The nonconference baseball game between Southern and Loyola on Tuesday night doesn’t have much meaning in the standings.
The Jaguars are 11-21, the Wolf Pack is 19-28, and the outcome won’t affect either team’s primary goal, which is to hang on to the final berth in their respective conferences’ tournaments next month.
But for Loyola senior left-hander Dylan Gregoire, this game could hardly have more significance.
Nearly six months after being hit in the head by a baseball and barely two weeks after being cleared to throw to hitters, Gregoire will make his first start of the season in his hometown where he helped Catholic High School win a state championship in 2010.
“The goal for everyone around here has been to get him back on the mound before he ran out of time,” Wolf Pack coach Doug Faust said Monday.
This season was always going to be Gregoire’s last because he used his redshirt in 2014 after he suffered a broken back in a car accident, which required surgery to insert two titanium rods in his back and a plate in his broken collarbone, all of which remains in place.
“Tough kid,” Faust said. “He’s had a rough road.”
On top of the two injuries at Loyola, Gregoire had Tommy John surgery after his freshman season at Southwest Mississippi Junior College.
“He had a few chances to pack it in,” Faust said.
The recoveries from the elbow and back surgeries were obviously physically demanding, but Gregoire said the return from the head injury was mentally the most challenging.
It was late last October and Gregoire was in the bullpen stretching before practice. He had his head down when a pitch got away from a teammate and he was “blindsided” as the baseball struck his left temple.
“I had no idea how bad it was,” said Gregoire, who threw a few pitches before realizing he couldn’t just shake it off. He left practice and went to class, but had to leave because he didn’t feel well.
At home that evening, Gregoire took a hot shower, and his head hurt so much he couldn’t open his eyes. He called his girlfriend, who took him to a hospital.
Gregoire said his memory of the first two days after the injury is “very vague,” but he was told that after correctly telling the nurse his first name, when she asked for his last name he twice replied “Baton Rouge.”
Doctors considered whether to operate in order to drain fluid and lessen pressure on his brain but decided that was unnecessary.
Gregoire wound up being hospitalized for five days, two fewer than he was hospitalized after the back surgery.
Tests revealed that the injury set back his math skills to an eighth-grade level. His teammates helped him with reading, explaining what he read after he discovered he would have to read something three or more times to comprehend its meaning.
Despite the challenges, Gregoire will graduate with a biology degree next month as he contemplates a career as a dentist, though he hopes to stick around the baseball team in a volunteer capacity next season.
Now Gregoire has mostly recovered, though he still has an occasional headache.
“I really struggled with the fact that I was physically ready to play, but I wasn’t mentally ready to play,” Gregoire said. “When the team struggled, I wasn’t able to help the young players and give them a senior example. It was tough to watch us lose.”
Faust said he envisioned Gregoire being a weekend starter until injuries “derailed things.”
Gregoire made seven starts among his 16 appearances last season. But after the latest injury, he accepted that his contributions as a senior would be minimal.
“I told (Faust) that I’m OK being that situational guy who goes in and throws five or six pitches to get that one out and maybe be the missing link,” Faust said, adding that he didn’t want to go “unacknowledged” as a senior.
Gregoire made his first appearance out of the bullpen at Spring Hill last Tuesday. He was anxious about his return, recalling a class presentation he had to make a few weeks after the injury when he experienced a panic attack.
Standing on the rubber with his back to home plate as he composed himself for his first pitch, he started shaking.
But he got through it and said that when he entered a game against Mobile last weekend with the bases loaded, “I didn’t feel any anxiety.”
In fact, Gregoire called the baseball diamond his “sanctuary” and said he’s fortunate that he didn’t see the baseball that hit him.
Had the injury been caused by a line drive back to the mound, the image could have become a recurring one.
Still, for protection, Gregoire pitches with a “skull cap” like coaches wear in the third-base box.
He’s scheduled to throw an inning or two Tuesday as Faust plans to use his entire bullpen to get ready for the conference weekend.
Gregoire hasn’t been to the postseason since Catholic’s state title, and Loyola hasn’t qualified for the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament since he’s been there. But the Wolf Pack has a one-game lead over Blue Mountain College for the last tourney berth.
“My senior year at Catholic, we made a statement when we won the state title,” Gregoire said. “I want us to get in the tournament this year and have that become something Loyola does every year. I look at it as my job to start a tournament tradition.”
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.