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Tiger senior battles injury, salvages season

Monday was a monumental day for Shelby Speegle. He toed the rubber in Demopolis’ season opener against defending 4A state champion Jackson. While on the surface that statement may lack meaning, it is considerably more momentous when considering Speegle was less than three months removed from tearing his ACL.

“When I got tackled, I felt like something went wrong,” Speegle says of the hit that sent him out of the second half of Demopolis’ Nov. 21 playoff game against Carver. “When (Dr. Anthony Tropeano) came out of the stands and told me he thought my ACL was torn, I didn’t believe him.”

The news was sobering to Speegle. A talented left-hander with a knee-buckling curveball, Speegle was looking forward to his senior season on the diamond. After sustaining the injury, Speegle’s baseball life appeared in jeopardy.

“The only thing I could think about was getting back to baseball,” he says shortly after coming off the field from the third game of a season he once thought lost. “Nobody wants to sit on the bench. We open with Jackson, the defending 4A state champs. We had Leroy and Sweet Water. We had a lot of big games early. Those are the games that are fun. Those are people that are as good as you or better. Those are the teams that make you better as an individual and as a team.”

As he limped along the sideline at Cramton Bowl, the sting of falling in dramatic fashion to Carver combined with the revelation that he may lose most or all of his senior baseball season was overwhelming for Speegle.

“When he first hurt his knee, they said surgery, six months, no baseball. You’re out,” DHS baseball coach Ben Ramer recounts. “Then they tell him that with really aggressive rehab, maybe April.”

“The night he got hurt, I said ‘Son, this is an inconvenience. If you work hard enough, you’ll come back,'” Don Sprewell, who worked with Speegle throughout his rehab explains.

Speegle took Sprewell’s words to heart. He set for himself the goal of taking the mound on opening day against Jackson. Then he went to work.

“In rehab, when I’d tell him something, he’d do it,” Sprewell says. “He clearly went from one step to the next with a real strong determination.”

“He has went above and beyond what rehab has called for to get back into a position where he can contribute,” Ramer says of Speegle’s work ethic.

The lefty contributed in a considerable way Monday, picking up the win after limiting Jackson to four hits, one walk and one unearned run over five innings of work.

“It felt great. I told so many people that I’d be back pitching the first game on opening day,” Speegle says. “I had no way of knowing that. It was just what I’d hoped for and what I’d prayed about.”

While he met his initial goal, Speegle knows he is not yet close to being out of the woods.

“I’m not supposed to be back now,” Speegle says. “Nobody would clear me (to play) after two and a half months. It’s just unheard of.”

After talks with Tropeano, Sprewell, Ramer and his parents, the senior faced what figured to be a difficult decision.

“It wasn’t hard at all,” Speegle says of the choice to go against medical advice and take the field. “I felt like I was good enough to play. I had a goal to pitch first game of the season despite everything.”

Speegle’s next major test arrived Thursday night in Sweet Water. He played center field and ran bases for the first time since sustaining the injury. The challenge proved a difficult one. His range in the outfield is not yet where he is accustomed. He is not yet confident in his speed on the base paths. That hesitation manifested in the top of the fifth inning. After reaching on a walk, Speegle was off to the races when Jacob Kerby ripped a double into the left field corner. Speegle rounded second, saw Ramer waving him to third, paused briefly and broke back toward second before forcing himself to trust his coach and cruise into third. A year ago, Speegle may have scored on the play. Thursday night, his speed was such that he could have reached third safely without a throw. But his confidence in the surgically-repaired knee has yet to allow him to freely take chances.

“I’d like to go 100 percent and go full speed every time, but there is that something,” Speegle says of the voice that nags in the back of his mind. “Some of the throws, some of the cuts, I can’t really make yet. But in a few more days or a few more weeks, that will come.”

Ramer is confident that Speegle will return to full strength in the near future. He has seen other players return from similar injuries on comparable timetables before.

“I’ve been around a few of them,” Ramer says of such players. “One of them is in Double-A with the Braves and the other one is in his first year of college ball. You wish you could figure out what it is that drives them because if you could ever put it into all your players, you wouldn’t have to do much.”