JUPITER, Fla. – There are nearly 2,000 high school-aged players participating at this weekend’s PG WWBA World Championship, and every one of them is thrilled to be here. Walk up and ask them straight out, and to a man they’ll tell you there is no place they would rather be.
Every one of them, however, is in no more than a dead-heat for runner-up in the race for the guy who feels the most thrilled and the most honored – really, the most blessed – to be here. That would be runaway winner Nick Owens of the South Charlotte Panthers.
In a perfect world, Owens wouldn’t be surprised to be at this event at all. He is a talented 6-foot, 175-pound shortstop from Marvin, N.C., a senior at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian High School who is ranked a top-500 prospect in the class of 2014 and who has committed to North Carolina State – all solid credentials to be sure.
Yet as recently as Sept. 1 plenty of questions about his availability remained unanswered, which made his presence at the Panthers’ PG WWBA World Championship pool-play game against SCORE International Saturday morning all the more remarkable, and all the more inspiring.
“At first I thought I wasn’t going to play this fall so it’s kind of like of dream come true, I guess,” Owens said from one of the dugouts at Roger Dean Stadium. “After going through what I went through this summer I missed out on my final East Cobb World Wood Bat (PG WWBA 17u National Championship) so being able to come down here … it’s kind of like I get to relive not playing this summer.”
It’s not a stretch to call Owens’ appearance here a sort of rebirth. He may not be able to relive the missed opportunity at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., in July, but he can certainly appreciate an opportunity to make up for lost time.
Nick Owens’ father, John Owens, is the CEO of the Charlotte-based Showcase Baseball Academy (SBA) Canes organization, in addition to being president and CEO of Ameritrust, a financial services company headquartered in Charlotte. Saturday morning he watched with pure joy while Nick warmed up before South Charlotte’s game against SCORE.
“No one can understand how much of a thrill it is just to watch him right now fielding ground balls – just having his glove on his hand and being in the dirt,” John said. “For us it’s almost a miracle; we’ve prayed about it all summer.
“He was dying in the hospital 60 days ago,” Nick’s father added. “He’s only about 60, 70 percent but, again, the fact that he’s alive and he’s out here is great.”
NICK OWENS HAD COMPLETED A VERY SUCCESSFUL JUNIOR SEASON at Charlotte Christian when he suddenly became ill while playing in a North Carolina high school tournament in early June. South Charlotte Panthers head coach Don Hutchins said it was particularly warm that day and everyone seemed to agree that the reason Owens began to throw up was more than likely heat related.
But the vomiting not only persisted but worsened. John and Stacy Owens took their son to Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, where Nick would spend the next 10 days. During that stay, according to John, he had a 103-degree temperature and was throwing up every 45 minutes for 24 hours a day.
“The virus was unknown and the doctors didn’t know what had caused it and they said it was some unknown deadly virus that had entered his body,” John Owens said. Nick Owens was rushed to Duke University Medical Center in Durham where he spent the next 18 days.
After those 28 days the doctors at Duke turned him loose, albeit reluctantly.
“The doctors didn’t really want to release him, but depression and everything else was setting in and he wanted to be out with his buddies. He wanted to start his own recovery and he kind of pushed himself out of the hospital,” John said.
“We had to talk them into letting me go because being stuck in the hospital room was killing me,” Nick Owens said. “We finally got them to let me go and we went right to the beach from the hospital. I got to hang out on the beach and just kind of think about everything – just see what I thought about the situation and how God was going to work in my life through this.
“I was just thinking about, did He want me in the hospital and why was I in there? Can I do anything to use this for His work and His plan and everything like that?”
Even after being released from the hospital, Owens’ struggles were not over. He still couldn’t keep down solid food and continued to be fed intravenously. He wanted so badly to live a normal life, to be out on the field playing baseball with his friends; basically just doing what he had done every previous summer of his life. But, life wasn’t cooperating, or at least not at first.
There was never a firm diagnosis of Owens’ illness. Doctors speculated that he acquired a gastro-intestinal virus that led to gut motility, an affliction that leads to abnormal intestinal contractions and paralysis that cause the patient to vomit.
A variety of treatments were tried without success and Owens ultimately visited an upper cervical care doctor who specializes in treatment of the upper two bones in a person’s neck. Whatever that specific treatment involved seemed to be effective, and Owens’ stomach, in his words, “started working again.”
THE SOUTH CHARLOTTE PANTHERS BASEBALL ORGANIZATION is run by Don Hutchins, and the team he has at the PG WWBA World Championship this weekend is one of his best. Fifteen roster spots are filled with prospects that have committed to NCAA Division I schools, a number that includes Owens; prominent left-hander Alex Destino (2014, Weaverville, N.C.), a South Carolina recruit ranked 56h nationally; and third baseman/catcher/right-hander Ryder Ryan (2014, Huntersville, N.C.), a North Carolina commit ranked 83rd.
Hutchins structures the South Charlotte Panthers teams in such a way that the same group of players generally stays together for two years – the first year they are known as “rising juniors” and the second year as “rising seniors”. Most of the players come from the greater Charlotte area, which is bursting at the seams with high caliber, highly regarded and highly ranked high school-aged prospects.
“We’re real focused on helping these guys get a little bit better so when they get to college they’re contributing early and often,” Hutchins said. “That’s built up a little bit of our credibility with the colleges that when we’ve got a guy that resonates with them as an athlete they kind of have an idea that maybe we can give them somebody (that is sound).”
The entire team was affected by Owens’ illness and they rallied behind him.
“We’ve always had close teams but I think he’s brought a lot of us together,” Hutchins said. “There was a time that he was a pretty sick young man and I don’t think anything was ever imminent, but he was in the danger zone.”
Owens appreciated the support from everyone in the Panthers’ organization, including Hutchins.
“They were all texting me and seeing how I was doing,” he said. “They got me an N.C. State hat and they all signed it, so that was really special. And Coach Don (Hutchins) actually stayed with one night to give my parents a break from sleeping in the hospital, and I couldn’t believe he did that because sleeping in a chair is just nuts. I can’t believe he did that – it was just awesome.”
The coaching staff at North Carolina State – head coach Elliott Avent, associate head coach Tom Holliday, assistant coach Chris Hart and assistant coach Brian Ward – were also unwavering in their support and prayers.
“They’ve been a blessing,” Owens said. “They’ve been calling me and asking me how I’m doing and just helping me out in every way they can.”
JOHN OWENS BECAME EMOTIONAL WHEN HE BEGAN TO TALK ABOUT the role baseball played in his son’s recovery. He said Nick was adamant the entire time about being able to suit-up for the PG WWBA World Championship.
“With me as a coach and a parent and him playing, you never know how much this stuff means to a kid,” John said. “One of the things he said was that he was bummed because he missed the World Wood Bat this summer. … He wasn’t even thinking this far in advance but it was more ‘at the moment’ when he said, ‘here are my buddies down there and it’s my last World Wood Bat and I’m missing it.’ It really affected him.”
During the course of the illness Owens said he lost about 25 pounds, which was disappointing because he had worked hard to add about 20 pounds of the muscle the previous fall. It was a case of here today, gone tomorrow.
“Everything I worked for, well, there it goes,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m feeling a lot better, just being able to run around and everything like that. I have all my weight back except that it’s not necessarily the weight that I want or the strength that I had.
“But I’m just glad that I’m out of the hospital and being able to play the game that I love,” he added. “Laying in a hospital bed is just the worst thing ever, just being cramped in that room. Being able to get out here on this field is amazing; it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Hutchins decided to give Owens the start at shortstop in Saturday morning’s game both for Nick’s state of mind and that of his teammates. They all realize Owens isn’t 100 percent quite yet, although everyone certainly expects him to be by the time the spring high school season rolls around. He means a lot to his teammates and they mean a lot to him.
“I’m back on his case now and I ain’t babying him no more,” Hutchins said, laughing. “I’m pretty tough on him and Nick said he knew he was going to (be all right) after the first time I yelled at him.”
There is not a single other player at this weekend’s PG WWBA World Championship that is any more thrilled to be here than 2014 North Carolina shortstop Nick Owens. He came to the plate five times in the Panthers’ first three games at this event, had a single and a walk for a .400 on-base percentage, handled five fielding chances flawlessly and even helped turn a double-play. Don’t look now, but the kid who two months ago only hoped he would be in uniform is contributing.
“I just want to help the team out in any way I can, whether it’s dropping down a bunt or hitting in the game-winning run – just anything I can do to help out,” he said.