CEDAR RAPIDS — Cal Clark sat in a hospital room.
He couldn’t see out of a swollen left eye caused by the impact of a 92-mile per hour fastball. Clark endured pain he assumes was dulled by a minor case of shock. He waited patiently for test results that revealed six fractures to his face, including two to his orbital rim and a couple to his sinus area.
Even with the news that he needed late-season surgery, the Kirkwood sophomore’s lone concern was how soon he could have the procedure and length of recovery.
“I was just really praying that I would have a chance to come back,” Clark said. “We’ve had a great season. I knew we were in a great position to go win the conference tournament, which we did, and I really wanted to be a part of it.
“I was just thinking about doing everything I can to accept that it happened and not feel sorry for myself. I didn’t want my teammates to feel sorry for me. I just wanted to do everything I could to make sure I could get back into the lineup.”
Clark returned a week after surgery to help the Eagles claim the Region XI baseball tournament title and will be in the lineup when Kirkwood hosts Southeastern (Neb.) for a best-of-3 NJCAA Division II district playoff series, beginning Saturday at 1 p.m.
The series winner advances to the NJCAA World Series May 26-June 2 in Enid, Okla.
“We’re really excited to have the opportunity to not only be in the district but to host it at our field in front of our fans,” Kirkwood Coach Todd Rima said. “Our kids have worked extremely hard to put themselves in this position, so we’re really looking forward to playing on Saturday.”
Rima and the Eagles are more excited to have their regular second baseman back on the infield and in the middle of the batting order after the harrowing injury April 25.
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Clark dug in for his first at-bat in a home doubleheader against Indian Hills Community College. An inside fastball struck the former Cedar Rapids Prairie prep in the face.
“Unfortunately, I was not able to get all the way out of the way.” Clark said with a hint of a laugh. “When it hit me, it didn’t hurt as bad as you’d think it would. Probably because I went into a little bit of shock.”
Rima, who was in the third-base coaches box, and the team’s trainer rushed to Clark’s aid. He underwent concussion protocol and passed, but was escorted to the dugout. The eye swelled immediately. Rima has never witnessed situation like that in more than three decades as a player and coach.
“That was scary,” Rima said. “We’ve had some guys that had some pretty tough injuries before, but to see that happen was tough to watch.”
Clark watched the game for about 20 minutes when a bloody nose caused concern that more severe problems lingered under the surface. He was taken to the hospital for tests, including a CT scan. Clark actually made it back to the field to see the doubleheader’s conclusion from the bench.
“This is actually the first time in my entire career I ever had to miss a game because I was injured,” Clark said. “I have not experienced anything like it.”
Clark had surgery May 3, handling the initial pain from the procedure and feeling normal again after a couple days. He still had to overcome an obstacle as the postseason arrived.
The Region XI tournament started exactly one week after his surgery. The Eagles loaded up the bus and headed to Clinton without one of their leaders. Clark remained home, taking batting practice and ground balls with Kirkwood assistant Ron Benich.
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The Eagles had been on the road for an hour when Clark received medical clearance. Clark and Benich jumped into a school car and caught up with the team in time for the first-round game.
“I was extremely excited,” said Clark, who has shed a mask for a protective piece over his cheekbone. “I couldn’t wait to get to Clinton, really. I was a little nervous but I had a lot of adrenaline, too.
“The excitement and adrenaline outweighed any thoughts that it could happen again. I was well protected by the mask on my helmet.”
Clark batted ninth and walked in his first at-bat, seeing five total pitches. It was the perfect way to get comfortable and confident in the batter’s box again.
“I had a lot of time to watch some pitches from the dugout and get into the feel for the game,” Clark said. “Once I got into the batter’s box, it honestly felt like any other day hitting and I had to just deal with that mask.”
More than his glove and bat, Clark impacted the team emotionally. In return, Clark praised his teammates for their support during his time out of the lineup.
“To watch that kid respond and his teammates respond to him when he got back on the field was a big boost for us in the tournament,” Rima said. “They rallied around the toughness that he showed.”
Kirkwood has had a banner season, posting a 40-14-1 record.
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