Cancer diagnosis doesn't faze high school coach
Dealing with testicular cancer, Tuscan guides North Carolina team to state title
The first thought that struck Jon Tuscan was, "Not this team, not this year."
The baseball coach at South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C., was guiding his team to one of its most promising seasons. The Sabres' seniors started, in a sense, with Tuscan when he took over the program four years ago. And now, diagnosed in late March with testicular cancer, he wondered why it had to happen now.
"The first thought when I found out was, we knew this team was special, and I thought, 'Not this team, not this year. Why does this have to happen right now?'" Tuscan said. "I was like, 'If I get it, it is what it is; I'll be able to handle it, but why does it have to happen this year when we've got a good thing going on?'"
Tuscan was diagnosed on March 27, two days before spring break. He immediately began treatment and had surgery the following day. The Sabres were scheduled to play a day after that.
One of the first people he told was Logan Koch, the team's switch-hitting catcher and a team captain. Koch is one of those seniors who entered the high school in Tuscan's first year as coach.
"They wanted me to know so when they told everybody everybody else, I would already know," Koch said. "Just as a friend to coach, you put everything aside. Definitely for me and our seniors, we said we had to do this for coach. There was nothing better to help him fight his battle than to fight our battle."
The North Carolina 4A state tournament was only weeks away. So as their coach would receive his chemo treatments from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day during selected weeks -- like the week of the Regional finals -- the ball field was where the Sabres would fight their battle.
It proved to be one comeback after another. Koch estimates that of South Meck's 27 wins, the Sabres trailed in 16 of them. The best-of-three Regional series against Asheville powerhouse T.C. Roberson required a late rally in the third game of the weekend.
"[Tuscan] literally came from a week's worth of chemotherapy for 7-8 hours a day every day to come out to practice, even it was for 10-20 minutes," athletic director Kevin Hinson said.
"During the week of the Regional series, he was in full treatment and he made it to every game. It wasn't easy, but he was there and the kids just pulled him through it."
That brought South Mecklenburg to the state finals in Zebulon, N.C., with the opportunity to capture the school's first baseball state title since 1989. They traveled down May 30 and lost the opener to Fuquay-Varina, 3-2, May 31.
"The guys were just really tense," Tuscan said. "They were playing hard, but just with not the right focus. They were playing almost above where they should be, they were so excited."
South Mecklenburg was 5-0 in elimination games to that point and perhaps, Tuscan said, that's why everyone knew Saturday would be different. And it was. Earl Oliver -- people around town call him Big Earl, Hinson says -- twirled a complete-game five-hitter in Game 2, but the Sabres still trailed, 1-0, in the bottom of the seventh.
An error gave South Mecklenburg a man on, and a perfectly-executed hit-and-run put runners on the corners. That brought up the team's Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, and that was when back-to-back squeeze bunts brought in the tying and game-winning runs.
"People couldn't believe what had happened," Hinson said. "It was one of those things you would have never said it would have happened, and it just so happened it did. That was our last shot. If you don't get those last two runs, you're done."
Tuscan called for the first, and McKay Wrenn executed it perfectly down the first-base line. The second was purely Alex Wilson's decision, and it came with two strikes.
"If there was one way to win, that would be it," Koch said. "We always find one way to do it."
Said Hinson: "It was kind of like, 'Is this really happening?' When you're sitting there watching this, you want to win, and for the kids to be successful, but when this happened, I said to myself, 'Is this really happening?' Are we winning the state championship this year?"
The Sabres had momentum, and they had a little luck to supplement it. The 2A State Championship had only gone to two games, so South Mecklenburg and Fuquay-Varina's Game 3 was set to start 30 minutes later. By that time, it felt to some like there was a lot more than baseball at play.
"After everything we went through that year, we had a little saying -- the last four years, we've watched everybody get theirs, and it was time to get ours," Koch said.
"Let's get ours."
Quickly, the Sabres were down again -- this time by four runs in the top of the second -- but it didn't last long. They tied it with four in the bottom of the inning.
"Got down, came back, tied it up, got ahead and never looked back," Hinson said. "Ended up scoring three more runs on them and beat them 7-4, and won the championship."
Hinson suspects last year's team may not have been able to overcome defeat like that, not so many times. This week, when hundreds of talented amateur players will be selected in the First-Year Player Draft, we see that talent and physical ability is one thing, but maturity and emotional development plays a part in such another, critical way.
"A lot of them just kept going back to the fight thing," Tuscan said. "Especially those guys that had been with me since the beginning. They just said, 'Coach, if you keep fighting, we'll keep fighting.'"
Tuscan is six weeks into his chemotherapy with three more weeks on the horizon. After that, he'll have another scan, and then "hopefully that'll be it," he said.
A coach and his players. One comeback after another.
"It kind of turned out to be the other way," Tuscan says of his initial reaction to the diagnosis. "It is this year, where these guys can handle it and do what we can do. I think I had it backwards, thinking I didn't want anything to mess it up, and they were just mature enough to let it not be an issue, and to win."