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St. Scholastica baseball team rallies around its coach

The St. Scholastica baseball team has always described itself as family, so when the head of the family is hurting, the entire team shares in the pain.

Baggs coaching
St. Scholastica head coach John Baggs (left) congratulates Peter Burg during a May 8, 2008, game against Northland College at Wade Stadium in Duluth. 2008 file / News Tribune

The St. Scholastica baseball team has always described itself as family, so when the head of the family is hurting, the entire team shares in the pain.

"To call us a family may even be an understatement," Saints assistant coach Corey Kemp said. "It's that tight knit."

The 15th-ranked Saints take the field on Sunday at the Metrodome for their season opener against Mount Marty, but their thoughts and prayers will remain with their longtime head coach, John Baggs, who will be back in Duluth continuing his battle against life-threatening cancer.

"Our guys know that Coach Baggs is still our head coach, and we talk with him almost daily about how things are going," Kemp said. "He still has a tremendous amount of input as to what we're doing."

Baggs, 42, was set to enter his 18th season on the helm when he was diagnosed with cancer on Oct. 24. Practice started two weeks ago without him as Baggs has undergone chemotherapy treatments that have limited his ability to leave home. He has lost 55 pounds.

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While many people in the local sports community have known about Baggs' fight, the college honored his wish for privacy and didn't release the information until Friday. In the meantime, he has received more than 300 cards and 40 meals dropped off by friends and neighbors.

Baggs' latest treatment has focused on cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile ducts, with an average incidence of only one case per 100,000 people each year, according to WebMD.

Baggs couldn't be reached on Friday, but commented about fighting the disease in a release.

"We've had more than 30 visits to SMDC and three to Mayo and the prognosis has not improved," Baggs said. "It is hard when they can't tell you truly what you have or where it came from."

Baggs and his wife, Colleen, live in Duluth with their son Maddux, 8, and daughter Josie, 3.

"When you're in this situation, the least of your worries is what is going to happen on the field," Baggs said. "You are more concerned with your health, the treatments, taking care of your family and how you are going to pay for all of this."

Baggs was born in Chicago and graduated from Iowa State in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and English. He has built St. Scholastica into a national power since taking over the team in 1992. The Saints' are the winningest NCAA Division III team of the last decade and have won 12 straight Upper Midwest Athletic Conference titles.

Some have argued the Saints are a product of a weak schedule, the proverbial big fish in the UMAC sea, but the Saints have proven themselves with a yearly nonconference schedule that has included the likes of DIII power St. Thomas. Last year, St. Scholastica finished as the runner-up in the Midwest Regional for the Saints' best NCAA finish in program history.

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"Coach Baggs and I have had our differences, but I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for what he's done over there, and if anyone can beat this, it's him," said former Minnesota Duluth baseball coach Scott Hanna. "He's done it his whole career. They said you'll never win at St. Scholastica, and he did it. They said you'll never beat the likes of St. Olaf and St. Thomas, UMD and Oshkosh, but he's beat them all. The guy's a winner, and on behalf of everyone at UMD, we wish him well."

Saints coaches will handle the team by committee, with most of the game-day decisions ultimately being handled by Kemp, who will coach third base, and longtime Saints assistant Tim Anderson.

Players weren't available for comment, but senior captain Kyle Wojtysiak said in the release that "the team's thought and prayers are with coach and his family," and "we still feel his presence every day at our practices."

Kemp said that after a week of crying, the team has focused on the positives and tried to stay upbeat. St. Scholastica games at Wade Stadium will look different without Baggs manning third base, ready to wave another Saint home, but Kemp said the plan is to allow Baggs to concentrate on his health, beat the disease and return later in the season.

"Saints baseball is the closest family you could ever be a part of, and it's hard for people to understand that unless you've been a part of it," Kemp said. "Coach would do anything for his former players and we'd do anything for him. Everybody just wants to see him back in that third base coach's box, just where he belongs."

Editor's note: A fund has been set up to help St. Scholastica baseball coach John Baggs cope with his rising medical costs. Baggs' fight against cancer was featured in Saturday's News Tribune. To donate, send checks to the Coach Baggs Fund, c/o Tom Simonson, North Shore Bank of Commerce, 131 W. Superior St., Duluth, MN 55802.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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