Tristan Cairnes

School: Upper Dublin

Football, Baseball





Favorite athlete: Jack Leiter


Favorite team: Philadelphia Eagles

Favorite memory competing in sports: Winning it on a walk-off in the district championship game


Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports:  Throwing three interceptions in my first varsity football start


Music on my playlist: Country, Rap, Early 2010s hip hop


Future plans: Majoring in Economics and Finance at West Chester


Words to live by: “Do what you are supposed to do, when you are supposed to do it.”


One goal before turning 30: Buying my first house and starting a family


One thing people don’t know about me: I went to La Salle my freshman year


By Ed Morrone


The pandemic has been difficult enough for high school athletes to navigate the last two-plus years, but what would you do if, on top of that, an EF-2 tornado in suburban Philadelphia dropped a tree directly on top of your home?

While it sounds like an improbable scenario found only in Hollywood movie scripts, this became a stunning reality for Tristan Cairnes and his family when said tornado and its 130-MPH winds inexplicably tore through Upper Dublin Township on Sept. 1, 2021.

Cairnes, a football and baseball player at Upper Dublin High School, had been sent home with his football team that afternoon due to the approaching storm. He was on a Zoom call with head coach Bret Stover and the rest of the team, watching film from the season-opening win over Wissahickon (where his dad, Jim, is the athletic director) and preparing for the next one against Council Rock South when all hell broke loose in an instant.

“Around 1 or 2 p.m. they canceled after-school sports, which is why I was home on the Zoom call,” Cairnes recalled. “You always get those weather alerts on your phone when there's a really bad storm and don’t think much of them; those started happening around 4 or 5. My mom started screaming for me to get down to the basement immediately. I went downstairs to the kitchen and as I opened the basement door and went down one step, it sounded like a train coming toward the house. There was a big bang, and then a huge crack right above where we eat dinner. The whole rest of the night, it was like a waterfall in our kitchen.”

The Cairnes Family was lucky that their home was not completely uninhabitable, but it shrunk exponentially as most of the first floor needed to be entirely renovated. Cairnes was able to sleep in his bedroom, which now doubled as a storage facility, so needless to say things were very uncomfortable for about three to four months. After the pandemic confined so many to their homes, Cairnes now couldn’t even feel normal there because a tornado — yes, a tornado, in Montgomery County! — upended his sanctuary. 

It made Cairnes lean into athletics even more as a distraction, even if Upper Dublin had to figure out where it could even practice and play due to the damage to its own field. (Jim Cairnes, dealing with an impossible family situation himself, was one of the first people who opened Wissahickon’s doors to share their facilities with the displaced Cardinals.) 

Cairnes’ story is even more amazing when zooming out and viewing it from a broader scope: after spending his freshman year at La Salle, he made the decision to transfer back to the public school system in Upper Dublin, where he had been a student since kindergarten. Three years, one pandemic, one tornado and two district championships later, Cairnes has truly come full circle on his journey.


Cairnes enjoyed his one year at La Salle, but something was missing. His father and some other family members had gone there, so Cairnes just assumed he would follow suit. Nothing terrible happened that made Cairnes switch back to Upper Dublin; it just didn’t feel right, and he wanted to be closer to his friends and familiar surroundings. 

He played football on the La Salle freshman team but says that had he stayed he probably would have given up football just to focus on baseball, which would have deprived Cairnes of his first district championship on the football field his junior year at Upper Dublin. There were some admitted growing pains, especially when Cairnes was thrust into a co-starting quarterback role as a sophomore when the team’s starter suffered a torn ACL. The results weren’t great, as Cairnes threw three picks in his first varsity start and the team was ravaged by injuries (although Cairnes was quick to point out that he did win one game under center in what became a two-win season). 

“That whole season was a nightmare,” Cairnes said. “I felt like I got thrown into the fire, as we just got hammered by injuries. We had a senior quarterback who I thought I would sit behind and learn from heading into my junior year as the starter. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but being so young and tested by injuries, I think being forced to battle through it only helped us for the year after when we did win the district title.”

Upper Dublin had another quarterback transfer in the following season, so the Cairnes experiment under center was over. He played some receiver at La Salle and so he was able to make a transition to tight end once he got more comfortable with blocking schemes; however, defensively was where Cairnes really made his presence felt at defensive end and outside linebacker, leaning into his close relationship with defensive coordinator Dave Sowers to really forge an identity on that side of the ball.

COVID was still an issue that season, so Upper Dublin only played seven games total, winning six, including the district championship game over West Chester Rustin in an abbreviated four-team bracket. The circumstances didn’t matter: what mattered most was the football program made the best of a bad situation, which would later become thematic of the life Cairnes was living.

“Coach Sowers has coached me since I was a little 55-pound kid in elementary school,” Cairnes said. “We’re such good friends, and I started working out with him and the linebackers in practice and was able to take on a big role as one of the captains of our defense. I was so close with Coach Sowers that entire year, just watching film, being on Zoom calls communicating with him, which allowed me to take on that larger role as an outside linebacker.

“Offensively, I had played a little tight end as a kid. I’ve always been pretty solid catching the ball, so learning how to be an effective blocker was the biggest adjustment.”

As the football team’s head coach, Stover wasn’t necessarily sure how Cairnes would respond to the switch from quarterback to tight end and linebacker. Once you’ve tasted what it’s like to be a quarterback (even amidst a lot of losses), that control can be difficult to surrender. 

“Sometimes when you’re not ‘the man’ anymore, that can be tough for kids to handle,” Stover said. “That was something we always gave Tristan props for, because it was never about him — he just wanted what was best for the team. He was fine being placed wherever he best fit. He ended up winning a district championship as a junior, and then his senior season he’s first team all-conference on defense. He had a huge sack in the Souderton game to secure a win for us, and he had a number of important catches that moved the chains for us while always being involved in our goal line packages. Some kids I’ve coached, when they lost their starting role somewhere, they kind of go off on their own and no longer help the team out. Tristan bounced around the sport and ended up becoming a very good football player for us.”


And while this past season did not have quite as storybook an ending as Cairnes’ junior year, the Cardinals still posted a 9-3 record, finished second in SOL Continental and won a district game before bowing out at the hands of Plymouth Whitemarsh in the second round. All of this is amazing considering the damage the tornado wrought on the community, and Stover said Cairnes never let on how much that day impacted him and his family.

“We didn’t practice the following Monday because the kids, including Tristan and his brother (Nate), went into the community to remove downed trees,” Stover said. “The tree devastation was unbelievable, and our guys were bouncing from house to house to help. He never once let on about the damage to his house because it wasn’t about that with Tristan. He never talked about it unless I brought it up. He always said, ‘I’m fine, Coach’ and didn’t want the attention. To him, there were people a lot worse off than the hand he and his family were dealt. He kept himself compartmentalized and went out and played for his team and community every single day.”

Not only did football help the community at large heal, but it helped Cairnes feel whole during a turbulent time.

“Football helped so much,” he said. “My room was one of the only ones I could still be in, and being in there alone sucked. Anything I could do to get out of the house, football-wise, I went. It was like living in a different reality almost, but it was nice to have football to always go back to. I can confidently say that us as a team and community overcame so much. We could tell how much it meant for people to come to our games in both football and baseball, and in turn going out and playing the game for them meant so much to us as players. We played for the community, and it brought everybody closer together.”


It’s unknown how many tornadoes have touched down in Upper Dublin throughout history, but even so, the number of tornadoes to district baseball championships in baseball program history on Sept. 1, 2021, was at the very least one to zero.

Even before Cairnes left to go to La Salle, the seventh- and eighth-grade components of what would ultimately comprise the 2022 high school baseball team excitedly talked about what could be if they all stuck together through their junior and senior seasons. 

“Going through middle school in seventh and eighth grades, our teams were unbelievable to the point we almost went undefeated both years,” Cairnes said. “We knew from there that if we stayed together we could do something special in 2022. I wouldn’t say we expected to win the district title, but it was the standard we held ourselves to even back then. We knew how tight-knit and talented we were, and we always thought how nice it would be if we could be remembered for that.”

Upper Dublin’s field was still damaged enough by the tornado in the spring that the team played most of its home games at Villanova’s field in Plymouth Meeting. With both his team’s home and his actual home impacted by the tornado, Cairnes just kept pushing forward, and he continued to be the reliable, consistent starting pitcher that racked up complete game after complete game, relying on his ability to paint the zone with finesse over power and constantly induce soft contact from frustrated lineups. 


The team finished 17-7 overall and 13-3 in SOL Liberty, which was good for second place behind front-running Hatboro-Horsham. Entering the 5A district tournament as the No. 2 seed, Upper Dublin used three straight one-run wins over Bishop Shanahan (3-2), Marple Newtown (4-3) and Strath Haven (3-2) to capture the first district title in program history.

Ed Wall, the head baseball coach at Upper Dublin, gets noticeably emotional when asked to put things into perspective for a group that endured a pandemic that robbed them of Cairnes’ entire sophomore campaign, as well as a tornado that diverted them but never knocked the team off course. It’s one thing to think about it as a vision five years ago, but to actually stick it out and achieve a championship despite everything that came their way is something else entirely.

“It gets me choked up talking about how proud I am of these guys, and it’s definitely something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives,” said Wall. “All the time and dedication and effort that they put in in the face of adversity when we couldn’t even be in our building…the tough losses, great comebacks and big wins we’ve had, they’re all wrapped up in these memories. These guys just wanted to be together to hang out and be that family of a team, and Tristan gets that as much as anybody. He and this group of seniors showed what it takes to be great, and they received the rewards for dedicating themselves to it. It was the mindset they brought, and they backed it up. We’ve got a banner, a trophy and a ton of memories to show for it.”

Cairnes appeared in every single one of Upper Dublin’s games as a pitcher or designated hitter save for the last one, the team’s 8-7 loss to Selinsgrove in the state quarterfinals on June 9, and he was remarkably consistent, especially on the mound. High school starters are capped at 100 pitches per start to preserve their arms long term, and Wall said he could only remember one instance in Cairnes’ career where he had to take him out due to the high pitch count. 

While Cairnes doesn’t possess a high-velocity fastball or a 12-6 curve that hitters can’t catch up to, Wall classified him as “calculating” in attacking a hitter’s weaknesses. Always efficient, Cairnes racked up a plethora of complete games, sometimes needing only 60 or 70 pitches to record 21 outs. Hitters have no choice but to be aggressive when facing him, and even when they are, Cairnes knows how to initiate soft contact that results in routine outs for the defense.

“I don’t have the numbers everyone looks for in terms of how fast I throw, so consistency is my biggest thing,” Cairnes said. “Even though I don’t throw hard, my mindset every single time is this batter cannot get a hit off me. That confidence helps me maintain that mindset, and I have a curveball that I can throw for strikes in any count. Without a high-velocity fastball, I know I have to do the other things very well. I’ll use all 100 pitches if I have to, because I’m also that confident in the fielders behind me. If I don’t walk batters and pitch to soft contact, I know the guys behind me will make the outs.”

Cairnes was on the mound against Strath Haven in the district title game at Neumann University on May 31. Each starting pitcher surrendered a first-inning run, then traded zeroes for the next five frames. In the top of the seventh, a pinch hit single and a double over the center fielder’s head surrendered by Cairnes placed Upper Dublin into a 2-1 deficit, suddenly plunging the district title hopes temporarily into peril. But just like they did against Marple Newtown the previous round, the Cardinals rallied, this time for two in the home seventh, with the first coming on an RBI single; then, with the bases loaded and two outs, the winning run scored on a grounder to second that turned into an airmailed error. 

Upper Dublin would not be denied their destiny on this day.

“Just a rollercoaster of emotions that day,” Cairnes said. “When the double off me happened, I just thought, ‘Unreal,’ because there’s no way after all this hard work that we’re going to lose it now, right? I led off the seventh with an infield single, and the next guy laid down a bunt to get me to second. As soon as I was in scoring position, I knew we had ourselves another chance to extend the game. When that throw got airmailed, I was just speechless. So happy.”


Cairnes will attend West Chester University in the fall, where he plans on studying Economics and Finance. He’s always been good with math and numbers, and both his uncle and cousin have found success working as financial advisors, something that seems very appealing to Cairnes. He isn't playing football or baseball for West Chester, although he'll probably give club baseball a try since it’s hard for Cairnes to envision a life without the sport.

That being said, if this past baseball season represented Cairnes’ final one as a competitive athlete, then he picked a good time to hang up his cleats. After all, had he stayed at La Salle after freshman year, he still would have had to endure the tornado damage without any of the feel-good comeback stories attached to his senior football and baseball campaigns at Upper Dublin. By going back home, Cairnes bet on himself in his most comforting environment, and despite unprecedented events such as a global pandemic and a horrific tornado in suburban Philly, he has two district titles and a wealth of memories to carry him on into the next stage of his life. 


Cairnes leaves behind two very grateful head coaches who are unsure how they are going to press forward without Cairnes’ quiet confidence that he instills in himself and those around him.

“I’ll be referencing him in our future game plans for the next generation,” Stover said. “Tristan did it this way — the right way. I never had to worry if he was ready to play. I didn’t even need to say anything. We’d just look at each other and nod, and that was all I needed to know. We demanded a lot from him, and I knew I could always count on him to be ready, for himself and his teammates.”

“His mentality comes from the strong family background he has,” Wall added. “Whatever happens, you carry on. That foundation is what created the mindset of a persevering attitude and the determination that makes Tristan who he is.”

Cairnes gave an example of the baseball team surprising him and his family with a mini-Christmas tree adorned with gift cards around the holidays to help make their burden a bit lighter as the Cairnes’ home was damaged worse than anyone else’s on the team. Their kitchen was still off limits at the time, and this gesture allowed them to order takeout food and eat as a family without having to worry about anything but enjoying each other’s presence.

“I hope to live here when I’m older because these last 18 years have been awesome,” he said. “When things go wrong, this community responds. They all came together to help us. I’m so extremely thankful that I made the choice to come back after I was at La Salle. With everything that went on, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to help get me and my family through it.”