or two on the mound.”
At the state tournament at Mulcahy Park in Anchorage, Kenai lost to Service 6-3 on their first day, but continued the next day with a 4-2 win over Monroe Catholic, which kept them alive. Unfortunately, a 7-4 loss to Lathrop in the fourth-place game ended their week.
But the best was yet to come.
As soon as the high school baseball season ended, it was on to the Post 20 Legion AA Twins for Oliver. After recording a 17-3 league record, which topped all other teams, the Twins coasted into the state tournament in late July as the number one seed. That gave the team a bye on the first day of the tournament.
“That was the relax day to settle down and get the bus lag off, and get the butterflies out, and get into the flow of baseball,” Oliver said. “The week of practice before the state tournament, we were working on the basics. Just small things like fielding ground balls, making a throw, hitting the ball up the middle. We had a couple of bullpen sessions but other than that it was simple stuff.”
As head coach of the team, Ethan’s father, Gary, had guided the Twins to the magic land and was not about to change things around.
“We’re not changing our style of play, we’re going to keep playing Twins baseball that we’ve been playing all year, and that’s got us this far so there’s no need to change things now,” Gary Oliver said in an interview before the tournament. “We go by the philosophy, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
“We told our players at the start of the year that championships aren’t won in June, and that by July we need to be hitting our stride, because championships are won in August.”
But surprisingly, on the first day of the tournament, July 28, eighth-seed Eagle River upset Kenai with a 6-0 shutout.
“It was a brick wall that we had to fight through, like a morale type of thing, and our morale was just cut in half,” Ethan said. “You’re will is just gone. But we realized we were facing adversity and if we lost one more time, we were done.
“Our main word was respond. We had to respond each and every game from there on out.”
Luckily, the tournament is a double elimination bracket, which gave the Twins hope that they could rally back, however slim the chances were.
In a stunning comeback, the team ran the tables during the ensuing week. Seven consecutive wins put Kenai right back in the hunt, and up against sixth-seed Chugiak for the championship on August 4. In a two-game thriller, the Twins beat Chugiak 8-7 in the first game, which ended with Oliver making a diving catch to end it, and 11-4 in the winner-take-all game. The championship was the teams first since 1995.
“That first loss sparked a sense of urgency,” Oliver recalled, who described the day as nerve-racking. “The window of opportunity was closing, so we had to focus on just getting the job done. We weren’t worried about who we would play on Wednesday or Thursday. It was all about the current game, and every single inning and every single out.”
The victory qualified Post 20 for the American Legion Northwest 7 Tournament in Billings, Montana. There, the Twins went 1-2 in hot weather they were not used to competing in.
“If you look at the scorebooks, we out hit both teams that we played, but we still lost by multiple runs,” Oliver said.
Oliver does not consider himself a power-hitter, but said he has often come up in games as an important hitter.
“Being a nine-hitter, I led off multiple innings during the summer,” he said, noting that his position as the last hitter in the batting lineup led to him often times starting an inning. “Leading off three, four or five innings a game, that means your team is putting up 20 or more runs a game. It was crazy how strong of a hitting core we had this year.”
Only 13 days later, Oliver’s life would change for the worse.
On August 17, the Kenai football team traveled up north to take on non-conference opponent Colony in a Friday evening game, the Kards second of the season. For Oliver, it was his first of the year.
After rushing for 135 yards in the first half alone, including a 65-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Oliver was feeling great. Going into the second half, so was Kenai head coach John Marquez.
“We came out the second half and he said to me, ‘Coach give me the ball,’” Marquez recalled. “You knew it was everything he was going to do as a senior, taking the ball up the sideline for 65 yards and outrunning everybody from Colony. They knew that they were in trouble.”
Trailing 37-6 in the third quarter, Oliver took the ball on a play and gained about nine yards, but what happened next he can recall in vivid detail.
“The hole opened up and I went through, but I slowed down because I saw a backer coming. I got wrapped up around the ankle and knee area, and he grabbed me and rolled underneath me,” Oliver remembers. “He had to be 280-plus, and I weighed 140 pounds coming into the football season, so he was at least twice as big as me.”
“When he wrapped me up, my foot stuck in the turf, my cleat stuck, and a kid went over the top of me, and the two were pushing in opposite directions. I sat on top of him, and I remember seeing the whole sideline and everybody standing there.
“Right when I hit the ground, I screamed.”
Oliver said he initially did not feel any pain.
“I remember trying to rustle a little bit and thinking to myself, ‘why did I just scream?’ I didn’t feel any pain, but then I rolled over and I just freaked. I went nuts. I was screaming my brains out, and lost my voice in the 30 minutes I was yelling.”
Oliver had suffered a complete break of the tibia and fibula in his left leg, and although the bone did not protrude from the skin, the break left his leg in an awkward and stomach-churning angle.
Coach Marquez did not see the break during the play, but knew the moment he rushed onto the field that Oliver’s season was over.
“It was a disappointing day for myself as a coach, when you have a great young man like that who comes on the field and lights it up in the first half,” Marquez said. “As soon as he hit the ground I heard a scream, and I took off with coach Jeff Baker, and I knew it wasn’t good. When we got out there and saw the leg, I couldn’t feel worse for the young man. I’ve seen that before and I knew it was a season-ending injury.”
According to both Marquez and Oliver, the other players were affected by the incident.
“(Teammate) Duncan Brewer went to grab me because he’s one of the linemen and he usually grabs me by the shoulder pads to lift me up after every play,” Oliver said. “He’s standing above my ankles and he reaches to get me, and his eyes are right on my leg, and he saw one leg pointed in a direction it shouldn’t be, and he freaked.”
After a 45-minute delay of game, an ambulance arrived on the scene to take Oliver to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, but before that Oliver remembers that an orthopedic surgeon at the game set his leg back into place right on the turf.
“It was set within six degrees of perfect,” he said. “My leg was probably at a 90 degree angle where it broke.”
Gary Oliver was working on Alaska’s North Slope during the week of the game, and Ethan’s mother was in West Virginia, according to Ethan, and both received a phone call about the accident. That meant his brother and aunt had to make the trip up from Kenai to take Ethan home.
“He had literally turned on the radio and listened to like, three plays before I broke my leg,” Oliver said. “He said the announcers hadn’t made it very clear on the radio about the severity of the injury.”
Assistant coach Ken Roser stayed at the hospital with him throughout the night, which was greatly appreciated by both Oliver and coach Marquez, and Ethan was back home resting comfortably by Saturday afternoon.
“It was pretty upsetting, because of course it’s senior year and everything, but it was more about being away from the team,” he said. “Not being able to be with everyone at practice and hanging out was bad. I still went to the games, but it was hard to watch. It was emotional, because I’d see something happen on defense, like on corner, and I’d think I would’ve been there to stop that. It wasn’t just an ‘I’ thing, it was about me not being able to help the team. Instead I was on the sidelines watching.”
Oliver said the next week after the injury, Kenai was slated to play North Pole, and while the team was supportive of his recovery, they wanted him to travel with the squad on the 12-hour bus ride to interior Alaska.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Oh come to the game with us, it’ll be fun,’ and at the time, I was thinking, I’m not really focused on fun right now, I’m focused on getting my leg better,” he said.
Oliver described the experience of recovering from his injury as frustrating and slow, as he has had to take every precaution from hurting it even more. Even simple tasks such as walking across the driveway and getting into a car requires conscious thought on where he is placing his feet, and every time he watches a football game now, he sees it with a new perspective.
“About two weeks after I broke my leg, I was watching the New York Giants on TV one night, and the running back fumbled the ball, and cut to go back and pick it up and his ankle kind of rolled a little, and I cringed,” Oliver recalled. “My whole leg just started hurting, and I closed my eyes in pain and I was like, I can’t watch this. I had to go sit in my room and do something else. I couldn’t watch football for a good two or three weeks.”
Oliver said there is six to eight weeks of therapy ahead of him, but he is optimistic that he can be back on the diamond for the high school baseball season. By March, his leg should be fully healed. “It’s hard to sit around,” he said. “I’m an active kid, I play three or four sports a year, and now I just come home and don’t know what to do. I just sit around and watch TV.”
Oliver mentioned that he hopes to play on a college baseball team after he graduates in May. His tentative plan is to study criminology and get his bachelors degree, then it’s on to a two-year community college.
“I’m hoping so. I really want to say yes, but I don’t want to jinx it,” he said. “Baseball’s a really superstitious sport, and I’m not the most superstitious guy, but I still don’t want to chance it.”
After the year he has had, it’s fair enough to say that.