East Union’s baseball team was moments away from clinching its first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship on June 1, 1998 when head coach Darrell Hardcastle commanded the attention of one of his young assistants.
Hardcastle could sense the excitement building in the dugout and from the Lancer faithful in the stands. He turned to the assistant coach and urged him take in the spirited atmosphere at Zupo Field.
“Enjoy it, because you never know when it can happen again,” Hardcastle said to Eric Simoni, who is now principal at their alma mater.
East Union would indeed go on to claim the SJS Division II title seconds later, defeating Rocklin, 10-6. It remains the lone Section title for EU’s baseball team, and on Wednesday — one day before 25th-year anniversary — Hardcastle got to reconnect with former players and coaches from that ’98 team in a surprise video conference set up by his standout shortstop and son, J.T.
Simoni was among the attendees, and he shared the pre-celebratory snapshot still etched into mind.
“The game was in hand, and we were just waiting for the big dog pile on the mound,” Simoni recalled. “That was when coach grabbed me and said, ‘Eric, stay right here. I want you to look at the players’ faces. Look at the other coaches and their facial expressions. The students. The moms and dads, aunts and uncles. Take it all in. Look at the field and look at the scoreboard. This is a special moment. Never forget it.’
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a special time, for sure.”
While his dad had not spoken of it, J.T. was well aware that the 25th-year anniversary of the Section championship was approaching. There was no better time to bring the boys back together, even if they are scattered across different parts of the world.
“The fact that it has been 25 years, that’s a big marker when you start getting old,” J.T. said. “You start to realize how much time has flown by. I’ve been wanting to honor my dad as the head coach, and as his son who was also a player on the team, I have a perspective of all this that nobody has.
“It brings back memories. I can get emotional talking about my dad. Getting to play for him is such a huge honor of mine. I figured that 25 years is worth recognizing, so I wanted to gather as much of the guys as I could. Thanks to social media, it makes things like that possible. I haven’t spoken to a lot of the guys since that time and it was fun.”
The Zoom call lasted for about an hour Wednesday night.
J.T. and Darrell live in neighboring Texas cities, but the elder Hardcastle and wife Donna are in Alabama for a granddaughter’s graduation. Their daughter Jessie was also in on the big surprise. She had the Zoom meeting ready on the living room television as an unsuspecting Darrell walked in and was taken aback by the familiar strangers on the screen.
“There were all these individual pictures from the Zoom call, and at first I didn’t recognize them,” Darrell said. “It took a few seconds to realize, ‘Wait a minute. I know these people.’ And then J.T. spoke up and said this is what he had done. They had arranged all this behind my back, and my son and family were apparently all in on it. It was a total surprise.
“The last time I saw them as a group, they were 17-18 years old. Seeing them now as men in their early 40s, that’s what’s crazy. I just couldn’t stop smiling. This was a really interesting group of guys. The whole season wasn’t anything I had ever expected. It was ups and downs, ins and outs. Different people contributed to all of the things that happened. It was just a blessed year. … and it all came rushing back when I saw those faces.”
Many of the stars from that team were at hand, such as second baseman Jack Arroyo and ace pitcher Don Gemmell. J.T. said it was Gemmell’s idea bring the group together via Zoom. The original plan was for the players to send video messages to Coach Hardcastle on the anniversary day.
Keith Danel, J.T.’s childhood best friend also made an appearance, as did Shingo Miyake — a foreign-exchange student from Japan during his time at EU. And there’s Derrick Kibler, one of the heroes of the dramatic 7-5 comeback win over Rocklin in the quarterfinals.
“Honestly, I didn’t know for sure if anyone was going to show up,” J.T. said. “Then guys started popping up. I was going, ‘Oh my God, it’s Shingo! It’s Jack, Kibler and Carl (Herrera)!’ I felt like a little kid seeing all my buddies on the screen.”
Darrell said he knew the team had the talent to win it all, but a topsy-turvy regular season put those hopes in doubt. Quick-rising rival Sierra, just a few years after it opened, claimed the Valley Oak League championship, and the Lancers needed a no-hitter in their final regular-season game just to get into the playoffs.
The quarterfinal win against Rocklin was when Hardcastle believed the title was the Lancers’ to lose.
East Union trailed by three runs when Hardcastle called Kibler off the bench to pinch-hit in a pressure-packed situation. Kibler delivered with a two-out, three run homer to tie it at 5-5, and Kevin Triplett followed with the go-ahead, two-RBI single.
The Lancers then took care of Placer 5-2 in the winner’s-bracket semifinal.
“In baseball, if you get hot at the right time, good things can happen,” Darrell said. “We had a miracle game in that tournament. Once that game happened, I told those guys, ‘You know what? We can win this all.’”
Hardcastle gave a nod to his coaching staff, which consisted of now-recognizable names — Brian Goulart, Mike James, Dan Triglia and Simoni.
“Coach Jim Brown was my mentor,” Hardcastle said, acknowledging East Union’s legendary football coach and teacher. “He told me to surround yourself with good and loyal people, and those guys are exactly that. That’s how good things happen, you hang out with good people and let them contribute their expertise and just sit back and enjoy it. Those guys were huge.”
Hardcastle stepped down after the 1999 season. He and Donna followed J.T. and Jessie out of state as they continued their athletic careers at Mississippi State. Their eldest daughter, Vonda, still resides in Manteca.
Triglia was the freshman coach before succeeding Darrell. He coached the Lancers for the next 19 years, earning two co-VOL championships and making SJS final-round appearances in 2004 (Division III) and 2008 (Division IV).
Mike James remained as JV coach under Triglia for several years, but in 2003 he became the first East Union alumnus to be named varsity football coach at the school. In 2010, the James-led Lancers made their first postseason appearance since 1992, and in 2019 he was the defensive coordinator for Sierra’s run to the SJS Division IV championship.
Brian Goulart’s first shot at coaching was as varsity assistant for Hardcastle on the ’98 squad. He went on to carve out his own successful coaching career in three different sports at East Union.
Goulart got to coach daughters Brionna and Jillian during his 19-year stint as softball coach, which includes two SJS championships, eight VOL titles and the 2015 Cal-Hi Sports Division III Team of the Year award. He also helped guide the girls golf team to 12 league titles and seven SJS divisional banners as co-head coach with Dennis Wells. Goulart even coached the girls basketball team for two years, winning the 2007 title.
Goulart, in fact, moved his family to Texas in the summer of 2021 and now coaches and teaches at Princeton High.
“Brian is right down the road from me,” Darrell said. “We see each other all the time.”
Then there’s Simoni, who is East Union’s first graduate to serve as principal. He returned to campus in 2022 after spending six years as principal at Escalon High. Prior to that, he was athletic director and boys basketball coach at East Union, succeeding the highly-regarded Bill Stricker in both posts. Simoni led the Lancers to three straight titles in 2003-05.
“We always like to remind Coach Hardcastle that he had a great coaching staff,” Simoni joked. “I can tell you the reunion was awesome. There were people from all over the country — the Midwest, East Coast, West Coast and oversees. The impact that Coach Hardcastle had on these young men, including myself, was pretty profound.
“Coach Stricker, of course, was a big influence for me, as was Coach Hardcastle — not just as coaches, but in the educational field. They inspired me to work with young people. I’m so lucky to have those men in my life.”
Simoni played for Hardcastle and was on the SJS Division II runner-up team in 1991. Hardcastle and the Lancers reached the SJS finals for the first time in 1986, dropping two of three to Mesa Verde.
“I was a kid around that time at every sporting event,” J.T. said. “You grow up around Armando Avina, Eric Simoni, Ron Kackley, Robert Randall — I can go on and on. I see the impact they made every year, and there’s that hope that you can win it all.
“For it not to happen by the time I got there, I wanted to do everything I can to help get us there. To do it with all my buddies I grew up playing ball with, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys.”
Darrell Hardcastle is still coaching and teaching. He’s just completed his 18th year at Van Alstyne High, where he is an assistant baseball coach. After leaving Manteca, he taught and coached in Ocean Springs, Miss. for six years before father and son moved to Texas.
Now 67, Hardcastle is not sure when he’ll stop.
“Until God tells me to do something else, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
With family still in Manteca, the Hardcastles visit their old stomping grounds frequently. Darrell, a 1974 grad, was inducted into the East Union Hall of Fame last year and came to take part in the ceremony.
Although he has been part of championship teams since, Hardcastle said it will always be tough to top the ’98 Lancers.
“It’s where I grew up and went to school, plus, J.T. was on that team,” Darrell said. “I knew all of those kids since they were little. I could not have a better group of guys to be part of something like that. They were all a piece of the puzzle. Not one of them had to do it all, they all contributed. That’s what makes it more special.
“Even if I coach more and win more, it will never be like that. That was God’s gift to me.”
And he appreciates this gift from the team 25 years later.
“Seeing those guys (in the video conference) and where they are in their lives, you have no idea how much my heart was touched to hear about how they’re doing,” Hardcastle said. “That is way more important than baseball, to see who they are as men and fathers. That’s what makes me proud.”