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Baseball: A stunning walk-off

Randolph's Jack Bennerotte lines a ball up the middle during a game on May 18. Martin Schlegel / RiverTown Multimedia

Trailing by 11 runs in the sixth inning of the Class A state baseball consolation championship, Randolph head coach Chris Stanton removed his seniors one-by-one from the game. It was one of the last moments any of the four Rocket seniors would have to be recognized by the large crowd at the Chaska Athletic Field.

First baseman Jack Bennerotte was the first to walk off the field. It might surprise some of his doctors that he even had the chance to be on the field to begin with.

Last year, just before baseball season, he felt numbness in his fingers in his left hand. Then his elbow. On a class trip, Bennerotte had trouble walking. He was tripping over himself.

Originally thought to potentially be a pinched nerve, Bennerotte had an MRI taken on April 2, 2018. He was sent to the Mayo Clinic for further diagnosis. It was there the doctors found a large tumor growing in his C7 nerve.

The C7 controls the nerves in the arms and triceps. It also bears most of the weight of the head. The tumor was rare to see outside the brain, rare for someone Bennerotte's age and rare to see in a man.

After surgery, some doctors thought Bennerotte would never regain feeling in his left hand and arm. Some were split on whether he'd be able to walk again.

He missed all of last baseball season, watching from the stands during last year's Section 4A final in which the Rockets came oh-so-close to state.

"I had to watch my teammates get so close," Bennerotte said. "Knowing I could have been the factor that pushed them over the edge. That drove me."

Diagnosed with tumor predisposition syndrome, which increases the risk of cancerous and noncancerous tumors to occur again, Bennerotte regained strength despite what the doctors said.

"I had to relearn how to walk," Bennerotte said. "A new nerve grew back to support feeling in my tricep. I'm as 100 percent as I'll ever be."

In addition, Bennerotte had to relearn how to catch, throw and hit. It had been just over a year since he last did anything baseball related, making the process of getting ready for his senior season all the more difficult.

Before the tumor, Bennerotte was a three-sport athlete; playing football, basketball and baseball. Doctors nixed football immediately, but let him decide whether to pursue basketball and baseball again. While he did make it back for basketball, seeing limited minutes, Bennerotte's goal was to be on the diamond.

Instead of working out in the weight room, Bennerotte went to the Snap Fitness in Cannon Falls several times a week. He admitted it was embarrassing trying to learn to walk, among other things, while his teammates were so far ahead of him.

He never wavered.

"My goal was to hit .300 and I exceeded that," Bennerotte said. "Coach Stanton said he trusts me with two outs and runners on, knowing that I'll drive them in."

As the starting first baseman, Bennorotte didn't hold back in any aspect of his game. He swung hard every at-bat and stretched into the splits at times receiving a throw.

"People tell me to swing lighter, but that's just how I swing," Bennerotte said. "I don't go up there expecting a nuke. ... I've only hit one double this year, every other hit I've had are singles."

As for his fielding, "I don't know where that came from. I'm not a very flexible guy. I can't touch my toes, but I can reach (enough to do the splits)."

Even though his neck is held together by pins, Bennerotte fears nothing. He'd rather be on the field and produce while giving max effort than sitting in the stands.

All the more sweet in his comeback was the state appearance by the Rockets, the first in school history. Bennerotte thoroughly enjoyed the team in his final season.

"We all mesh so well together," Bennerotte said. "Everybody has a friend group, but when we're out here, we're all together. It's kind of like a big family."

The season means many things to Bennerotte. Immensely proud of his accomplishments, Bennerotte said, "To come back the way I did, I hit pretty decent this year. It's showed me that through everything, God has a plan."

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