Shortly before first pitch is thrown at Davenport Field on gamedays, an area in shallow left field, spreading to both sides of the third base line, serves as a silent sanctuary for Virginia baseball players.
Clad in their white, blue or orange uniforms, Cavaliers take a second — or several — for meditation or prayer prior to engaging in another nine innings when every play counts toward an on-going quest for a national title.
Branden Cogswell has been a part of this tradition for three years, kneeling with his teammates until jogging back to the dugout to grab his glove and head to his normal spot in the middle of UVa’s infield.
In June 2009, Cogswell lost his grandfather to congestive heart failure. Six months later, he could have lost his own life in a freak accident on a busy highway in upstate New York.
His uses his pre-game moment to remember, reflect and appreciate.
The two-time All-ACC performer might be the most fortunate participant in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
“I’m lucky to still be able to do the things I do,” Cogswell said.
‘I avoided death’
On Dec. 4, 2009, Branden Cogswell sat with his mother, Carol, on the front porch of their home in Ballston Lake, N.Y., when Tyler Rajeski, carrying Jason Kimmerer in the passenger seat of his ’09 black Jeep Liberty, pulled into the driveway.
It was around 5 o’clock on a Friday evening, meaning tip time for varsity high school basketball in the area was approaching.
The destination for Cogswell, Rajeski and Kimmerer was Albany Academy for Boys. It’s there where their Shenendehowa High Plainsmen were scheduled for a contest with Albany’s Cadets.
The route to get there was a familiar one, a 20-minute drive down Interstate 87, more commonly known in these parts as “the Northway.”
“We’re on it all the time,” Rajeski said.
Before Cogswell opened Rajeski’s back door to take his place on the right side, Carol offered her motherly advice.
“I love you,” she told Branden, “but please wear your seat belt.”
Her only child obliged and joined his clicked-in friends, signaling the trip could begin for the group of 16-year-olds.
Within 10-15 minutes, it came to an abrupt end.
Carol was doing laundry when her cell phone lit up with an unknown caller. Normally, she would be hesitant to pick up in such situations.
“I’m not big on it,” Carol said, “but, for whatever reason, I did. And it was Branden.”
Cogswell was off to the side of the three-lane highway, between the Northway’s Exit 5 and Exit 6. He was using an off-duty emergency medical technician's phone because his was nowhere to be found.
“It was gone,” Cogswell said, “couldn’t find it.”
It was likely lost with the abandoned group of belongings that littered the surrounding area.
“Tyler’s iPod had shot out of the middle of the windshield,” Kimmerer said. “His car was a mess. There were parts of his car along the highway. Glass was everywhere.”
But, even still, perhaps the scene didn’t do justice to what had just unfolded.
The accounts are best told from those who experienced the scariest few moments of their young lives.
“We were in the left lane,” Rajeski said. “I was just driving, not really expecting anything. A tractor trailer was in the middle lane, switching lanes to go off to the right. I didn’t really think anything of it.
“Next thing you know, it came flying back over and, before we could even think about doing anything, we were flipping through the air and rolling down the highway.”
According to witnesses, when the driver of the tractor trailer went to the right lane, she bumped a Honda Civic, triggering her to jerk the steering wheel back left.
“She overcompensated and hit us,” Cogswell said.
“It clipped the back end of Tyler’s car and just flipped us a couple times down the Northway,” Kimmerer said. “It was pretty ridiculous.”
In a flash, the trio went from on its way to a high school basketball game to pinned up against a guardrail, facing traffic.
“It was dark out, so all we saw was a bunch of headlights and stuff coming at us,” Rajeski said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess an EMT was off-duty and saw it happen and was behind us. She started following our car as it was rolling, so that when it stopped, she could try to stop traffic for us, make sure no else hit us.”
While also making sure everyone in Rajeski’s Liberty was in good condition.
Miraculously, they were.
“We’re sitting there and we make sure everyone’s OK,” Rajeski said, remembering the seconds following his vehicle finally coming to a stop. “I asked if everyone was all right. They were all right. I kind of look around and I’m like, ‘OK, can I walk? Is anything hurt?’ And then I get out and I was completely fine. I had some scratches on my hand.
“Meanwhile, all the airbags are out, the windows are all shattered, the door handles are off the car. I was expecting something to be wrong, but I didn’t feel any pain, nothing happened.”
Said Cogswell: “I got out and I was kind of waiting for something to hit me that was painful. It never did.”
Added Kimmerer: “We were shocked. I mean I had a scratch from a piece of glass, but everyone was fine. We climbed out and kind of gave each other a hug.”
Soon, they did the same with their parents.
By phone, Cogswell told his mother and father, Rich, that he was involved in an accident, but he was hardly injured.
The EMT then volunteered some more details.
Remembered Carol: “She said, ‘I’m just letting you know this was my phone that he used. All the boys are perfectly fine. But, as parents when you approach, you’re not going to believe me.’”
It was a tough sell.
“I think when you saw the vehicle,” Rich said, “you’re like, ‘Really? Wow.’”
But when they spotted their son, a different kind of emotion was sparked.
“He didn’t say anything,” Rich said. “He just gave us a big hug and started crying.”
Added Carol: “He didn’t want to let go. It was a happy, thankful, appreciative type of moment.”
Branden Cogswell was only a junior in high school, a month shy of his 17th birthday and two years away from coming to Virginia, but he’d been hit with a life-changing experience.
“I avoided death,” he said.
Tyler Rajeski recently wrapped his junior year at Siena College. Jason Kimmerer has done the same at SUNY Plattsburgh. Because of Cogswell’s baseball commitment, it’s difficult for the trio to reunite often.
But subtle signs always bring back the memory of Dec. 4, 2009.
To get to his school, Rajeski gets off at Exit 5.
“If someone else is in the car,” Rajeski said, “I’ll be like, ‘Yep, that’s where I had that accident.’”
Kimmerer said driving by tractor trailers “kind of freaked me out for a while.”
Cogswell used the experience as the topic to his UVa application essay because “that was probably the most influential thing of how life can change in an instant.”
Rajeski and Cogswell also try to speed by tractor trailers when possible. All three still have access to the pictures of Rajeski’s totaled Jeep.
“You look back at them,” Cogswell said, “and you’re like, ‘How did we all make it out with just scrapes?’”
The model of vehicle helped.
For Rajeski’s first car, he desired something fast and low to the ground.
“Of course as a 16-year-old kid,” Rajeski said, “I wanted a sports car, but my parents said a Jeep would be safer.”
High-built and equipped with roll bars, a Liberty ended up as a potential life-saving choice.
“This is why we wanted you to get a car that was safe,” Rajeski remembered his parents telling him post-accident.
Naturally, Rajeski didn’t stray from the reliable when selecting his next vehicle.
“My parents wouldn’t let me get away from a Jeep after something like that,” he said. “I went with a Jeep Grand Cherokee.”
A week after the accident, Cogswell took the road test to obtain his driver’s license.
“We thought he’d push it back,” Carol Cogswell said, “and he said ‘Nope, I’m going to go take it.’”
He passed, but, not shockingly, it took a while to release some jitters behind the wheel.
“I was just gun-shy,” Cogswell said. “That was probably one of my most nervous times ever for some reason.”
Surviving a tragic situation can lead to such caution.
“He was pulling out of the lot so slow,” Carol remembered, “but he was fine.”
They all were.
Thanks to a Jeep Liberty, buckled seat belts and, perhaps, some divine intervention.
“The Big Guy just kept an eye on them,” Rich Cogswell said.
A bad hop on a ground ball ended Branden Cogswell’s 2013 season.
“It was a fluke thing,” Rich Cogswell said.
While fielding from his shortstop position during a May practice, Cogswell fractured the middle finger on his throwing hand.
The injury required an operation and forced him to the dugout for all of Virginia’s run in the NCAA Tournament.
When the Cavaliers lost to Mississippi State in the Super Regional, they did it without their .346-hitting leadoff man.
The Cogswells, attendees at 80 percent of UVa’s games since their son became a Wahoo, watched the uneasiness from the Davenport Field bleachers.
“You could see the anxiety,” Rich said. “I mean he’s just pacing the dugout with his teammates on the field.”
Added Carol: “He wanted back so bad.”
But, since Dec. 4, 2009, Branden Cogswell has always felt back.
“Obviously at the moment, getting hurt’s tough,” Cogswell said, “but you realize there are other things in life and it could be worse. Something could change your life forever and not be fixed.
“It puts your life in perspective. You realize how lucky you really are, and a little injury for a couple weeks isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
A healthy 2014 season has led to a .295 batting average, .989 fielding percentage, a first-team All-ACC selection and a likely top-10 round pick in next week’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Before Friday’s 2 p.m. Charlottesville Regional opener against Bucknell, Cogswell will again join his teammates in shallow left field — praying, reflecting.
“I remember my mom saying, ‘I think it was Papa looking over you that day,’” Cogswell said. “Every day, I pray that he’s sitting in the stands. I know he’d enjoy this ride.”
A trip that flirted with ultimate cancellation in the Northway’s left lane.
“You don’t know when your last second on Earth’s going to be,” Cogswell said. “You just got to make sure you give it everything you’ve got and have no regrets because your life can change in a heartbeat and you don’t know when it’s coming.”