HOOKSETT -- When the Southern New Hampshire baseball team hoisted its Northeast-10 Championship trophy last Sunday, Ian Price was at the center of the celebration. Earlier, Price, an 11-year-old Sandown resident, threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch.
And Saturday, with host SNHU looking to stave off elimination from the NCAA Division II East Regional tournament, the Penmen will turn to Price again.
He is, after all, part of the team.
Diagnosed in October 2012 with a benign brain tumor, Price suffered pre-surgery complications that resulted in temporary paralysis on the left side of his body. He was unable to speak for six weeks and was reliant on an IV for all his nutrition. Rehabilitation enabled him to make significant strides toward recovery, but after an MRI revealed tumor growth, he began chemotherapy in January 2013.
Price’s tumors on his brainstem and spine are categorized as low-grade, and his mother said he can live with them as long as they don’t grow further. Now that the chemotherapy — which has prevented the tumors from expanding — is complete, Price is gaining strength and hoping to walk again within the next couple years.
Two months after beginning chemo, Price was “drafted” by the SNHU baseball team through Team Impact, a Boston-based nonprofit founded three years ago with a mission “to improve the quality of life for children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses through the power of team.”
Price now has a customized SNHU jersey, his own locker and a place on the roster.
A prior commitment may prevent Price from making it to Penmen Field for the scheduled 11 a.m. start of SNHU’s third-round game, but with the team 1-1 in the double-elimination tournament, he plans to be there to provide inspiration and support.
“Over the last year and a half, we’ve been through a lot together,” SNHU head coach Scott Loiseau of the Penmen’s relationship with Price. “Obviously, he’s been through a lot more than us, but he’s our heart and soul, and he’s a valuable member of this team.”
In addition to attending many of the team practices and games, Price is included in all team activities, including going to Red Sox games with his fellow Penmen, attending holiday events and much more, said Loiseau.
“Everything we do as a group, he’s there,” the coach said. “He’s definitely been great for the guys, that’s for sure ... To be perfectly honest with you, we’re lucky to have him as part of the team.”
For Price and his family, the experience has provided an undeniable boost in spirits.
“They’ve had an impact on my life that I never thought I would ever have again,” said Price. “They treat me like somebody who’s normal, and not in a wheelchair. They’re fun, and they’re awesome. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”
“From a parent’s point of view, I think it just gives Ian a chance to feel grown up and to feel good about himself,” said Price’s mother, Niki. “You know, they’re not associated with his past. He has a tough time associating with kids he used to be able to walk and run and play with ... and with (the SNHU players), they are a new part of who he is.”
“It’s just been inspiring to see him get here through complications, through chemo, through having to go to school, and for his family to be right on board with it too, it just shows you how lucky we are,” said SNHU captain Derrick Sylvester, a senior pitcher from Franklin.
Hours before the Penmen took the field in the Northeast-10 title game, Price received an additional and unexpected surprise. The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged for a dream trip for him and his family to the world-famous Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. His teammates were there to celebrate.
Sylvester said that day may have been the best of his life.
“You can’t beat what we did that day — for us and for Ian,” he said.
Sylvester said Price made a video for the team before a late-season game against Merrimack College.
“It said something along the lines of, ‘You guys need to work hard. Look how hard I’ve worked, and you need to work just as hard as I have,’ and that kind of hit home for us,” he said. “You know, if this kid is going through what he’s going through, us being at a baseball field for four hours really isn’t tough with a sore ankle or sore arm.”
Sylvester said Price’s presence and optimism have had a major impact on the Penmen’s achievements this season.
Dan Kraft, Team Impact’s chairman and co-founder, said success is common for teams with Impact children.
“We’ve seen literally dozens of situations like the one with Ian and Southern New Hampshire baseball, with teams playing exceptionally well or over-achieving,” Kraft said. “I’m not sure if it’s a matter of being grounded or if it’s a chemistry thing, but it seems the impact of the child on the players is just as great as the benefit the kids and families receive from the relationship.”
Some recent examples include the Dayton men’s basketball team, which reached the Elite Eight in this year’s NCAA tournament with an Impact child along for the ride, and the Tufts women’s basketball squad that reached the Division III Final Four for the first time in the program’s history this past season, also with an Impact teammate. The list of success stories is endless, said Kraft.
Team Impact, which currently has more than 460 child placements on collegiate teams in 38 states, continues to grow, Kraft said.
“I know there are other Team Impact families, and I’m sure they love their teams, but I think we have the best,” said Niki Price. “They’re just the nicest group of young men, and we just can’t say enough. They really seem to care about Ian and really seem to appreciate Ian. He is lucky he has these great people in his life, and we know if we had to call them for anything, more than one person would show up, and we’d probably have more support than we need.”