This is a story of two men who channeled their life-altering experiences of dealing with cancer into missions of reaching the highest level of their sport.
Two key members of the Michigan state champion Monroe Jefferson High School baseball team had to deal with the devastating illness at an early age.
Head coach Dave Sontag beat it.
Starting pitcher John Polt's mother succumbed to it.
The resiliency and perseverance of the team mirrored the courage of their head coach, who six years ago overcame Hodgkin's disease at the age of 36.
“Our team had a lot of confidence. We never panicked or had any fear,” Sontag said. “I'd call it stick-to-itiveness. I think a lot of it came from what I'd been through personally. We had a `refuse to lose' attitude that permeated throughout the team.”
In four of the biggest games of the season, the Bears came from behind to win in their final at bat. They did it in the district finals, then repeated the late heroics in the regional semifinals and finals. In the Huron League championship, Jefferson trailed Milan 3-1 in the final inning and scored three runs to win it.
“They played fearlessly,” Sontag said. “It seemed like they almost relished the idea of falling behind. Our season certainly could have teetered the other way. The coaches had a relaxed attitude and I think the kids picked up on it.”
On June 22, Monroe Jefferson defeated Lapeer West 9-6 in the Division 2 state final to capture its first baseball state championship. Sontag's family, including his son, Ryan (the team's right fielder) and his father, Lavern,(the team's junior varsity coach), celebrated the victory. It came six years after Dave had overcome Hodgkin's disease.
“When they played the National Anthem before the game, I looked to my right and my dad was there. I looked to the left and my son, Ryan, was standing there. I looked behind me and my youngest son, Brandon, and my wife, Michelle (the team's score keeper), were standing in the dugout. I was thinking `Boy am I a lucky guy,'” said Sontag, who said he had goose bumps while recalling the moment.
“Then to win was just incredible. It was really special. I don't know that I thought back to battling Hodgkin's disease. But I'm a family guy. They helped me get through it. I never thought I'd be lucky enough to win a state title and then to have my family be a direct part of it ... But it's special for a lot of people.” One of those people was Polt, who was just as sure his mother, June, also was celebrating on that day even though she died last Thanksgiving.
Polt, who had never recorded a varsity win going into his senior season, dedicated the season to his mom. He went 9-1 and was the winning pitcher in the state title game.
“Everything I did was for her,” Polt said. “In the beginning of the season, there were doubts in my mind. I was nervous. I didn't want to do badly because I was doing it for her. As the season went on, I kept getting better and better. The doubts went away and I was a lot more confident.
“Going into the [state title] game, I thought something was wrong. I wasn't nervous at all,” the 18-year-old said. “Then when I was warming up, I looked up to the sky and asked her to help me get through this. I told her, `Enjoy the show. This is for you.'”
Polt said as soon the game was over, the entire year flashed before his eyes. He said it still hasn't sunk in that his team won the state championship.
Polt not only credited his mother's inspiration for his break out season, he also credited Sontag and his teammates for his sudden improvement.
“When she passed away, [Sontag] and the team were really there for me,” Polt said. “It made me feel better knowing the support I had. The entire team was behind me on it [dedicating the season to June].”
Polt said the motivation helped him get up at 6 a.m. every morning in the off season to lift weights. “It was all for her,” he said.
Sontag said he and Polt would share their thoughts during the early morning workouts. Sontag said he drew on his personal experience with chemotherapy and all of the tough times he went through in battling the disease, which now is in remission.
“We'd talk about how tough it was for him to go home to his mother who was bed-ridden. They were very close,” Sontag said. “I shared my emotions with him. I think it was good therapy for him.
“He dedicated his season to his mom. It's a wonderful story. He was the guy on the mound in the final game. It has to give you goose bumps.”
Both Sontag and Polt said the success also was due to the rigorous weight training. Polt went from weighing 180 pounds during his junior year to 205 this season.
“I noticed the difference when I threw in February. My motion felt more fluid,” Polt said. “I noticed I was throwing harder.”
Sontag and Polt consistently praised the other members of the team who made the storybook ending come true.
The 2002 Jefferson team was strong in all facets of the game, but had a particularly strong and deep pitching staff and a sound defense.
The Bears went 32-6 and had a 2.87 team earned run average. Jefferson's .938 fielding percentage equated to only about one and half errors committed per game. In 11 of their 38 games, the Bears did not commit an error - a rare feat for a high school team.
Jefferson's four pitchers had just a 1.96 ERA in league play.
Polt was 9-1 with a 3.09 ERA. Senior Rick Goltowski finished with a perfect 9-0 record and a 2.63 ERA. Senior Matt Ely went 6-1 while posting a miniscule 0.82 ERA, which led Monroe County. Closer A.J. Eppler recorded six saves despite suffering from a sore arm.
Polt and Ely were used very sparingly last year, but the two combined for 15 wins this season.
“We didn't really have an ace,” Sontag said. “We had three reliable starters and a good closer.”
Sontag said his team lived up to the adage that pitching and defense win titles. The Bears were strong up the middle, setting a school record for turning double plays. Sontag said he set his defense up to give up hits to the outside for a better chance to turn two.
Senior second baseman Ryan Wagner and junior shortstop John Hedglen were the most effective double play combo to ever play for Sontag, according to the 18-year veteran coach.
Senior catcher Moe Cobb not only led the team offensively; he also routinely threw out runners attempting to steal. Cobb hit .429 with 35 runs batted in and made the all-state first team.
“He was a human stop sign behind plate,” Sontag said. “Teams refused to run on us because of him. He was the best overall package I've had at catcher.”
Speedy senior center fielder Tyler Bondy batted .311, scored 36 runs, with 25 walks and 17 stolen bases. The leadoff hitter also excelled defensively and made a critical over the shoulder catch in the late stages of the regional final contest.
Sophomore right fielder Ryan Sontag hit .423 while batting second in the lineup. He scored 35 runs and brought in 27. He was named to the all-state second team.
Sontag hit a game-tying home run in the district final that set up the first of the Bears' many last-at-bat victories.
“I've been playing for him my whole life,” the younger Sontag said of his father. “He's a fighter. He never wants to lose – even in checkers and cards. He never panicked either. He told us to never give up.”
Dave Sontag said his son and Bondy made up the best outfield in the area.
“We had an outstanding outfield,” he said. “It was a joy to have [Ryan] on the team. His maturity and progress was really something.”
Sontag said his team's offense erupted at the right time in the state finals. The Bears beat Essexville Garber in an 11-8 shootout in the semifinals.
“Our bats bailed out us out in the semifinal and final,” Sontag said.
The football team captured the only other state title in Monroe Jefferson history in 1994. In his 18 years as baseball coach, Sontag's teams never made it out of the regionals. His program began to turn the corner when it posted its first winning season in 1991.
Now his team has won the Huron League title four out of the last seven years.
Sontag said his life has been a whirlwind since his team won the state title with television appearances, calls from the media and even a day of honor from the state of Michigan. “This is a once in a lifetime thing,” he said. “It just keeps getting better.”