Hennessey strikes out cancer

Olympia (Orlando, Fla.) right-hander bounced back after missing all of 2011

Originally Published: June 14, 2012
By Lucas O'Neill | ESPNHS

Michael HennesseyAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackOlympia (Orlando, Fla.) right-hander Michael Hennessey went 12-0 this season after missing all of last year while battling testicular cancer.

It's often difficult to identify the nonstatistical factors that make a team successful -- that's why they're called intangibles. Some alchemy of attitude, luck and leadership comes into play, and then there are factors even harder to parse.

Still, it can be said with some certainty that the mere presence of Michael Hennessey on this year's Olympia High School (Orlando, Fla.) baseball team had much to do with the Titans' success, which included a 29-game win streak and a six-week stint as the nation's No. 1 team. The impact goes well beyond the numbers, which, in Michael's case, were awfully impressive in their own right.

The senior submarine-style righty went 12-0 with a 0.92 ERA, fanning 68 batters (and walking just 16) in 78.2 innings. At the plate, he hit .367 with 30 RBIs and 27 runs scored in 98 at-bats. On a team with three -- three! -- players who would go on to be selected in the 2012 MLB draft, Michael was arguably the most valuable player of them all.

This becomes all the more incredible considering that little more than a year ago, in what should have been his senior season, Michael wasn't able to take the field at all. Expectations coming into this spring were low.

"We hoped that he'd be able to come back and be just what he was before," said Olympia coach Randy O'Neal, "but he actually came back better."


* * *

They caught it early, just not early enough.

Michael was messing around with some friends in the fall of 2010 when he got hit in the groin. Strangely enough, that was the best thing that could have happened. When the swelling didn't go down the next day, he went to the hospital for tests.

The hope was that removing the tumor doctors subsequently discovered would be the end of it, but it turned out to be a fast-growing form of testicular cancer, and weeks after the surgery they found that the disease had spread. The battle was just beginning.

"We were in shock," said Michael's mother, Vivian. "We were hysterical. We didn't know what to do."

Chemotherapy is never a pleasant experience -- perhaps the understatement of the year -- but Michael's regimen was particularly concentrated and grueling. He was put on a three-week cycle: Week 2 had limited chemo and Week 3 was for rest, but the first week, Michael would undergo treatment (i.e., a cocktail of toxic drugs pumped into his system) for eight hours a day.

"Nothing's ever as challenging as chemotherapy," said Michael. "There's nothing really to compare it to. It's like the worst thing you can ever do. You're stuck just wherever you are at the time feeling terrible."

While Michael was always confident about his chances of survival -- he had excellent care and numbers were on his side -- that doesn't mean he didn't despair. Barely able to move, much less attend school, he withdrew from Olympia. Knowing he'd miss his senior season and the opportunity to graduate with his class put him in a deep depression.

Like many cancer patients, Michael was conflicted: Implored to stay positive, the truth was that there was no realistic way to do so. Cancer sucks. And sometimes acknowledging that fact instead of employing a manufactured sense of optimism is perfectly fine.

"It was really hard to stay positive," said Michael. "While you're doing it, you're thinking it's just never going to end. The most important thing is the support you have from others."

The only relief he had came in the form of his friends, who helped him get through the painful hours. His teammates shaved their heads in solidarity and got him an iPad, visiting nearly every day and bringing cards, posters and food. (Not that he did much eating: Along with the requisite nausea and hair loss, Michael dropped more than 20 pounds over the course of his chemo, his 6-foot frame carrying just 150 pounds at its nadir.)

His good friend, Stevie McClellan, donned Michael's No. 21 for the Titans that spring.

"It was unbelievable to see how wonderful everyone was," said Vivian. "I don't know how anyone does this alone."


* * *

After months of treatment, the cancer went into remission. Michael was cleared to play again last June, about eight months after the initial diagnosis. He spent the summer playing with his usual travel team, the Orlando Scorpions, gradually building up his strength. He then received a waiver from the FHSAA for a fifth year of eligibility.

It wasn't clear at that point how much -- or even if -- Michael would be able to contribute during the high school season, but his roster spot was assured.

Michael Hennessey
Courtesy of Jeanine HammondMichael Hennessey will pitch next season at Lake-Sumter Community College.

"I wanted him around no matter what, just because of who and what he is to the program," said O'Neal.

"Having him back on the team -- just as a teammate, not even as a player -- gave the rest of the guys that sense of confidence, that sense of purpose to play for something," added Walker Weickel, the team's co-ace and the No. 55 overall pick by the San Diego Padres in last week's draft. "Seeing him being able to battle through such a hard time in his life and come back and be successful just continued to fuel the team throughout the season."

They weren't the only ones who bought in early. Michael, who'd received plenty of Division I interest as a junior, didn't have college ball on his mind when Lake-Sumter Community College contacted O'Neal to offer him a scholarship this past December -- before seeing him suit up for Olympia. Thrilled to have a chance to play at the next level, and to stay close to home, Michael signed up.

It didn't take long for Michael to prove he was more than a mascot. By the first game, it was clear he hadn't lost a step. By the third game, he looked better than ever. After that, he and Weickel essentially traded complete games the rest of the way, and the contrast in their styles couldn't have been more stark -- and, as a result, more complementary.

At 6-foot-7, Weickel throws downhill fastballs that top out in the mid-90s. Michael is just the opposite. At O'Neal's suggestion, Michael had gone from a three-quarter arm slot to a sidearm delivery as a junior. After a torn labrum and his missed season, he came back as a fully-fledged submariner, delivering the ball in from 6 inches off the ground. His velocity fell slightly, into the 80s, but hitters were almost incapable of squaring up on the ball.

The combination led Olympia to 29 straight wins to open the season and a No. 1 national ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50. After each victory, the scrutiny would grow.

Add that to the fact that the team had three legit MLB prospects (four if you count junior Nick Gordon), and what you got were 73 scouts in attendance to watch batting practice before one game and 100 more for a contest against Bishop Moore (Orlando, Fla.).

The Titans would lose just once all season, getting knocked out of the Class 8A playoffs by eventual state champ Spruce Creek (Port Orange, Fla.), but they're still likely to finish in the top 10 in the POWERADE FAB 50 after their historic streak.

More importantly, they managed the pressure and expectations with grace -- plus plenty of pranks to stay loose -- and there's no doubt Michael had a calming effect on the team. Quiet and low-key, he was the picture of control both on the mound and batting in the cleanup spot.

Those qualities might be labeled intangibles, but there's no question in O'Neal's mind that they contributed to victories for Olympia. Michael's teammates understood why he didn't take a single at-bat or pitch for granted. He knew the alternative.

"Once cancer picks a fight with you and you win," said O'Neal, "what's left to prove?"