The toughest person Matt O'Brien knows cannot walk, talk or sit up straight. He is just four weeks old, after all.
Still, O'Brien's son, Declan, has already overcome bigger challenges than many adults have faced. He has already become a true underdog story, a triumph in courage.
Declan has already become his father's hero.
Jersey Shore baseball coach Matt O’Brien holds his son, Declan.
O'Brien opened the baseball preseason last month the way he has the previous three. The Jersey Shore baseball coach was working hard, preparing his team to defend HAC-I and District 4 Class AAA championships. He guided his team throughout the offseason and preseasons and was excited to start the 2014 journey.
Then a more important ride interrupted things.
It started as a routine ultrasound. O'Brien's wife Amber was nearing the end of her pregnancy and everything appeared normal. Moments after doctors looked at the latest ultrasound, though, the lives of O'Brien, Amber and Declan changed forever. The ultimate fight had started.
Dr. Masse's Top 5 rankings
1. Jersey Shore (7-1)
The Bulldogs are the only undefeated team in HAC-I play as they pursue their third straight league title. Jersey Shore has scored at last five runs in all seven wins and bounced back from a 4-0 loss to Central Mountain in impressive fashion as Hamm struck out a career-high in the South win. Senior shortstop Colton Potter is one of the district's premier all-around players. He has excellent range and quick hands and is a tough out in the middle of the lineup. Potter went 4 for 5 against South and doubled twice while igniting two rallies with lead-off hits and scoring three times.
2. Hughesville (7-2)
Shortstop Tyler Mitcheltree and Brady Kimble excel at the top of Hughesville's lineup and combined for four multi-hit performances in three games last week. Kimble went 3 for 4 with an RBI in a 5-1 win over Selinsgrove while Mitcheltree was 3 for 4 in a 9-4 win over Mifflinburg. Pitchers Logan Reynolds and Cody Stryker are a combined 5-0, taking advantage of their first significant varsity time and adding rotation depth. Hughesville has allowed four or fewer runs seven times, winning all those games but in two losses has surrendered 13 runs.
3. Loyalsock (4-2)
As much as Loyalsock struggled in two straight losses, the defending state champions showed why they remain a title threat, beating two-time defending Class AAA state champion West York, 5-1 last Thursday. It was a gigantic win against a previously 10-0 team that has seven starters back from last year. Pitcher Kyle Datres seems to save his best performances for Loyalsock's biggest games and/or toughest opponents and threw a 1-hit complete-game. Former South Williamsport outfielder Joey Balawajder has shined in his debut season for the Lancers and went 4-for-4. He is 7 for 9 in his last three games against teams who are a combined 23-5.
4. Williamsport (4-3)
The Millionaires have been up and down, evident last week as it was no-hit in a loss to Central Mountain before routing Danville, 12-4. The offense has 15 and 12-hit performances sandwiched between games in which it generated six hits so the jury remains out. The pitching has been consistent all season, though, and Gabe Rader stifled Danville, delivering his third straight strong performance. Williamsport has three tough games this week against Altoona, Jersey Shore and St. Mary's so it could find out a lot about itself. Ian Dinsmore and Noah Esposito combined for seven hits against Danville.
5. South Williamsport (4-2)
The Mounties started the season with only three returning starters and have lost one of their most valuable players, shortstop Nick Mistretta, to a back injury. No. 2 starter Cody Nelson is unable to pitch right now but the Mounties fight on. South snapped Hughesville's seven-game winning streak Saturday, winning 7-4 as Billy Rummings threw a brilliant six-hit complete-game and struck out 10. The senior left-hander gives South a chance to win every time he pitches and in his last two wins has allowed just 10 hits in 15 innings while striking out 26 and walking one. Carter Alexander has moved from third base to replace Mistretta and is an up coming player, going 2 for 4 with two RBIs against Hughesville.
Player of the week
Andrew Null, Montoursville and Chuck Probst, Bucktail
Null, the reigning Sun-Gazette Player of the Year, hit for the cycle in Saturday's loss at Shikellamy and went 6 for 7 in two games, especially impressive while facing live pitching for the first time in 16 days. Probst struck out a district-high 19 in a win over Benton and also went 4 for 8 with five runs scored as Bucktail improved to 5-1.
Game of the week
The area's top two-ranked teams collide Tuesday in an outstanding non-league game. The last time they played at Jersey Shore the game lasted 14 innings and ended in a tie due to darkness. Expect both teams to be eager to make a statement.
Declan had Vein of Galen Malformation, a serious and often fatal brain malformation. VOGM often results in high-output congestive heart failure and over half the patients have a malformation that cannot be corrected. Many often die in the neonatal period of during early infancy. Doctors basically told the O'Briens Declan would become a statistic.
"The hardest part for us to understand about the prognosis was the baby was still kicking in Amber's belly and the heart rate was fine so to sit there and accept it was hard," O'Brien said. "The baby was alive and kicking so someone in the country had to be willing to do a procedure because the pregnancy, other than that, was normal. The bottom line was we were not settling for good luck."
Neither was their family.
Almost immediately, Amber's brother, Jeremy Lazorka, remembered a patient of his whose son also had VOGM. Lazorka and his family coordinated everything while O'Brien and Amber tried comprehending the news. Within 40 minutes an appointment was made the next day with renowned surgeon Dr. Alejandro Berenstein at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.
Ten years ago VOGM was fatal, but Berenstein, who sees patients worldwide, had developed a procedure which could save lives. Saving Declan's became his top priority.
Before leaving for New York, O'Brien met with his baseball team. A joyous atmosphere soon turned somber as O'Brien told the Bulldogs he would have to step away for a while.
"The night he came in and told everybody I was shocked. After he left there were some teary-eyed players. It was emotional," interim Jersey Shore coach Steve Waldman said. "We were in there hooting and hollering and carrying on and keeping the adrenaline flowing at practice and then after he left all you could hear was the gloves snapping. Nobody said a word."
As the players prepared for the season's start, the O'Briens headed to New York where they would remain for the next 16 days. Two days after arrival, Thursday, March 27, Amber delivered Declan via C-section. Doctors stabilized Declan before performing a brain surgery Friday and another Monday.
Remarkably, Declan, tubes going in and out all over his body, began recovering and gaining strength. The O'Briens remained at St. Luke's for a week and a half before traveling to Danville's Geisinger Hospital for two more nights. They arrived home last Sunday after 18 days away. Declan will some day learn that he returned a conquering hero, attracting celebrity-like fan support.
"You see him fighting every day and the stuff he's going through I've never gone through in my life and he's doing it at such a young age. He's a little fighting Irish," O'Brien said. "It's been difficult but the guy's a fighter. He's gotten this far and I don't see any reason it will not continue. It was scary and up and down and hopefully we're through the toughest parts."
Last Thursday at South Williamsport, O'Brien, after receiving Amber's blessing, was back in the Jersey Shore dugout. He is an assistant this season but is back doing something he loves. Watching his team now is the easy part. That is a two-hour escape.
And O'Brien is armed with a fresh perspective. Jersey Shore is chasing its fourth consecutive district championship and obstacles remain. The fourth-year coach knows they are nothing compared to Declan's daily struggles. His players understand better, too, and have even more motivation.
"I told the kids before the game I don't want any pity. It's not, 'poor coach,' but it put things in perspective to see how lucky these kids are to be running around playing baseball when there are a lot bigger things in life," O'Brien said. "Anything can be taken from you any second. Declan gives us the ability to appreciate every day."
"It's definitely a lot of motivation to pull through for coach and his son when they are going through a hard time," pitcher Dylan Hamm said after Thursday's 9-1 win. "He's like family to us so we want to play hard for him. We're going for a state championship. It would be amazing if we could get that done and really show them what coach has done for us."
Declan someday will learn what he has done for his parents and all those who have supported he and them along this road. More hurdles and surgeries remain. Declan still has a long way to go and nothing will come easy. But he already has come so far, so fast. The kid given little chance is growing stronger day by day, knocking down one challenge after another.
Their lives are drastically different than a month ago, but this is the new normal for the O'Briens. Expect this journey to last a long time.
"We haven't looked ahead two weeks or 10 days. It's what's the next step? Let's get through the next step and then the next step. Any time you see a little one hooked up to all those machines it's tough, but he's going to be a strong little guy," O'Brien said. "We've had lot of sleepless nights but it's OK. We're just so happy to have him. I never thought I'd be happy to wake up every 3 hours but I am.
"He's a blessing. It's been a ride for sure, but we're on our way back."
Montoursville finally returned to the field last week, splitting games against previously undefeated Bloomsburg and Shikellamy. The Warriors (1-2) have played fewer games than any team in District 4 and had gone 16 days between games. They basically will be playing a Major League-type schedule the rest of the way, competing nearly every day ... Mansfield lost most of last year's starters but is flourishing, beating rivals Wellsboro and Athens by one run each last week. The Tigers (6-2) are tied for first in the NTL-II and have won six of their last seven. Freshman J.P. Shaw hit a walk-off single against Wellsboro and earned the win against Athens. Bailey Wilk and Thomas Goetz both had a career-high four hits in Montgomery's 20-3 win at Bucktail last Wednesday ... Levi Myers is having a breakout year for Muncy and his two-run home run, combined with Ken Koch's five-hit pitching, helped the Indians (6-3) defeat rival Montgomery, 6-3, Thursday ... Wellsboro's Dawson Prough has delivered four straight multi-hit performances and has five in his first six games.
Masse may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse for more high school baseball information.