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Pasco Tribune

Baseball helps coach keep mind off cancer battle

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:12 AM

Justin Kunick has, and always will have, baseball.

It's what his best friend, Matt Hayes, gives him, like any good friend would.

"I remember when Justin got the job (as Fivay High baseball coach)," said Hayes, who now serves as Fivay's interim baseball head coach. "He was so excited to finally get to do what he wanted to most of his life: coach high school baseball, teach chemistry and make a positive impact on kids' lives.

"I hope he knows he's still doing that."

Kunick, however, is miles away from the Falcons' baseball field, with other things crossing his mind than filling out a lineup card.

Those duties have fallen to Hayes, who took over the team after Kunick was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer earlier this year. Kunick is being treated at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

"He's just 32 years old," Hayes said, "and he's always been an upbeat guy, always positive, and when I talk to him on the phone, it doesn't sound like him. When I see him (at the hospital), hooked up to machines, lying a bed with a tube up his nose — that's not Justin. It's like not seeing him at all, anymore.

"Without a doubt, this season has been all for Justin."

Kunick was able to coach three games this year before having surgery to remove a tumor from his colon.

"I know Justin would want to be a part of this season because he's always talking about the team and players," said Terry Kunick, Justin's father. "He was really looking forward to this season, especially during the first three games he got to coach."

Terry Kunick said his son was not feeling well enough for an interview on Friday because of chemo treatments. He added that there is hope the new treatments are working.

Anne Kunick, Justin's wife of four years, said he would "rather be on the ballfield with those kids than anywhere else in the world.

"He's such a hard worker and when we first moved to Florida, we had nothing, but he got so passionate for coaching," she said.

Anne bought her husband a new glove for his birthday and they have been breaking it in. He sleeps with it at the hospital.

"He says he's going to use it for summer ball with the kids when he gets out. … You have to say that to survive in here.

"But I remind him every day that when you look at the short time that you've been coaching, you've been a mentor to Matt (Hayes) and to those kids, and look at what they've accomplished. I tell him what he's done hasn't been a waste."

Justin Kunick spent eight seasons as an assistant at Ridgewood High under coach Larry Beets.  He took over as baseball coach at Fivay in 2010.

Kunick has undergone more than a month of chemotherapy. Hayes said the recent prognosis has not been good. The cancer has spread to Kunick's intestines and legs, and the doctors have started a different type of chemo but won't know whether it has worked for a few weeks.

Kunick told Hayes of his new prognosis on Tuesday afternoon. It was the first time the conversation between the two friends included something other than baseball.

"We never talk what-ifs — never," said Hayes, who has guided the second-year Falcons to a 12-4 record. "We never talk about his sickness. Even the day before his surgery, he was going over (baseball) signs and which player should be where. He always says, 'When I get out of here, this is what we're going to do.' Or, 'Next season, we're going to be even better and be able to do this.'

"He's always looking to the future because, for him, that's baseball."

This isn't the first time Kunick has dealt with life-threatening medical problems. According to Beets, Kunick had open-heart surgery when he was born. Kunick had to have a pacemaker implanted last year.

"As if someone couldn't get slapped down anymore, it's been Justin," Beets said. "He'd been waiting for his chance (to coach a team) after being overlooked so many times, but, I always feel someone can have one swing left in them — and Justin certainly does."

Kunick had a way of motivating his players. Kunick asked the team to "rise above" the rest, and his words became a motto printed on team shirts. Now, players realize "rising above" means more than just baseball games.

"There's hasn't been a day, or at least a game, where we haven't talked about him," junior left fielder Bobby Walker said. "It has affected us, but in a way you wouldn't expect. We want to win as many games as we can for him because it's all for him.

"We know that every time we take the field, we know we can rise above just as we want him to," Walker added.

As the baseball season winds down, the district tournament is approaching in a few weeks, and the Falcons are second in the Class 5A-District 8 standings, with expectations to make the team's first postseason berth.

"Whenever we break it down before or after a game, we don't say 'Fivay' or 'Falcons' or 'baseball' or 'hard work' or something like that — we say, 'Kunick!' " Hayes said. "Everything we do, everything that we've done has been for him this season. At the beginning, this was difficult, and the players saw the toll it was taking on me. I know I can't let the team see that, so we've all done this together.

"And it's how we're going to get through this season — how Justin would've wanted us to rise above in baseball. Together."

mike.camunas@gmail.com Twitter @MikeCamunasTrib

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