On a Wednesday afternoon in late March, Kevin Balewicz awoke in a hospital bed and groggily craned his neck toward his feet.
He sighed in relief.
“Both legs were there,” Balewicz recalled this week, “so I was pretty happy with that.”
The Holliston senior immediately pulled out his phone to text his teammates.
“I’m OK,” he wrote. “Sorry, I won’t be able to play.”
He was referring to the Panthers’ football game against Ashland three days later, but really he meant the remainder of his high school career.
“I didn’t think I’d even be able to play summer ball,” Balewicz said after undergoing two surgeries to combat compartment syndrome in his left leg. “It’s hard with this injury because it’s very rare. It’s unpredictable.”
So when he stepped into the batter’s box on May 24 against Millis as a pinch hitter and proceeded to rip a pitch down the third-base line, the Holliston bench predictably erupted.
“It chokes you up a little bit,” said assistant coach Jim Perry. “For people who aren’t able to see it everyday it’s like, ‘I can’t believe this kid is playing.’ But we’ve been seeing it every single day at practice. He pushes himself.”
Compartment syndrome is a rare and painful condition that occurs when dangerous amounts of pressure grow within muscles, leading to decreased blood flow and preventing oxygen from reaching nerve and muscle cells, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Balewicz, a four-sport athlete who also plays hockey and golf, was playing quarterback for Holliston on March 27 when he suffered what felt like a sprained ankle. He spent the weekend resting and hoping for a speedy recovery, but the swelling persisted.
He was a spectator at practice that Monday, but as he walked to his car his foot began burning like it had been lit on fire and his calf felt like it was going to explode.
After a couple of hours of elevating and icing, the pain receded. What Balewicz didn’t realize was that meant his muscle had died. He spent all day Tuesday in bed, but that night the pain returned.
“That’s when we knew something wasn’t right,” he said.
Around 1:45 a.m. on March 31, Balewicz and his father, Greg, a former Framingham State hockey player, arrived at the MetroWest Medical Center emergency room. There was talk of a possible fractured fibula, but X-rays came back negative. A nurse mentioned compartment syndrome for the first time. Balewicz made the unavoidable mistake of Googling it and reading about potential amputation.
“That’s when I started to freak out,” he said.
He was transferred to Tufts Medical Center at 6 a.m. By noon, surgeons were slicing his leg from ankle to knee to remove the dead muscles. The following day Balewicz underwent a second surgery to close it up.
Two days later, while his Holliston teammates were thrashing Ashland, 27-0, Balewicz was released from the hospital. Soon after, a pair of Holliston buses crowded the small street in front of his house. As his teammates sang from the windows, coach Todd Kiley presented him with the game ball.
“He didn’t look sad or depressed or anything,” said senior Danny Quinn. “He was happy and laughing. Same Kevin lying on the couch in a boot. Always smiling.”
That night, baseball coach Joe Santos, who is also an assistant football coach, phoned Balewicz.
“Never lose that positive mentality,” he told him. “Listen, you’ve seen me. I’m a miserable old man at times. But you? In the worst of times, you find the good. That’s going to help you so much in life.”
Balewicz was optimistic, but with baseball season just a month away, it was tough to consider playing while he struggled to step from the toilet to the sink without crutches.
But even if he couldn’t play, Balewicz was determined to be a presence at practice.
“I know it lifted a lot of the guys’ spirits when he came back,” Santos said. “But, also, if it wasn’t for these guys supporting him, it would have been a lot harder of a comeback.”
Five weeks after surgery, Greg tweeted a video of Kevin swinging a club at the Hopkinton Country Club driving range.
“That’s the first time I thought he might have a chance [of playing baseball],” Santos said.
Eventually, Balewicz took a few pitches in the batting cage and caught throws at first base. He tested his leg by running the bases.
Suddenly, less than two months after his surgeries, he was cleared to play. His teammates switched the name of their text thread from “For 14,” in honor of Balewicz’s number, to “With 14.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone else on this team who could have done what he’s done,” said sophomore third baseman Nick Larche. “It’s unreal the strides he’s had. He’s a really tough kid who just wants to play.”
After his initial pinch hit, Balewicz started at DH against Dover-Sherborn on May 28. On June 2, he doubled against Norwood. The following day he finished 3 for 3 and scored a run in a 2-1 loss to No. 6 Medfield. On Monday against Ashland, he started in the outfield for the first time.
“It was definitely inspiring turning around and watching him in center,” said Quinn, a shortstop.
Holliston wrapped up its regular season on Thursday, but despite a losing record the Panthers will get at least one MIAA tournament game thanks to this season’s opt-in option. Balewicz, who is headed to Virginia Tech to study civil engineering, hopes the Panthers can extend their season, and his high school career, a few games.
Then again, at this point, everything is icing.
“At the end of the day, I was happy he was able to keep his leg and live a normal life,” Santos said. “Baseball is a bonus.”
With seven seniors in the starting lineup, Latin Academy has relied on its veteran presence to cruise through the Boston City League this spring.
The Dragons (14-1) completed an undefeated regular-season run through the BCL Wednesday with a 12-2 win over Charlestown, earning them the top seed in this weekend’s City League tournament.
They’ll face East Boston in a semifinal on Saturday, and a win will set up a showdown with undefeated Brighton or surging Snowden in Sunday’s championship game at Monan Park.
“I think having seven seniors in the lineup is something any coach would want,” said first-year coach Justin Curley. “Having the experience, the age, the leadership I felt we would have strong team. I didn’t realize we would be as deep as we are though. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Curley said his team’s success begins with its starting pitching. Senior Lorenzo Bartoloni anchors the staff with a 4-0 record and 1.43 ERA. Sophomore Brennan Shapiro and senior Quinn Kelly have provided quality depth on the mound.
The offense is fueled by leadoff hitter Jeren Pimentel, a Rhode Island College commit, who is hitting .415 with 19 stolen bases. No. 2 hitter Simon Chernow and No. 3 hitter Kelly are both batting .348 and set the tone behind Pimentel at the top of the order.
The Dragons are winning their games by an average score of 8-2.
“We have four very reliable pitchers and I think our hitting has improved throughout the season,” said Curley. “Because our pitching and defense has been so good it’s taken the pressure off our lineup and guys are more relaxed.”
Latin Academy’s lone loss this season came to Boston Latin, 10-7, on May 20. The Dragons will carry the momentum of an eight-game winning streak into the City tourney, with an eye on embarking on a deep run in the Division 3 North tourney.
“It’s something we’re looking forward too,” said Curley. “We’ve had the mentality all year of one pitch, one inning, one game at a time. We know there a lot of goods team in the D3 North like Austin Prep and Newburyport. But we’re a confident group and I think if we throw strikes, make the plays in the field, and get timely hits we know we can play with anyone.”
Games to Watch
Friday, Plymouth South at Plymouth North, 4 p.m. — These rivals will meet in the semifinals of the Patriot League Cup with the winner advancing to play either Duxbury or Whitman-Hanson in Monday’s final. South and North did not meet during the regular season.
Friday, Medfield at Norwood, 7 p.m. — The fifth-ranked Warriors (14-1) will look to finish the regular season on a 13-game winning streak when they face a talented Mustangs (10-4) team under the lights.
Saturday, Braintree at Milton, 3 p.m. — The No. 9 Wamps (12-3) and No. 8 Wildcats (13-2) square off in a highly-anticipated Bay State Conference championship game. Milton won both regular season matchups, 6-4 and 7-3.
Sunday, City League Championship, 3 p.m. — Top-seeded Latin Academy will face East Boston in one semifinal Saturday, while undefeated Brighton and Snowden play in the other matchup. The winners will battle Sunday at Monan Park for the City League crown.
Monday, Catholic Conference Championship, TBD — A potential third matchup awaits between No. 1 Xaverian (10-1) and No. 4 St. John’s Prep (10-2). The quarterfinals are Thursday before the Hawks and Eagles host semifinal games on Saturday. BC High and Catholic Memorial linger.