By all appearances in May of 2015, Zack and Jake Kessinger were living a dream life. Zack had just earned his undergraduate degree in Finance and Marketing and graduated as one of the most prolific baseball players in Washington University history. Jake was excelling on and off the baseball field at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, being recruited by multiple colleges.
Throughout their lives they, along with their youngest brother Luke, counted on the support of their biggest fan and inspiration, their mother Rosalind Ellis. However, on May 22, 2015 she passed away unexpectedly, changing their lives forever.
A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Rosalind earned her master's degree in physical therapy from Washington University and worked as a physical therapist for nearly 25 years, mostly in South Florida. In 2013, Rosalind was initially diagnosed with melanoma; however, she learned soon after that she also had breast cancer. "Initially, mom did everything she could to conceal her diagnosis because she didn't want us to worry about her. She told us before she passed away that she was afraid of how disclosing her diagnosis might affect our focus on school and athletics. When she was fighting her cancer, she still put us first. I remember on several occasions, she would take me to workouts or practice before she would pick up her medications. "The common theme with our mom was that she always put us first," Zack added.
Each year, Thanksgiving represents an opportunity for the three brothers to reflect on the things that they are most thankful for in their young lives. At the top of their list is Rosalind and the legacy that she has left each of them. "What I remember most about my mom is that she always encouraged us to excel on and off the field and taught us the importance of commitment and hard work in everything we do," said Luke. "She constantly fought regardless of how much pain she was in. The things that I saw her struggle with broke my heart, but I never heard her complain," Zack added.
The day after his mother passed away, Jake had his first summer tournament as a member of Elite Squad, a nationally recognized elite travel team in South Florida. "Coaches and family members encouraged me to stay home, but I knew she would want me to be there with my teammates to honor my commitment to my team," said Jake. "I hit a three-run double in my first at-bat, and as I slid into second base, I could feel her presence as I looked for her cheering for me in the stands," Jake added. Overwhelmed with emotion, Jake broke down in tears and left the game as his teammates cheered for him as he was helped off the field. "Everything I do on the field is to honor my mom and I'm so grateful to her for all that she stood for and meant to us," said Jake. Their mother continues to be their inspiration today.
Zack's Road to WashU
It was no surprise Zack became interested in playing sports. "My mom was an amazing volleyball and softball player, and my dad (Jim Kessinger) played football for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, so playing sports was expected," he said. Zack's parents coached him together during the T-ball and Coach Pitch years. Zack excelled throughout his career and was recognized as one of the top high school prospects in South Florida, as he was selected as a Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel 1st-Team first baseman in both his junior and senior seasons at Pine Crest.
During his recruiting process, Zack received multiple Division I and Division III offers. His parents, however, encouraged him to prioritize his focus on top-tier academic baseball programs and stressed the importance of getting the best education possible, while also playing baseball competitively. Having earned her Master's degree from Washington University, his mom encouraged Zack to visit the school before he made his final decision. "When I visited Wash U's campus, I had the chance to meet with former Athletic Director John Schael, and I was very impressed with the baseball program and the direction in which they were headed," said Zack.
"I remember the day he committed," said Zack's college coach Steve Duncan. "It was my first recruiting class and he was the prize recruit. My expectations were high for him after seeing him at the Headfirst's baseball camps in Florida and New York. You could check every box in terms of what you wanted to have as a player and student."
"Zack's commitment and passion for WashU baseball was top tier since day one. He was all about WashU from the first day he stepped on campus." Duncan said. "What I remembered most about Zack his freshman year was how polite and well-mannered he was. He came in saying, 'yes sir, sir' this and that. At the end of every practice, he would shake hands with the coaches and thank us."
Photo: Zack during his playing days at WashU
As he learned from his mom, Zack never complained and showed up every day ready to play. He only missed two games his entire career, due to injury, and started every game for four years. He amassed an impressive set of achievements during his playing career. He was named to the All-Association First Team three times, earned three UAA All-Academic accolades, and was a three-time UAA Presidents Scholar Athlete, a two-time UAA All-Tournament selection, and the 2013 UAA Championship Most Valuable Player. Zack finished his career as the program's all-time leader in runs batted in (162), games played (174), and single-season putouts (405). He ranked second all-time in hits (237), fourth in doubles (45), and 10th in runs (124). He reached base safely in 54 consecutive games from April 30, 2014 to May 15, 2015, marking the longest streak in WashU history and the third longest in NCAA Division III history. He was also named a D3baseball.com Academic All-American his senior season.
He fondly remembers April 19, 2015, which was the Bears' Senior Day game against rival University of Chicago. "It was the last time my mom was able to see me play. I still have a video of my second double of the game and can hear her voice cheering for me in the background as I rounded first base," he said. It's a memory that will be with him forever.
Jake's Road to Emory
Jake's parents introduced him to baseball at the age of five and became his first coaches. Although Jake played a number of sports growing up, including soccer, basketball, and crew, he committed to baseball full-time in middle school. Jake began playing travel ball at the age of 12, playing for the Mizuno Edge and in tournaments throughout the country as he did with Elite Squad during high school.
Photo: Jake in his playing days at Pine Crest
Jake received several Division I scholarship offers, but like his brother Zack, he ultimately decided on a school that offered him the best academic and competitive baseball environment possible. He acknowledges that Zack tried to convince him to consider Washington University, but said, "It's a great school and baseball program, but I didn't want to live in Zack's shadow and be expected to live up to his amazing accomplishments there." Based on the strong academics and traditionally outstanding baseball program, Jake made the decision to attend Emory University. "The turning point for me was meeting Coach Twardoski," said Jake. "I knew about him from my father and brother, but when I met him for the first time I knew I wanted to play for him and committed to Emory during the summer of my junior year. I could tell that he's passionate about coaching his players in every aspect of baseball and that he truly cares about you as a player and a student. He treats you like family."
Their conversation had the same effect on Twardoski. "I told (assistant coach) Bobby Perez that I wanted Jake to be a part of our program," he remembered. "He is so mature and knows what he wants to do. He was very focused on getting a great education and having a chance to win a national title." Although he couldn't help but notice the Kessinger name on the back of his jersey when he first got a chance to see Jake play, Twardoski looked at him as an individual and not Zack's brother. "I saw him at a showcase and I loved what I saw," he said about seeing Jake play. "He's a hard-nosed kid and he dominated the showcase. I knew his dad from the UAA tournaments and from Zack. We were on an elevator Zack's senior year and his dad told me how much he respected our program and had another son we should look at when the time was right."
Things started slowly in the fall baseball portion this year for Jake as he was sick early on and missed a little bit of time. "It's a short season in the fall and he didn't get to do all of it, but once he did, he immediately did a great job, " Twardoski said. "He is a hard worker and is putting extra time in for conditioning and lifting." Twardoski's biggest challenge wasn't with any time Jake missed, but in calling him the right name. "I kept calling him Zack without realizing it the first week and he didn't say anything," he laughed. "Then finally, he respectfully said to me, "Coach, you've called me Zack about 10 times, but they call me Jake."
Ironically, it wasn't until Jake committed to Emory that they both realized Jake's high school teammate Jacob Singer was also being recruited by the Eagles. "Coach was so excited I was coming and after talking for nearly 20 minutes about how bright Emory's baseball future is, he mentioned that he was recruiting a shortstop named Jacob Singer from South Florida," Jake said. "I told coach he was my high school teammate where we played together for four years."
Not only are Jake and Jacob teammates again, they are now roommates and may very well end up occupying the left side of the infield in college as they did together in high school where Jake played third base. "It's been a very comfortable transition for Jake and Jacob being here together and being roommates," Twardoski noted. "They are both great kids and sure to be great leaders down the road for our program."
Kessinger Family Today
The three brothers will be celebrating Thanksgiving together this year with Rosalind's family in St. Louis, where Zack is on course to graduate from the Washington University School of Law in May 2018 with a J.D. in business law. In his time at law school, Zack has already gained a wealth of experience, having served as a legal intern for both the Dallas Cowboys and the St. Louis Cardinals during his first two years. This past summer, he worked for six weeks at the Dallas law firm of Winstead PC and interned for nine weeks at the Securities and Exchange Commission's Division of Corporate Finance in Washington, D.C. Zack recently accepted a position with Winstead and will be working in their Dallas office beginning in September 2018, once he passes the Texas Bar Exam in July.
Jake is off to a fast start at Emory and is confident that his academic experience will serve him well the next four years. "I firmly believe in the importance of academics over athletics and my experience at Pine Crest helped me learn how to balance both," he said. Jake plans to major in Finance and Marketing with the goal of attending Emory's Goizueta Business School for his postgraduate degree.
Although the youngest, Luke is definitely the largest of the three brothers. As a junior, Luke is a 6'5", 260-pound offensive tackle for the same high school. Luke has garnered some interest from Division I schools for football and hopes to follow the family tradition of playing sports in college while attending strong academic program. "He already has several schools interested in him and he is only going to get better as he matures," said Zack.
Although their mother is no longer here to encourage each son and to celebrate their accomplishments together, it's clear that her influence is still present in their lives every day. "Our mom attended every game physically possible. Even when she wasn't there physically, we always felt her presence in our hearts and minds," said Zack. "The lessons that I learned from her have, and continue to have, a significant impact on me. I'm still learning from her and the meaning of all the things that she did for us," Jake concluded.
For this Thanksgiving holiday, all three brothers are grateful for the time, inspiration, and love that they had from their mother, Rosalind Dawn Ellis.