No one would have blamed Jonathan Tuscan or even double guessed him for a second if he had decided to take a break from his South Mecklenburg baseball team last season when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer on March 27.
But instead of focusing all of his attention on his cancer, Tuscan says it was the relief he got from coaching his baseball team that not only motivated on him on daily basis, but got him through some of hardest times.
“When I was first diagnosed (with cancer), and I had to tell the guys (South Meck team), I said to myself ‘Why now, why this year, why this team,’ and I was worried that it would have negative effect on the team,” said Tuscan, who says baseball was what he looked forward to every day even after grueling six-hour therapy sessions. “…But instead they really responded and rallied around everything that was going on. I think we actually got better through adversity. Everything that happened, everything we accomplished was such a group effort and that made it all the more special.”
“Honestly, all of our inspiration came from him (Coach Tuscan),” South Meck senior shortstop Brooks Kennedy said. “I don’t want to take anything away from the team, we were a great team. But we took it to another level because of Coach Tuscan. We saw how hard he was working just to be able to coach the team. We knew he was grinding every day, fighting for his life. So, we wanted to grind through every game and do whatever it took to win.”
Inspired by Tuscan, South Meck (27-8) went on a magical run, tying Ardrey Kell for the Southwestern Conference title, winning the league tournament, before claiming their first 4A state title in 24 years, beating Fuquay-Varina 2-1.
But while the glow of that championship run can still be felt in the Sabre clubhouse, Tuscan says his team has turned the page to 2014.
“We realize last year was last year and this is a new year, new team,” said Tuscan, who says he is feeling better and a lot more energetic these days. “The guys are taking on their new roles and taking ownership of this team.”
While there will be a new overall team dynamic with all-state catcher, Logan Koch (now at South Carolina) and state championship series MVP, pitcher Earl Oliver graduated, the Sabres have plenty of talented pieces back in the puzzle this season.
That effort all starts with three, four-year starters, including seniors Brooks Kennedy, Harris Yett and Michael Smith.
Kennedy (University of North Carolina commit), an all-state pick, sets the tone at the top of the lineup as he batted .383 with 22 RBI and 32 stolen bases last season and hopes to be the same type of spark this season.
Meanwhile, Smith (John Hopkins University signee) is an all-conference third baseman, who is also one of the Sabres’ top pitchers.
Yett, an N.C. State signee, is the power (six homers last season) in the meat of the South Meck lineup, and is also shifting from first base to catcher to replace Koch.
The senior trio is just a part of a loaded Sabre group that will also heavily depend on all-state junior Max Bazin, who will be one of their starting pitchers (10-2 last year) as well as playing infielder and outfielder.
Tuscan says he also expects players like sophomores centerfielder Lawson McArthur and first baseman Christian Umphlett (also a pitcher), senior pitcher Charlie Johnson, freshman outfielder Nick Reynosa and Providence transfer Eric Jones, to have an impact.
Put it all together and the Sabres believe they can make another run at the conference and even state title.
They won’t forget about what Coach Tuscan is going through, as the team will don “JT20,” on their ball caps this season.
“We want to make another championship run more than anything,” Kennedy said, noting they know it won’t be easy with Ardrey Kell and Providence in their own conference. “…There are some people out there that think what we accomplished was somewhat of a fluke. We want to prove them wrong. We are going to do everything we can to stay on top.”
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