By Mylo Erickson
On March 29, 1996, 20 players and coaches from the South Mountain Community College baseball team were traveling in three vans to play a game against conference rival Cochise Community College.
One van blew a tire on Interstate 10 just outside Casa Grande at 4 p.m. The van flipped, seriously injuring three players and killing two of the 13 on board.
Baseball player Thomas Eaton, 19, who was driving, was pronounced dead at the scene. Four players were rushed to hospitals.
Alfred Stell, 19, later died at the hospital, according to police reports. Players Tony Adkins, Anthony Howard and Jay Shillington remained hospitalized in critical condition.
Roger Werbylo, who was head coach of the Pima Community College baseball team then, said the accident hit close to home.
“We traveled in vans also, and I think everybody realized that it could have been any one of us.”
At the time, all community colleges used vans to transport players. PCC policy required either a coach or a school employee to drive.
However, current Athletic Director Edgar Soto remembers driving fellow players when he was a student at Arizona Western College in 1987 and ‘88.
In the South Mountain team’s crash, Adkins was released from the hospital the week of April 15. He returned to school to watch his team continue the season.
Howard remained in a coma until the end of April. When he came to, he gradually began to show improvements but was still hospitalized when the Aztec Press published a story on May 1, 1996.
Shillington was released from the hospital before the Aztec Press publication date. He returned home, and began physical rehabilitation four days a week.
The other students in the van were treated at the hospital for minor injuries, then released.
“Our hearts went out to them,” Werbylo said. “It’s just one of those things that’s very, very tragic and I think everybody felt that tragedy.”
At the time of the accident, South Mountain was leading the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.
After deciding to continue with the season and dedicating it to Eaton and Stell, South Mountain fell to fourth in the conference.
Adkins eventually recovered completely and transferred to Mesa State University, which is now Colorado Mesa University.
After the accident, Pima began using charter buses to transport student athletes and coaches to games.