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Flying High

By Nick Erickson, Media Relations

It seems like such a methodical practice, removing a cap and standing on the line to listen to the Stars Spangled Banner before every game.

But for Eau Claire Express players Brian Sicher and Tyler Jones, it means so much more.

The two Air Force teammates wait until the first words are sung before rotating to a 45 degree angle toward the centerfield flag, leave their hats on and salute the stars and stripes that they and their schoolmates have decided to dedicate their lives to protect.

“It means a lot, you take a lot of pride in it,” Sicher said. “It’s special, every day we get to salute the flag and really get a meaning of what you’re doing and what you’ll be doing for this country some day.”

The United States Air Force Academy, located in Colorado Springs, Colo., is a school holding 4,000 of the country’s next great batch of leaders.

While the Falcons compete in the NCAA Division I, in the powerful Mountain West Conference nevertheless, there is a bigger picture than winning a national championship or raising points on a batting average.

“Being able to put your country’s colors on and playing for the Air Force and to ultimately be playing for the United States of America,” Jones said. “In four years, we’ll be out in Afghanistan, and that’s what really matters. Baseball’s fun, but at the end of the day, it’s what we do after school that really matters.”

For someone pursuing a dream in baseball, Air Force might not seem like the first choice to go. It’s a rigorous structure to a day, as they wake up at 6 a.m. on the daily to clean rooms, put on uniforms to march to breakfast and have class from 7:30-11:30 a.m. The cadets then sometimes march to lunch, go to military class until 1:20 p.m., and the athletes practice from about 2-7 p.m. before tackling homework all night.

Both Sicher and Jones said they were looking for a place where they could play Division I baseball and have an opportunity to learn under a great education while having the opportunity to serve the country.

Air Force head coach Mike Kazlausky suited up and played for the Falcons in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

He has been to more than 60 countries in his active duty, been shot at and carry back dead bodies. He said while sports are great and going after a professional baseball dream is great, the kids at the Air Force will learn through athletics the values that will lead to what happens after the diamond days are over.

“After they start the Academy, they’re going to graduate, they’re going to walk across the stage and shake hand of the president of the United States…and at that point, their job is not to wear a baseball uniform, it’s their job to where our nation’s uniform,” Kazlausky said.

Sicher has been a staple for the Express for three seasons now. He has two walk-off at bats for the Express and a grand slam home run in his career. But he’s also in the top 15 in his wing of cadets at the Academy. Either a pilot career or finance will be in his line of work when he graduates.

Jones, a second-team All-American by Louisville Slugger in high school, batted .338 his freshman season in 54 starts. One day, he’d love to play professional baseball, but he also is looking at being a pilot and serving his country that way, as well.

Both Express players are looking to make things happen, just like everyone else on the team, for Field Manager Dale Varsho.

But much like their stance on the line for the national anthem, their lives after baseball might be just a little bit different.

“The kids that are here have made the choice to provide that security blanket so we can sleep well at night, and that’s what Brian and TJ have opted to do,” Kazlausky said. “It’s kind of cool to know that you have two men on the Eau Claire Express baseball team that are willing to die for each one of those kids on the line.”

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The Northwoods League is the proven leader in the development of elite college baseball players. The 20-year old summer collegiate league is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 18 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, more than 115 Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (DET) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (CWS), Jordan Zimmermann (WAS), Curtis Granderson (NYM), Allen Craig (STL) and Ben Zobrist (TB). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League YouTube channel. For more information, visit northwoodsleague.com.