Through cancer diagnosis, CBA’s O’Connor putting players first

On Friday, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake baseball team will host CBA for a "Strike Out Cancer" game in support of CBA coach Casey O'Connor, who is currently battling the disease. (Photo provided)

On Friday, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake baseball team will host CBA for a "Strike Out Cancer" game in support of CBA coach Casey O'Connor, who is currently battling the disease. (Photo provided)

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On Friday at 11 a.m., Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake will host Christian Brothers Academy in a baseball game that will transcend which team scores the most runs.

The contest will be a “Strike Out Cancer” game, in support of CBA coach Casey O’Connor, who was recently diagnosed with rectal cancer.

“About a month ago, we found out that coach O’Connor had cancer,” said CBA senior catcher Luke Szepek. “We really wanted to do something for our coach, just to help him feel good and help raise some money. We just want to play for him this year, and this is a great opportunity to come together and show that.”

The first concept to support O’Connor was to make “Strike Out Cancer” bracelets, which you’ll see the Brothers wearing this season.

“Unfortunately, on Feb. 21, after being misdiagnosed initially, they went in and did a colonoscopy and identified that I had a tumor and I had rectal cancer,” O’Connor said. “The first thing I said to my doctor, at my bedside at Saint Peter’s, is that I coach a varsity baseball team and am responsible for a baseball program. What am I going to do?”

“The doctor said to me, ‘Hopefully, you have good assistants.’”

That wasn’t exactly the response O’Connor was looking for. He has eight seniors on the team this season, including Szepek, Austin Dean, Ryan Ferguson, John Joyce, Jackson Lilley, Alexander Namorato, Jack Gialanella and Reis Brammer.

It was those seniors O’Connor considered first, before any thoughts about what his treatment would look like.

“My doctor told me there’s always next year,” O’Connor explained. “But I vowed that I have a responsibility to do what I can to make sure that these guys, who don’t have another year of high school, that I have a responsibility to be there for them. That’s what I’ve said from the beginning, that I’d do everything in my power to get my treatment and make sure I take care of myself, but also be there for these guys this year.”

O’Connor is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, with the possibility of surgery towards the end of the process.

“So far, knock on wood, I have not missed a practice and I have not missed a game. I’m hoping I can continue that streak through sectionals,” O’Connor said. “I still think I’m offering the same thing to them, and I think they all realize how much I care about them and want to be there. That’s what I’m making sure they understand.”

“He’s still energetic and loud like he always is,” said Szepek. “He still coaches third and can get around, but he just doesn’t hit fly balls or throw batting practice anymore.”

Shortly after his diagnosis, O’Connor called a meeting with the program’s returning players to break the news.

“It was the Monday after I was diagnosed, and we hadn’t picked a team yet,” O’Connor said. “I didn’t want them hearing from anybody other than me, so I called a meeting with our returning players. I sat them down with my coaching staff and told them that I had high expectations, but this year is going to be a little different.”

“He said he’d try to be there as much as possible, but nothing was a guarantee,” Szepek said. “Obviously he wants to be there for every second, and so far, he has. I think we all have a lot of respect for him and his family. I just admire what he’s doing and I’m happy that he’s doing all right.”

Part of that conversation involved shuffling some of his coaches around, including bringing Michael Bellizzi — the son of longtime Saint Rose coach Bob Bellizzi — up to the varsity staff.

O’Connor, a former player and coach at The College of Saint Rose, took over the Division II program after Bob Bellizzi passed away in 2006, before taking the helm at CBA in 2011.

“Bob Bellizzi was my mentor and my friend,” O’Connor said. “I am fortunate that Michael has been on my coaching staff for a number of years. After I got an opportunity to play for and coach with his father, Bob was diagnosed with leukemia, and as a player and a coach, I experienced that. It’s kind of weird, with Michael being on my coaching staff, we’ve almost come full circle here.”

The “Strike Out Cancer” was initiated after the Spartans visited CBA for a scrimmage on March 29.

A parent from Burnt Hills noticed something was a bit off with O’Connor.

“I could tell that something was not right with Casey,” said Andy Haluska, who contacted a mutual friend later that night and learned about the diagnosis.

Haluska, who teaches in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district, has a son, Luke Haluska, on the Spartans’ varsity team.

“He came right up to me and asked about Luke,” Haluska said of O’Connor at the scrimmage. “He wanted to know what Luke’s plans were for the future. He’s always looking out for the kids.”

After learning of the diagnosis, Haluska got in touch with administrators at CBA in hopes of organizing a game to support O’Connor.

“When people are going through tough times, to have some support from people who you don’t normally get that support from, could go a long way,” Haluska said. “I thought it was a good thing for us to do and something for the kids to learn, that you almost have a responsibility to support people when they’re going through tough times.”

“Battling cancer is exhausting,” he added, “and if we can put a smile on Casey’s face for a day and help him in his fight, we’ve done our job.”

Players from both teams will wear specially made “Strike Out Cancer” jerseys, as they look to raise money to support O’Connor.

All money raised will go to a charity of O’Connor’s choosing.

For O’Connor, the last thing he wants is to have the attention on him, instead of his players.

“The last thing I want this to be is a distraction. I don’t want this to be about me,” O’Connor said. “But since they came to us and asked about doing a Coaches vs. Cancer game, I agreed to do it. There’s been a lot of generosity in the community from all around and I’m very humbled by the support.”

Contact Kyle Adams at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @kasportsnews.

Categories: -Sports-, High School Sports

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