PHOENIX – When Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said at a recent press conference that “two high school coaches have lost their lives to COVID-19,” it rattled a local sports community that largely felt immune to the disease.
Tolleson assistant baseball coach Ash Friederich passed away from complications of the disease Oct. 31, and Chandler swim and dive coach Kerry Croswhite died on July 21.
“This is a tragic loss of life,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said.
The United States on Wednesday recorded one of its worst daily death tolls since the pandemic began with 2,461 deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. Arizona reported 5,442 new cases and 82 deaths on Wednesday, with the majority of those cases (3,549) in Maricopa County.
Both coaches were popular in their community.
Friederich, 40, was a rabid fan of the Chicago Cubs who had a calming manner in the dugout. When Croswhite, 61, wasn’t poolside, he was fond of playing the bagpipes, and he never met a joke that didn’t make him laugh. Both deaths have devastated their families and friends, along with rocking the Arizona sports world.
“It’s with a heavy heart that I am writing this morning,” a tweet from the Tolleson baseball account said. “One of our baseball coaches, Ash Friederich, passed away last night due to complications caused by COVID-19. Our prayers go out to his wife Leeann and their family at this most difficult time.”
“He coached at the freshman level for us,” Tolleson baseball coach Scott Richardson told Cronkite News. “He approached me a couple years ago and wanted to come out and help. We were excited because anytime we can get guys that are on campus that want to coach, it just makes us better. I knew that he had a great relationship with his students, worked with the yearbook, and he coached softball for a year because they were really shorthanded.”
Friederich constantly shared his passion for the sport and his favorite baseball team, Richardson said.
“He expressed his love for baseball and the Cubs, he wanted to come out, learn, and be around the guys,” Richardson said. “His lack of baseball background and experience was greatly overshadowed due to his ability to forge relationships with our kids and just be that positive influence that we needed in our program. Anytime a kid was feeling down, Ash was always there to put his arm around them and tell them, ‘just keep working, it’s just practice, we’re going to be OK.’”
“Every program needs that,” Richardson said, adding that Friederich’s coaching style complemented the rest of the coaching staff.
“You can have a staff full of “bad cops,” and he was that guy to always come behind, after a kid might have been coached hard or corrected hard, and say, ‘It’s OK, keep going, we still love you, and things are going to be OK,’” Richardson said.
If Friederich were still here today, Richardson said that Friederich would not want anyone feeling sorry for him.
“I know that he would want to try and make something positive out of that, as hard as it might sound,” Richardson said. “As we all were, he was devastated when our season was canceled last year. He was so excited to be out there and be coaching, and then we got shut down on March 14. It was a tragedy in itself because our guys and staff have worked so hard to be able to have that season. I think what he would want from us is to keep following those protocols and keep working.”
Tolleson graduate and current Cronkite freshman Kaiden Fesler had a close relationship with Friederich since the coach interacted with Tolleson’s football team.
“He had offered to do our pictures and little edits, stuff like that, because he knows alot about Photoshop,” Fesler said. “I was one of the main players talking to him before practice or after practice. I was telling him that we didn’t really have a journalism class (or) a really good school newspaper. I wanted to start that, so I asked him if he wanted to be the teacher that helped me out with that.”
Even before Friederich’s death, Fesler and his family had been taking the pandemic very seriously.
“Before Ash (got it), I really didn’t have any friends or family that I knew directly that had it,” Fesler said. “My family has always been taking it seriously, we’ve always been home. We were away from (my grandparents) for a while, just (for their) safety. But then, when I heard the news about Ash, it was really crazy to me, because it was pretty late (into the pandemic).”
Croswhite, the Chandler swim & dive coach, was another mentor who played a large role in his community. Croswhite coached at the school for nearly 17 years and even played the bagpipes.
“Kerry had an impact on a lot of people, not just (on the) student body, but Kerry was one of those people that had such a good aura about him,” Chandler athletic director Jim Culver said. “(He’s a) kind person, he had such a free spirit, never got mad, he always was encouraging his kids, (and) always had jokes (that) made people feel welcome. It’s something that we miss sorely around our campus, obviously today. His legacy will always remain intact and it’s still remembered, every day that we go through school it’s something different.”
How would Croswhite want his students and his swimmers to be reacting to COVID?
“I think he would want them to be cautious and know what’s going on in the community,” Culver said. “But at the same token, Kerry is one of those free spirits that would want his kids to do whatever they can and to have a good experience. Kerry was all about students, he dedicated his life to his swimmers (and) his athletes.
“Kerry coached swimming here, but he also coached softball, and this whole world with COVID has impacted a lot of people, especially the Croswhite family. Our communities pulled together and we’ve been supportive for the Crosswhite family. Our swim team, as far as a whole, has been probably one of the closest-knit groups we have ever had this year.”
Culver watched Croswhite’s swimmers truly band together after the tragic news.
“I will tell you that the beginning of the year was tough (without) seeing coach Crosswhite out on deck,” Culver said. “Laurie Croswhite, his wife, managed to stay around and she helped our swim team, so we were able to still have that family vibe. Kerry’s always going to be remembered here, but his kids loved it.”
Hines said the deaths of both Croswhite and Friederich have shaken Arizona’s sports community.
“Coach Croswhite, I knew very well, I worked with him for years, he’s been involved in swimming as well as working at the table for basketball during the basketball season, I used to always see him there. (He was) just an outstanding man, outstanding coach, did it for the right reasons, (and) worked with kids for many years. Anytime we lose someone that is important to our kids, or that we know personally, it takes your breath away. The fact that it is COVID-related is frustrating, which really drives the point home that this can affect anybody.”
The deaths of Croswhite and Friederich have left the AIA Executive Board reeling.
“We get at those conversations, and we have met with our Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, made up of 24 doctors and athletic trainers from around the state,” Hines said. “Those are discussions that we have.”
Hines added that there is risk with participating in a sport in general.
“One of the sign-offs to participate in AIA sports is the fact that parents and students recognize that sports can be inherently dangerous,” Hines said. “If there is a risk to play, and you are assuming that risk when you are involved, that doesn’t make it easier. It just is always something that is there. The fact that we lose one coach, let alone two coaches, that’s disheartening. We don’t want to lose any coaches.
“But in life, there are things that we choose to do, and at some point, we’re all going to die. We don’t want it to be sooner, (and) that’s why we just encourage everybody to please continue to follow the strategies we have to limit the spread of any type COVID to individuals.”
Hines was able to catch up with Culver and also saw Crosswhite’s wife at the AIA state swimming meet.
“We just feel for the family,” Hines said. “Situations where we have lost kids or coaches, or parents of kids (is) something that unfortunately takes place in our business, and it doesn’t make it any easier anytime that happens.”