Rylan Anderson was easy to spot on the field in the postseason. Among all the Gunnison High baseball players, he was the only one who wears a protective mask when on the mound and at the plate when he wasn't catching. It's not just a precaution: He must shield his face in order to play.
Just over a month ago, the 17-year-old's face was smashed when he misread a fastball and leaned into its path. The errant pitch not only almost ended his playing career it also brought forth memories of a tragic family event from the past.
"When they first told me my season was over, I didn't know what to think," Anderson says. "The thought popped in my mind that I wouldn't be able to play again, but I didn't see it happening. I thought for sure I'd be back."
Gunnison was playing rival North Sevier at home on April 12 when Rylan strode to the plate. His friend, Colton Piep, was throwing hard high and inside for the Wolves. When the count reached 1 and 2, Piep threw a fastball. Rylan was looking for a curveball and leaned in, expecting it to break away from him. It never did.
Instead of hearing the plastic "klunk" of the ball hitting Anderson's helmet, there was what Gunnison coach Jared Anderson no relation described as "a mushy sound."
"He went down face-first after getting hit," the coach said. "There was blood everywhere. You could tell just by looking at him that his nose was broken and he was just damaged. And when our team saw that, it just took the wind out of our sails."
The team had to convince Rylan not to try to pick himself off the ground and take his base.
Eventually, an ambulance came and took him to a local hospital. Gunnison won the game 1-0 in an extra inning, but players went home more worried about their teammate than the score.
Doctors determined that Rylan's nose was broken in multiple places and that his eye socket was shattered as well. They then gave Rylan and his father, Mark, more potential bad news: The injury could be causing brain fluid leakage or exposing him to infection. He would have to go to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo for more tests.
It was a haunting experience for the Andersons. Ten years earlier, Rylan's mother, Deah Anderson, was hit by a car, putting her in a coma for a month. When she woke up, she hardly knew her family and found it impossible to take care of herself. After four years, the Andersons moved her into a care facility where she resides to this day.
At Utah Valley Regional, Deah's old hospital room was just down the hall from Rylan's. It didn't take long for Rylan's nurses to remember that he was the little boy who had been by his mother's side a decade before.
An altogether different, sickening feeling gripped Mark's heart as he sensed the connections.
"When we realized it might be a brain injury, that was when I started thinking differently," Mark says. "Baseball takes a backseat to that. You start worrying about how it's going to affect your boy."
Fortunately, after a few scans and tests, doctors determined that Rylan would be fine with some facial surgery and that his brain was still intact. But as far as they were concerned, Rylan's season was over.
With Rylan out, the Bulldogs still thrived. Sophomore Colby Caldwell took over behind the plate. It was much harder to replace him on the mound, but Brenon Jensen and Caldwell did what they could to help the team win. Ty Bartholomew held up his role as staff ace, going undefeated.
Watching his teammates was almost part of Rylan's therapy as he recovered from surgery and wore a face cast. He says seeing the Bulldogs win six of the eight games he sat out made him eager to return, and helped put him at ease. He also received an outpouring of support from the community and 2A teams across the state. Piep, who had accidentally hit Rylan, was among those who spent the most time visiting him.
"I'm just glad for all the support," Rylan says. "I felt like everyone was rooting for me, and it made me feel pretty blessed."
And for the last few games, Rylan came back. He wore the masks as part of a compromise with his doctors. It wasn't easy: He was shaky getting back in the batter's box against San Juan, and he has been hit twice by pitches since his return. But his play has been stellar: In Gunnison's first playoff game, he pitched a shutout, and in the second round he gunned down three runners trying to steal while playing catcher. Although the Bulldogs suffered a disappointing exit Thursday at the hands of North Sevier, Anderson fought until the end, netting three hits in the loss.
For his father, it's a bittersweet memory to see him play, but he's glad to see Rylan at peace again.
"I just know it should be his mother watching these games she's the one who signed him up and pushed for our boys to get into the sport," Mark says. "But as a father, I'm glad to see that so many people are glad to see Rylan playing again. I am, too."
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