Sanderson's baseball team used to break every huddle with "Spartans!" on three.
Since March, they say "Pearse!" instead.
The chant memorializes former assistant coach Robert Pearse, who unexpectedly died of heart complications on March 11 at age 36. Pearse's initials are on the back of each player's helmets and placed along the fencing on the first base side, where he used to stand as the Spartans' first base coach. His number, No. 24, is etched onto players' caps.
"It was tough on everybody," Sanderson head coach Todd Laughlin said. "It was not something any of us expected."
Pearse had been Sanderson's assistant coach for three years, working with the catchers and hitters, and was well-known throughout Wake County's baseball scene. He had been an umpire for more than a decade, coached with the Cary Post 67 and Apex Post 124 American Legion programs and — as a realtor — helped find homes for a number of area coaches.
And he was an upbeat, encouraging figure to his players. He made it fun to come to practice.
"He was always positive, always smiling, always brought good energy and kept the boys up," Laughlin said. "At times, where I have to be the tough guy, he was there to pick the guys up and make sure everyone was headed in the right direction."
The team was 2-2 at the time of Pearse's passing and later slid to 4-8.
But since then, with Pearse still at the forefront of their thoughts, the Spartans have rallied to win a co-conference title and reach the third round of the state playoffs.
Through loss, the team bonded. A team meeting was called, and senior Kevin McSoley, who started umpiring youth baseball at Pearse's behest, told the others: "This is where we start playing for Pearse."
"Because we were all there for each other, it made it a lot easier," senior catcher Evan Morgan said.
The first 12 games of the season look nothing like the last 12.
The Spartans are 9-3 over the second half of the year and have won two N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoff games (the Spartans visit Jordan on Tuesday night).
Laughlin said the team ERA has dropped from about 4.90 during those first 12 games to 1.70 over the last 12 and batting average has spiked from .170 to .360.
"He was our hitting coach, and teams are scared of our bats now," McSoley said.
Morgan, who worked closely with Pearse, has tried to be more like his coach over the last few months.
"Ever since then, I've just tried to be more positive and think about what he would do in situations because I know he's a great role model," Morgan said. "He impacted my life at many levels, both on and off the baseball field."
Whenever Sanderson's playoff run ends, the team will send Pearse's wife Michelle and daughter Grace handwritten letters about what their father meant to each of them.
"I just wanted to let them know that we were aware of the sacrifice he made to be here everyday," McSoley said. "He lived in Apex. He could've coached five other schools closer to him. I wanted them to know that he meant everything to us and we looked forward to coming to the field to see him everyday."