The sounds of a baseball smacking into a mitt or jumping off a bat are familiar and exciting to Justin Dages.
The noise he heard on Jan. 27 was anything but.
His right knee popped twice that day when he completely tore the anterior cruciate ligament and partially tore the medial meniscus while playing basketball in a gym class at St. Vincent-St. Mary.
“I just jumped to take a shot, and when I came down, my knee just gave out,” Dages said. “I heard two pops and I didn’t even try to catch myself. People helped me off the floor.”
At that moment, as Dages lay on the court, playing shortstop for the Fighting Irish as a senior four-year starter seemed unlikely.
“I talked to our athletic trainer Brian Knight, and at the time, he said even if you did tear your ACL, you can play through it without immediately getting surgery,” Dages said. “At the time, I thought there was no way that could happen.”
Three months later, Dages, 18, is playing shortstop and batting leadoff for the Irish — torn ACL and all.
“Justin is what every coach wants out of a student-athlete because he is driven, he is focused and he is genuinely a good person who you know you can count on to be a leader in the classroom and on the baseball field,” St. V-M coach Anthony Boarman said.
“As a 4.1 [grade-point average] student, Justin’s academic career always comes first. What impresses me the most is Justin’s ability to continue to make plays. Playing shortstop is a very demanding position, but to do it only having one healthy knee and to do it as well as he has been amazes me.”
Dages, a right-handed recruit at Ohio Wesleyan University, has a .444 batting average this season with 28 hits in 63 at-bats, 21 runs scored, 20 RBI and five triples and 10 stolen bases.
“Early on, I was very skeptical about how his knee would hold up at shortstop,” Boarman said. “I’ve seen a lot of torn ACLs in football and it’s almost impossible for guys to play through it. Even though there’s no contact in baseball, I was worried about his side-to-side movement as well as pivoting and planting.
“We originally planned on the possibility of moving him to third base because it would give him less ground to cover, but from day one of the injury, I told him he’s my shortstop unless he shows that he can’t physically handle it. He really wasn’t able to begin hitting or throwing until a few weeks into team practices, so the verdict was still out if his knee would hold up. I also knew if there was anyone who could play through this kind of injury, it would be Justin. He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached in both football and baseball.”
Dages, a Uniontown resident, said he started physical therapy Feb. 14 and went through a program for four weeks with Ryan Monti at Akron Children’s Hospital. Dages was cleared to hit off a tee in early March and cleared to play baseball March 15.
“I think the first time I really considered playing was the night I went home after the injury,” Dages said. “I was telling my mom the story, and my brother Stephen was listening, and he goes: ‘[Knight] never should have told you that.’ That was when I thought maybe it is possible. After I got the MRI, I went and saw Dr. Kerwyn Jones at Akron Children’s Hospital and he said it was doable.”
The initial pain was excruciating, but Dages has persevered with help from his parents, Jeanne and Dave, and his brother, Stephen, 16.
“When it happened I thought: ‘Oh, I am going to have to watch this season. I am not going to be able to play,’ ” Dages said. “I was heartbroken. Just being cleared to be back on the field and able to play was a great feeling. I am very thankful to have the opportunity. I am happy to be out there every game. I want to get through the games safely. It is just a blessing to be out there.
“When I am playing, it is basically out of my mind. I don’t think about it on the field once my competitiveness takes over.
Dages has worked with John Massarelli to improve his hitting and St. V-M wrestling coach Anthony Gary, who is also the school’s strength and conditioning coach, to help him develop his core strength by using kettle bells, dumb bells and resistance training methods.
Dages entered high school at 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds. He is now 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds.
“Justin was one of the first kids to start coming to the workouts,” Gary said. “They were after school, initially. He is just one of those kids that stuck it out in terms of asking questions and giving 100 percent effort all the time.
“We started doing workouts before and after school a lot, and then two years ago they let kids get out of study hall to do workouts. Justin came to a lot of them. He came for summer workouts a lot, too, unless it conflicted with his summer baseball schedule of games and practices.”
Gary said Dages is probably the most consistent kid that has gone through the workouts before school, after school, during study halls and during the summer.
“The kid is just a workout machine,” Gary said. “He knows no limits. He likes to push himself to the fullest. He is very dedicated and very disciplined. He is going to go far in life because of his personality, his perseverance and his work ethic. He is a successful kid and he will continue to be successful.
“I have coached a lot of quality wrestlers and trained football and basketball players. I have worked with a lot of state champions, and he is unmatched in terms of his approach to workouts.”
Dages said he plans to get surgery as soon as the Irish season ends and then rehab to play college baseball. He stretches everyday thoroughly and works on getting his hamstrings and quadriceps stronger.
“He came to me the other day and said he was really sore from a tough workout with Anthony Gary, and then he went and hit a leadoff home run to the opposite field and hit the scoreboard at Patterson Park,” Boarman said. “The kid is out of control when it comes to working. He loves to work out.
“There’s no question that without Justin’s dedication to coach Gary’s workouts, he would not be able to deal with playing through this type of injury. On top of that, the strength gains that he has made since freshman year has taken his game to a whole new level. I use him as an example when I talk to our young players about how dedication in the weight room will improve your game.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or email@example.com. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.