CEDAR RAPIDS — For part of this season, Chapman's baseball team hung two jerseys in the back of its dugout.
One was for freshman teammate, Miguel Cebedo, who suffered an unexpected season-ending injury in practice a couple weeks before the postseason. The other was in honor of the late Carter Ankeny, a 6-year-old leukemia patient paired with the team through Team Impact, an organization that matches terminally ill patients with college programs.
Both have made an impact on the Panthers, especially the memory of Ankeny.
“It is absolutely one of the best things I’ve ever done for one of my teams,” said Coach Scott Laverty, who has coached 20 seasons including the last six with Chapman. “The heart-wrench and anguish that we felt when we lost him still showed the guys we get to play a game. If I struck out, there’s Carter still ready to give me a high-five.
“This is fun. We can work hard and let the chips fall where they may.”
Sixth-ranked Chapman (Calif.) posted a 6-3 victory over Washington & Jefferson (Pa.) in the first round of the NCAA Division III World Series on Friday at Memorial Stadium.
The Panthers were introduced to their “youngest teammate” in 2016. Ankeny was just 5 years old when he was diagnosed with the cancer that affects blood and bone marrow. They developed a strong bond with him, attending chemotherapy sessions at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, which is less than a mile from the Panthers’ field.
They also played video games together, had dinner with the family and welcomed him to workouts and games.
“He is such an inspiration to us in what he did for a year and a half with our program,” said Laverty, who has a daughter around the same age. “He was at practices every Thursday night. He might have had done chemo for half a day and come to practice, year-round and (was) vibrant.”
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Starter Jonathan Hernandez recalled Ankeny’s love for baseball. He said Ankeny reminded players of how they played for the enjoyment of the game before they began to worry about production at the plate or performance on the mound.
“You see a 6-year-old, who was battling leukemia and going through chemotherapy and that night he’s running around, smile on his face, it shows you how strong he was,” Hernandez said. “He’s looking up to us as 18 to 22-year-old guys, playing the game he just wanted to play.
“It reminds you of why you play the game and kind of takes you back to when you were little.”
Hernandez overcame a slow start. After allowing the first two batters of the game to reach, he buckled down to keep W&J scoreless through five. He surrendered three runs on seven hits, going seven innings to improve to 9-0. Getting out of the early jam allowed him to relax.
“I think it’s just getting used to it,” said Hernandez, referencing Laverty’s point about being on the road for the first time in a while. “Being on the big stage you’re going to have some nerves, settling in and finding your groove. Being able to do that as quickly as possible was my main goal.”
The Panthers (39-11) know all too well the game can be ripped away from you, even if you’re healthy. Cebedo was fourth on the team with .310 batting average. He carved a niche for himself at first base in his first season. He was struck by a throw in practice, fracturing multiple bones around his eye, according to Laverty.
Cebedo had surgery was able to accompany the team here.
“I think it was a big eye-opening realization for a lot of guys that anything can happen and it’s inspired me,” said Chapman’s Henry Zeisler, who had a game-high three hits and scored twice. “You’ve got to treat every game like it could be your last because you don’t know and with that attitude, going out and giving your all. That way if something unfortunate were to happen you can at least go down saying you gave it your all. No regrets.”
Adversity off the field can teach a number of lessons, including when the athletic version of adversity arises in competition.
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“It’s a game,” said Cheli, who had two hits, including an RBI single in the second and driving in the game-winning run in the sixth. “It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a privilege that we get to be out there with people we love and trust. When something like that happens to your team, it hurts. I think we’ve done a good job to overcome it and it made us stronger as a team.”
Washington & Jefferson (37-12) scored three in the sixth to tie it briefly until Chapman regained the lead in the bottom of the inning. The Presidents received a two-run double from James Artale and sacrifice fly from Joey Bolick to score Artale.
Chapman advances to face UMass-Boston (36-12) in the second round at 1:15 p.m. Saturday. W&J will play Webster (37-12) in a consolation game at 10 a.m.
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