Two years ago, Soldotna’s Jake Darrow was staring down the reality of possibly giving up his dream and his passion of playing the sport with which he grew up.
In baseball terms, Darrow was facing two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, and was searching for answers.
He had to return home to find out.
After completing a two-year religious mission, Darrow was searching for an opportunity. His path to continuing his dream and passion was kick-started when he returned home to the peninsula in the spring of 2016, where he found new life in the sport by turning to a familiar face.
“John Kennedy did me a solid,” Darrow said.
Kennedy, the Oilers general manager at the time, had been Darrow’s coach in American Legion baseball, and saw that Darrow still had what it takes to compete.
“A lot of coaches thought I looked undersized,” said the 5-foot-7 Darrow. “Some schools told me I looked rusty, and I told myself if I don’t get on a team, this is it. I’m going to quit.”
But he didn’t quit on the advice of Kennedy, who provided Darrow the opportunity he sought with a spot on the 2016 Peninsula Oilers roster.
The 2012 Soldotna High graduate said with Kennedy’s help and encouragement from his father, he was able to put his career back on track.
“It’s been kind of surreal,” he said.
The 2016 summer appearance with the Oilers earned Darrow some exposure to college coaches who had come up to check out the talent.
Darrow helped revive his career at Eastern Arizona Community College, where he’s spent the last two years crushing baseballs and terrorizing the conference with a .399 batting average, which led the league by a slim margin over Mesa Community College’s Paul Steffensen, a fellow peninsula player. Steffensen was ahead of Darrow in average until postseason play brought it down to a thousandth of a point behind Darrow at .398.
‘“He just has this ability to expand the zone east to west,” said Oilers hitting coach Rolando Sanchez. “He’s just not afraid to hit off the plate.”
Now in his second stint with the Oilers, Darrow has signed with Division II Northwestern Oklahoma State University for the upcoming fall, and since great things happen all at once, Darrow popped the big question to his girlfriend, Saria Bryan, before an Oilers game June 10, a game in which he ended up scoring the winning run.
His heartfelt proposal to Bryan, whom he met while working in Lake Powell, Arizona, was planted earlier in the spring when he decided Coral Seymour Memorial Park would be the perfect place to pop the big question, on a field Darrow grew up playing and winning on.
With help from parents John and Monica Darrow, the Oilers coaching staff and radio broadcasters Casey Roehl and Dan Gensel, Darrow carefully crafted a way to get Bryan to sing the national anthem prior to the game.
“It was kind of a silly idea at first, and I didn’t know how realistic it was,” he said.
Darrow quietly snuck in behind a group of teammates huddled around the pitching mound without Bryan seeing him, then made his appearance.
Bryan turned around to her surprise and Darrow stooped to one knee for the big question, and she gave an emphatic yes, an answer Darrow had no doubt she would give.
“I was excited for the game, but I knew I couldn’t do it without asking her first,” he said.
Sanchez said when Darrow came to him and Oilers head coach Kyle Brown and pitching coach Ryan Doran, the staff had no problem helping him put together the pregame surprise.
“The biggest thing was we just hoped she’d say yes,” Sanchez said with a laugh. “We’re all for building families.”
Darrow said the couple will be wed in August in St. George, Utah, where a lot of his family resides.
This summer, Darrow has made spot starts for the Oilers infield, and got to punctuate his big proposal to Bryan with a team win. Tied at 1-all in the bottom of the fifth in a seven-inning contest with the Anchorage Bucs, Darrow led off with a grounder to shortstop that was mishandled, allowing him to reach on error. Darrow then made a move to steal second and the throw from the Bucs catcher was off line.
Darrow jumped up, took third base, but the throw to get him there sailed into the Bucs dugout, allowing him to reach home plate on a series of errors that scored the go-ahead run, which the Oilers would never give up in a 2-1 win.
All part of a day’s work for the soft spoken infielder.
Darrow’s journey to re-establishing his baseball career is littered with key moments. As far back as his memory allows, Darrow was outside playing catch with his father.
The long summers of Alaska afforded the Darrows hours of daylight to have some fun. Darrow recalls staying out until the wee hours of the morning playing ball as the twilight of a midsummer in Alaska kept him going.
Hours of playing whiffleball with his younger brother, Josh, provided a similar outlet to unleash his joy.
“It’s my passion, I love it,” he said. “I can’t get enough of it.”
The passion was only stoked further when Darrow got to experience his first championship at age 14 with the Soldotna All-Stars Little League program. Darrow also played for a Little League title four years earlier but lost.
Darrow said his dad always encouraged him to go after his dreams, and knew his son had what it took to play ball in the bigger leagues.
“It began to get serious around American Legion,” Darrow said, adding that longtime Twins team manager Lance Coz also played a big role in his development.
Entering the Post 20 Twins program around age 13 provided some big-time experience for the young Darrow. While most kids were still two or three years out from making their Legion debut, Darrow hung around with the older players and soaked up as much knowledge as he could.
It paid off with a state Legion championship in 2012, a deep team led by Darrow that won 36 games. The title snapped a title drought for the Twins that dated back to 1995.
The 2012 squad had to dig deep to claim their title. The Twins lost their state tournament opener, but never lost again as they charged to seven straight victories to top Chugiak in a double-elimination title bout for the crown.
Darrow was named a co-winner of the Gold Glove award as a shortstop.
Sanchez, a Chula Vista, California, player who arrived in Kenai this summer on the praise of Brown, said his philosophy as a hitter has always been to play to his player’s strengths. Sanchez said Darrow’s approach to the plate comes from his desire to help his team in any way possible. Home runs may be great to hit, but if a liner to right field can move the base runners, that will be enough.
“I tell them, ‘Just be you,’” Sanchez said. “And Darrow’s a contact guy, he is a guy that will hit it to the gaps.”
After graduating SoHi, Darrow spent two years at Treasure Valley (Oregon) Community College, but made the decision to put his baseball career on hold to complete his mission with his church.
Upon completing his mission, Darrow began looking at his options, and that’s where Kennedy came in. The 2016 stop with the Oilers resulted in a look from Eastern Arizona coach Jim Bagnall, who ultimately offered Darrow a scholarship.
Darrow spent the next two seasons at Eastern Arizona, where he studied business management. He also has dreams of becoming an airline pilot.
Since then, Darrow’s been on a mission of his own to prove his potential. That first fall at Eastern Arizona, Darrow pulled out all the stops.
“I would get to the park two hours early to practice,” he said. “I’d stay two hours late.
“I just didn’t want to get cut.”
With a roster spot set on the Northwestern Oklahoma State team, Darrow is hoping to keep his revival going with another strong campaign at a higher level of college ball.
“I had a good year (at Eastern Arizona),” he said. “If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here.”