CHAMPAIGN — Brandon McFarland described Tuesday’s Centennial-Urbana baseball matchup as “like any other game.”
Didn’t mean the first-year Tigers coach couldn’t add a little extra spice to the Big 12 game.
“I kind of played it up on social media and talking with the guys,” McFarland said following the Chargers’ 10-1 victory on their own field. The nearby rivals are back at it at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in Urbana.
“Just a friendly rivalry,” McFarland continued, “that (I) always love to compete in, no matter if I’m a player or a coach.”
This particular meeting wasn’t just another chapter of Centennial versus Urbana on the diamond, though.
That’s because Sam Flowers, a first-year coach in his own right, was manning the Chargers’ dugout.
After Tuesday’s game, each man acknowledged a close bond with the other.
Flowers said they’ve been friends for roughly 10 years. They play softball together and previously pitted opposing junior high baseball teams against one another — Flowers at Franklin STEAM Academy, McFarland at Urbana Middle School.
“When I got the job here at Centennial (in October 2020), I think he was one of the first ones that called me and congratulated me,” Flowers said. “And then when I saw his announcement on Facebook (in December 2020), that he got the varsity spot over at Urbana, I immediately called him and congratulated him. It’s important to me.”
Flowers and McFarland guiding two of the area’s big-school baseball programs brings to mind a similar situation that recently played out in the area prep football scene.
The football teams at Centennial, Champaign Central and Urbana were led by a trio of Black men — Lekevie Johnson with the Chargers, Tim Turner with the Maroons and Ordell Walker with the Tigers — during the 2018 season.
Johnson since has stepped away at Centennial, while Turner and Walker both remain at their posts.
Flowers and McFarland have recreated that dynamic in the Big 12 baseball ranks. Flowers, in fact, is Centennial’s first-ever Black baseball head coach.
“For us to be here at Centennial and Urbana, being two African-American coaches, I think that’s huge for this area,” Flowers said. “Now you get the younger kids growing up, and they see people of color in positions like this — as head coaches of great programs.”
McFarland said he’s excited for the opportunity to help cultivate local interest in the sport among “people of all color and races.”
“Especially coming from the neighborhood, and you see a lot of Black kids who have that opportunity now to do that,” McFarland said, “and they definitely didn’t have that opportunity maybe when I was growing up, or even a little bit before that. ... I saw some African-American kids on (Centennial’s) team, and we have a couple on our team. So it’s good to see that, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
McFarland’s rise to the top of the Urbana baseball coaching chain also holds a special place in his heart because he graduated from Urbana in 2001. He also previously coached the school’s JV team, resigning that role four years ago to focus on his family.
“The timing just worked perfectly for me to step into the position this year,” McFarland said. “All of the coaches before me have taken me under their wing and given me access to the program and taught me the game. ... Hopefully I can lead this program into a different year and new heights.”
Flowers also is relishing his new gig, saying it’s everything he expected it to be and more.
“I called my wife immediately (after being hired) and told her, ‘It’s finally here,’” Flowers said. “The sky’s the limit for these guys. I think we can go deep this season.”