Sunday, March 14, 2010
Updated: March 15, 8:22 AM ET
Hometown thinking of Westmoreland
By Joe McDonald
KINGSTON, R.I. -- The Portsmouth High School boys' basketball team was only eight seconds away from becoming the Division 2 Rhode Island state champions when head coach and school athletic director Michael Lunney became very emotional during a timeout.
His players knew their pending victory was only half the reason their coach's eyes filled with tears.
Throughout the state tourney, Lunney was carrying a devastating secret and he did not want to tell his players the shocking news of one of their former teammates. The coach felt it wasn't the right time or place.
With eight seconds remaining in the championship game, Lunney told the team his secret.
Ryan Westmoreland, a 19-year-old Portsmouth native and former standout on the high school's baseball and basketball teams (Class of 2008), is the top prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization and well-known by everyone in the small Rhode Island seaside town. But instead of being at spring training in Florida, Westmoreland is in Arizona with his family, awaiting brain surgery.
Westmoreland was recently diagnosed with a cavernous malformation of the brain after experiencing headaches and numbness during spring training. He left the Sox's minor league camp on March 4 and was examined at Massachusetts General Hospital the next day. After consultations with three specialists, the decision was made to have surgery, which is to be performed by Robert Spetzler on Tuesday in Phoenix.
When Lunney told his team the news of Westmoreland, the players in their white and red uniforms stood in a tight cluster with their hands connected above their heads, and broke the huddle by yelling in unison: "Westy."
"It was a nice tribute to him," said Lunney.
The Patriots then completed their victory, 60-54 over Scituate at the Ryan Center on the campus of the University of Rhode Island.
"All the emotions kind of came out for me at that time," said Lunney. "It's a difficult time and we all just want the best for him. So does all of Red Sox Nation too. I told his dad last night that if there's anybody we want up in a tough situation, it's Westy. We know he's going to make it through OK. It's tough, very tough."
Lunney and Westmoreland have been in contact in the last few days via text messages.
"He's ready to fight," said Lunney.
When the Red Sox released a statement Saturday evening, Lunney shared the news with his coaching staff, but everyone thought it best to keep the information from the players, all of whom know Westmoreland and many of whom played with him.
The coaching staff decided they wouldn't mention it to the kids unless one of the team members brought it up. On the bus ride to the game, the coaches could hear players talking in the back of the bus about their former teammate. Not one player asked the coaches about it.
"Having to keep it a secret has been the hardest part," said Lunney. "When he left [Red Sox camp], his dad contacted me to let me know. We're very close and he just kind of let me know what was going on right from the beginning. It's been hard because the entire tournament I've been carrying it around with me. I just think so much of the kid and what he's meant for our program. To see him have to go through something like this is very hard."
The seats at the Ryan Center were filled with Portsmouth residents, many friends and former classmates of Westmoreland. They all wanted to keep their emotions to themselves out of respect for their friend.
Portsmouth assistant coach Joe Occhi has a son on the team, and another son, an alum, sat in the stands. All are very close with the Westmoreland family, and all felt the same way when they were told the news of Ryan's condition.
"Shock," said Occhi. "He's such a healthy kid. It's just a shock. It's another thing he has to deal with. Honestly, I've known Ryan since he was a boy and I coached him in basketball for a long time. We're not worried about the baseball aspect right now, we're just worried about Ryan and hoping he will come out of this."
Westmoreland was selected by the Red Sox in the fifth round (172nd overall) in the June 2008 draft. He decided to forego a scholarship to Vanderbilt University to sign with Boston two months later and began his pro career.
Since then the highly touted prospect has had his share of adversity. He's already had shoulder surgery and broke his clavicle when he slammed into the outfield wall making a dramatic catch late last season.
"From an outsider looking in, and I've known this since Ryan was drafted, the Red Sox are such a first-class organization," said Lunney. "The support and the help they've given the family right now has been outstanding."
When the final buzzer sounded at the Ryan Center and the Portsmouth players jumped on each other at center court as the newly crowned state champions, the coaching staff stood on the sideline in a group hug.
Moments later Occhi's cell phone vibrated. He reached in his pocket, pulled it out and read a text message: "Congrats. State Champs. Awesome."
Less than 48 hours before his son's surgery in Arizona, Ron Westmoreland wanted the Portsmouth High School family to know his family was thinking about them in their hour of celebration.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.