Needless to say, the last few months haven’t been so kind to Marist head baseball coach and school athletic director Ron Hayward.
Last October, Hayward was planning to take a trip to Maryland to watch his son play in an elite youth baseball tournament.
“I felt tired all the time,” Hayward recalled. “I felt fatigued. I went to the doctor and he told me that I had to go to the emergency room right away, but I wanted to see my son played. So I hung up the phone and went to Maryland with my son.”
Once Hayward’s son was finished with the tourney on Sunday, Hayward went to Christ Hospital. On Monday, he was prepped for emergency surgery for glomerulosclerosis, which is the hardening and scarring of the kidney’s tiny blood vessels that filter urine from the blood.
Hayward had to endure three surgeries, including the installation of a stent in his stomach so he could endure dialysis.
“I knew I had kidney problems since I was 21,” Hayward said. “But I lived with it. It really hit me the last two years. I started falling asleep a lot and started feeling sick. The first few years, it didn’t bother me. But it did now.”
Hayward didn’t know whether the illness was going to prevent him from coaching.
“It makes you appreciate life more,” Hayward said. “I knew that this was not going to be the way I was going to end my life.”
The 33-year-old Hayward had to endure grueling dialysis treatments at the DaVita Healthcare Treatment Center in North Bergen, but in order to be at Marist in time to start the school day, Hayward would have to start his dialysis treatments before 5 a.m. three times a week.
“It was tough,” Hayward said. “I did alright with it at the start, but I knew I couldn’t live like that forever. I had great doctors who didn’t want me to stop doing what I do. They did what was best for me and I was going to do what they asked me to do. They didn’t want me to stop, but if I didn’t take care of it, my body might just stop.”
A month after Hayward’s final surgery, another obstacle ensued. A freshman football player named Kylin Polhill tragically died at the age of 14 after playing basketball near his home in Newark. Polhill’s death cast a pall on the entire Marist community.
Before that, Hayward had to replace both of his popular basketball coaches, which caused more controversy.
Through it all, Hayward kept pointing toward the spring, toward the baseball season, one that Hayward anticipated like a toddler waits for Santa Claus.
“I knew this season was big,” Hayward said. “I played seven freshmen last year because I knew that this was the season we built for. We would come back this year with a little experience, with our seniors helping the younger guys. That was the plan. I had to come back.”
So Hayward had to endure the early morning dialysis and the troubles at school. Eventually, he got a program that enabled him to do the dialysis while sleeping at home.
Things were looking up. Hayward just needed the baseball season to begin.
There was a bit of a rocky start, as the Royal Knights lost three in a row after four straight wins to start the year.
“We knew we had a good team,” said junior outfielder Tyler Cruz. “We weren’t working as a unit. We just had to stick together and come together as a team.”
It helped that the Royal Knights had a three-headed pitching monster in seniors Matt Littrell and Josh Witherspoon and sophomore A.J. Candelario. Littrell (Monmouth) and Witherspoon (South Florida) were already NCAA Division I signees. Candelario was a rising star. No other Hudson County team could match the Royal Knights’ pitching.
The Royal Knights got on a major roll and advanced to the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Tournament title game against defending champion St. Peter’s Prep.
The Royal Knights trailed, 2-1, in the bottom of the fifth inning, when Cruz stepped up with a runner on first.
Hayward called time out from the third base coaching box to offer Cruz some advice.
“I tried to get him mad,” Hayward said. “I told him that he was horrible the first two at-bats. Tyler is the kind of kid who can take what I said, get angry and prove me wrong.”
Cruz hit a low liner to left-center field that looked at first that it might get run down by Prep’s speedy centerfielder Corey Caddle.
“I knew I hit it hard, but I didn’t even look,” Cruz said.
“Once he hit it, I knew it had a chance to get the gap,” Hayward said. “But it wasn’t high enough. Once he hit it, I knew what I said worked. I wasn’t stopping him, because I knew if we didn’t score there, we might not score again.”
Cruz motored around the bases for an inside-the-park homer, giving the Royal Knights a 3-2 lead.
“I saw it hit the gap and I just kept going,” Cruz said. “I’m the kind of guy who just wants to do whatever I can to help the team. I picked up Coach [Hayward] and he was jumping up and down, so I knew I had to hustle. I have been working on my speed. With my adrenaline pumping, I just ran hard.”
With the lead, the lanky lefty Witherspoon shut the door on the Marauders, pitching the final 2 2/3 innings without allowing a single hit.
“Josh was fired up because I didn’t start him,” Hayward said. “I knew he wanted the ball. A.J. went as far as he could, then we went to Josh.”
And the Royal Knights had their second county title in the last three years. It had been almost 20 years since Marist had won a county championship and now they have two in three years.
It makes a very tough year into one to remember for the coach who had to endure his fair share of adversity.
“It’s amazing, but I’m not shocked,” Hayward said. “I really thought it could happen and it did.”
And one of the littlest Royal Knights, all 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds of him, was the hero.
“It definitely is a dream come true,” Cruz said. “It means everything to me, to be on the varsity level, to bat leadoff and help this team with a county title. It feels great.”
And with many of the Royal Knights returning in 2015, there might be another title run.
“We all have the same mindset,” Cruz said.
At least the head coach will be healthy and ready for another go at a county title. This was a tough one to go through.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.