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Canyon's Stark overcomes the odds

Posted: March 18, 2014 10:36 p.m.
Updated: March 18, 2014 10:36 p.m.
Canyon senior Justin Stark has overcome a major injury and a major tragedy in his life. He uses these experiences to fuel himself on the baseball field. Canyon senior Justin Stark has overcome a major injury and a major tragedy in his life. He uses these experiences to fuel himself on the baseball field.
Canyon senior Justin Stark has overcome a major injury and a major tragedy in his life. He uses these experiences to fuel himself on the baseball field.

Who knows why the doctor said it?

Maybe it was a guess.

Maybe the doctor used a history of cases.

Maybe the severity of the injury.

It could have been all three that made the doctor tell Justin Stark that his baseball playing days were over at age 10.

If that doctor could see Justin Stark today.

Stark is a three-year varsity baseball player at Canyon High School — one of the Foothill League’s top returning players in 2014.

A two-way player with the unusual double of pitching and catching and a proven run producer.

The fact that Stark sees more pitches than anybody in the Foothill League says a lot also.

When he was 10 years old, his family was coming back from a camping trip in Northern California.

On the drive back, they were met with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was so bad that rows of cars sat turned off to wait things out — including the Stark’s vehicle.

Stark went into the trailer to get his family some drinks and the cooler was held down by bungee cords.

He unfastened the final bungee cord and it whipped right back at him, the hook part grabbing his left eye.

“I panicked and pulled out the hook,” Stark recalls. “Just black. I couldn’t see.”

To that point, Stark was a promising baseball player.

He was rushed to the hospital, his family driving on the side of the road to get there.

The next day, the doctor told him he would never play baseball again.

“I disagreed,” Stark recalls. “I can’t do that, I’d rather be permanently blind out of my left eye than never play baseball.”

Five surgeries in a short span didn’t restore Stark’s vision.

To this day, he sees shadows and light out of the left eye.

But it didn’t prevent him from getting back on the field.

However, he wasn’t the same player early on.

“It was extremely hard. I was at first 9 years old playing with 12 year olds. Now I’m 10 playing with 11 year olds, and I sat on the bench,” Stark says. “The coach never thought I could play. I took that like I have to work harder.”

Stark said it was a group of coaches for the travel team, the Canyon Coyotes, that changed the trajectory of his baseball career.

Sheldon Wigdor, who has run the travel team with his three sons, says he had been coaching for such a long time that he believed in Stark despite his disability.

And he worked extensively with Stark to overcome one particular issue.

Stark’s peripheral vision is what suffered the most from the accident. He was able to pick up pitches that were straight — fastballs, but had trouble with breaking pitches.

Wigdor put numbers on baseballs or colored dots and pitched to Stark.

Stark had to identify the numbers and or colors.

“We tried to make his mind work faster,” Wigdor says. “It’s an effective drill for teaching children and teaching batters and show them to process information quicker.”

The drill was so effective that Wigdor used it for the whole team.

“Huge, huge impact (on him),” says Stark’s best friend and Coyotes teammate Chris Serrano. “It makes you want to have the same work ethic and try and get better. It shows you nothing can hold you back.”

Stark kept getting better and by the time he was a sophomore at Canyon High, he was on the varsity baseball team.

Then Stark’s sister died.

Just 21 years old, Brittney Stark died in June 2011 after a boating accident in Lake Havasu, Ariz.

Brittney was also influential in her brother’s comeback, as he says she used to play catch with him.

“It makes me go out and play like every game’s (my) last,” Stark says of the tragedy. “I just feel like I have to play every game like it’s my last.”

Stark, now 18, has his sister’s name tattooed on his left arm as a tribute.

The day of the tragedy, Stark was scheduled to play a game. And he kept his commitment.

“It’s probably the worst thing that ever happened,” Serrano recalls. “But he had a ridiculous game — two doubles and a triple.”

Stark knows she would be proud of him because she was proud of him.

He has done things the last three years at Canyon that has helped bring a program from near irrelevance to the top of the Foothill League.

Stark was one of Canyon’s three main starters as a sophomore, along with his buddy Serrano and Max Weinstein.

Last year, with more pitching depth, he was asked to go behind the plate — his natural position.

“I’m sure he wasn’t hurt,” says Canyon head coach Adam Schulhofer of the move. “He was solid. He was able, to a certain degree, shut the running game down. He blocked well for us. To throw a name out, we definitely had one of the better catchers (in my time) with (Patrick) Roxbury (2009-2011). When he left we felt it. We needed to have a better catcher. Justin definitely fulfilled that need.”

Stark batted .305 and knocked in 20 runs for the co-Foothill League champions, but Serrano, who was a senior starting pitcher last year, says his catcher controlled the game from behind the plate.

Best of all, he kept his pitchers loose in tense situations, especially during mound visits.

“He’d say basically anything, but usually it would be, ‘You’re doing great, but that girl in the stands won’t like a loser,’” Serrano laughs.

This season, Stark will be leaned on as a starting pitcher again, as well as behind the plate.

He says life has taught him a lot to this point.

The eye taught him how to fail and respond to that failure.

His sister reinforced in him that each day is a gift and to make the most out of it.

And a doctor taught him how to handle doubt.

Stark will take all of these into his senior year with the Cowboys.

Wigdor shared that Stark’s mom once told him that all she wanted was for her son to a make a freshman team.
Stark will be playing baseball next year for NAIA University of Antelope Valley with Serrano.
On Twitter: @thecaryoz


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