HUNTERSVILLE – Toward the end, he had trouble walking, so Edward Ruttkamp would park his truck down the left field line at North Mecklenburg High’s baseball field.

His sons – Zack on the varsity and Jack on the junior varsity – could glance over during games and know Dad was watching.

Ruttkamp, a fervent supporter of his three sons’ endeavors, died April 10 in the middle of the high school baseball season. He was 47.

His wife, Jillian, still parks his truck down the left field side for her sons.

“They feel like he’s still there, in a way,” she said.

Zack, a junior, is North Mecklenburg’s starting catcher and No. 2 pitcher. After his father’s passing, Zack missed one game and went to the next one but chose not to play. He returned to pitch against Mooresville on April 18.

“The only thing I could think about was my dad,” he said. “I knew he was watching me.”

Zack pitched seven strong innings, limiting Mooresville to two earned runs. He struck out eight batters. Zack also slammed two doubles and drove in two runs. North Meck won 4-3 in eight innings.

“Baseball is what I do,” Zack said. “It’s something my dad loved. Dad came to every game. I’m thankful I get to play and get my mind off other things.”

The Ruttkamps have a strong family bond. There’s also been support from the North Mecklenburg baseball “family.” Vikings coach Sean Ryan’s family lives two doors from the Ruttkamps. He’s known Zack since he was about 3 years old. Ryan’s sons Ryder and River are Vikings teammates and close friends with the Ruttkamp boys.

“Ed was a superior family man,” Ryan said. “He was a great dad and person. What a good-hearted guy. He ruffled some people’s feathers at games, but the guy would give the shirt off his back to you. We’d argue sometimes like brothers, but at the end of the day, I knew he was always a phone call away. He helped me as a coach and a person.”

Ed Ruttkamp often was a sounding board for Zack, when the frustrations of baseball closed in.

“He kept me going,” Zack said. “He pushed me to keep playing through the hard times.”

Jillian and Ed Ruttkamp were married for nearly 23 years.

“It’s definitely been very difficult for everybody because (his death) was so unexpected,” she said. “I know Zack thinks about him a lot.”

Ed coached Zack when he was a tyke in coach-pitch leagues. He’d take him to batting cages to hone his swing. He got Zack started into catching.

Zack said when he’s not playing or practicing baseball, he thinks about the good times he had with his dad. Most, not surprisingly, involve baseball.

“They all knew my dad,” Zack said. “He was always yelling at the umpires.”

Zack said his North Mecklenburg teammates have been like a “second family to me.” He’s been best friends with pitcher Ryder Ryan since they were 3. The duo has been vital in the Vikings’ resurgent season that includes a 13-11 record and berth in the N.C. 4A playoffs, which begin with a first-round game against Olympic on May 10.

Sean Ryan had to deal with the loss of a friend, but also with a player who had lost a parent in midseason.

“In the beginning I didn’t say much to Jack and Zack,” he said. “I offered words of encouragement, sat back and watched. I think that’s how you get kids at that age to grow. You let them go through it on their own. And Zack grew up before my eyes. I am so proud of him and the way he’s handling things. He became a man. He’s part of the family.”

Zack's drive on field, fueled in part by his father, is spilling into other aspects of his life.

“Before, I wasn’t really worried about grades all the time,” he said. “But now I know I have to do well. I want to play baseball for my dad. I’m a Boy Scout, too, so I want to advance in that for him. He always would tell us to do the better things in life.”