Rishel returns to form after injury

Photo courtesy East Stroudsburg Sports Information East Stroudsburg’s Christian Rishel prepares to swing during a game against Mansfield recently. Rishel, a Jersey Shore graduate, is in his first season back after tearing three ligaments in his knee.

Jersey Shore 2014 graduate Christian Rishel took his time choosing East Stroudsburg. He already had put the finishing touches on another all-state baseball season by the time he committed that summer.

Rishel entered an uncertain future seemingly already behind those who already were locked in. He did not worry about it. He just took the challenge head on and full-steam ahead.

Rishel immediately earned a starting job the next spring and hit .328. As a sophomore, Rishel put together one of the best seasons in East Stroudsburg history and a bright future was gathering steam.

Then everything stopped.

Rishel was trying to stretch a single into a double during a game that summer when he felt his knee blow out. He completely tore his PCL and damaged both his LCL and PLC ligaments. Rishel’s knee cap also suffered damage as a result of this devastating injury. In that split second, it appeared Rishel’s career might be over.

Eighteen months of intense rehab followed and Rishel redshirted last season, but he is now back playing the game he loves. He is playing it well, too, hitting a team-best .382. The road back continues, but Rishel again is picking up speed.

“It was extremely frustrating, mainly because I did it just trying to play the game hard and play it the right way,” Rishel said. “There was several times during the rehab process that I thought I was never going to be able to play again. There were times where I wanted to fold, but because of the love I have for the game, it wasn’t an option. And after I got back on the field at first I was a little discouraged that I’d never get back to where I was. There’s some days I feel 100 percent and then others I feel slightly under 100 percent, but all in all I’m getting close.”

That reveals a lot about Rishel’s tenacity as much as his talent. A player who helped Jersey Shore win four consecutive district championships during his high school career kept working when it would have been so easy to pack it in. The rehab process was not only monotonous at times, but also grueling. The first six months featured Rishel rehabbing for two hours a day, five times a week. He then underwent a year’s worth of personal rehab before he could even touch the field again.

The rehab process caused physical pain, but watching the 2017 season go by without him hurt just as much. This was the first time since he started playing baseball that Rishel missed a season. Adversity became Rishel’s partner, but he stared it down and is rediscovering the form that made him one of the PSAC’s most feared players.

“Traveling with the team on the year off and watching them play and not being able to be on the field with them was extremely hard for me. Every day that went by it made me want to play more and more,” Rishel said. “The main thing I learned was that when adversity hits you have to push through. This has helped me, not only as a player, but with in general to never give up on anything, no matter how difficult things may be.”

Because he committed late, Rishel had to prove himself during the fall of 2014 or face a likely redshirt freshman season. He did just that but opened the season on the bench. When the starting left fielder was ejected from a game early that year, Rishel took his place. And he never gave that job back.

By 2016, Rishel was wearing out pitchers and helping East Stroudsburg win a program-record 38 games. Rishel shared Coaches Award honors with Steven Zimmerman, hitting .372 with nine home runs, 11 doubles, 55 RBIs and 49 runs. Rishel’s hits, home runs and RBIs were all among the top 10 in program history and his 55 RBIs were the seventh-highest total in PSAC history.

In addition to hitting so well, Rishel played both left and right field and showcased a powerful arm that limited running games. He even pitched a scoreless inning, giving East Stroudsburg a versatile and powerful weapon. It has been a long process and is an ongoing one, but Rishel is becoming that dangerous force again.

“Christian has worked very hard to return. He had to re-learn how to run and play the game with the knee limitations he now has,” East Stroudsburg head coach John Kochmansky said. “His leg continues to get stronger and he is getting more consistent at the plate with each at-bat. He is not 100 percent, but continues to work daily with our training staff to get closer to where he was before the injury. He is running better and playing the outfield with much more confidence. His rehab process is ongoing and next year he will be even stronger and running like he did before.”

East Stroudsburg is one of the PSAC’s younger teams, but Rishel is providing a lift with his player and his stature. He and Zimmerman are co-captains and Rishel provides a spark just by being back. Teammates understand what he has endured and that things like batting slumps or losses pale in comparison. They know they can overcome.

“The first thing he provides is leadership to a very young team,” Kochmansky said. “He brings an experienced bat to our lineup while providing an extra-base hit and RBI threat.”

In addition to hitting .382, Rishel also has started 21 of 24 games, slamming three home runs, driving in 17 runs and adding four doubles. He has a .433 on-base percentage and his .618 slugging percentage is actually higher than it was during his sensational sophomore season. Things once looked so bleak, but now Kochmansky believes Rishel, who he labels a “next-level outfielder,” has a shot at being drafted if his knee continues healing and allows him to run the way he did before.

For now, though, the future can wait. Rishel is embracing the present. He is playing the game he loves again. He is playing again, period. That is all that matters.

Rishel has been through the dark times and is enjoying the good times again. Those will continue this summer when he marries his high school sweetheart Paige Packer.

A lot has changed the last two years, but much remains the same. Rishel is approaching everything the same way he always has — full speed ahead.

“It’s been such an incredible experience. The memories I have made and the friendships that I’ve made will be unforgettable. I’m extremely thankful that I chose to play at ESU,” Rishel said. “The college experience and playing baseball are days that are going to be difficult to replace, but still having another year of eligibility in college and also getting married in June of this summer, I think no matter what, even if the opportunity of playing baseball at the next level doesn’t present itself, the best days are still to come.”