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updated: 9/21/2016 9:06 PM

Naperville schools get behind Wegner

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  • In the fourth quarter Naperville Central's Justin Wegner, left, intercepts the ball in the end zone against Waubonsie Valley's Justin Rich, right, during the second round of football playoffs in Aurora.

      In the fourth quarter Naperville Central's Justin Wegner, left, intercepts the ball in the end zone against Waubonsie Valley's Justin Rich, right, during the second round of football playoffs in Aurora.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Kris Hasty

    Kris Hasty

 
 

Justin Wegner sounds absolutely fantastic. Listening to him talk it's as if he's already beaten the cancer.

"Yes, he was diagnosed with cancer but that does not change Justin at all," said fellow Naperville Central 2015 graduate Mark Nowak, Justin's best friend since kindergarten.

"He's the exact same Justin we all know and love," said Nowak, who, as usual, stayed in Wegner's room during Justin's sixth round of chemotherapy treatments, last weekend at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago.

Except instead of taking business classes and gearing up for his sophomore baseball season as a catcher at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Wegner is home determining his next course of action pending the chemotherapy's effects.

A week after returning home to Naperville's Hobson West subdivision following Whitewater's bid in the Division III World Series, out of the blue the 19-year-old Wegner felt chest pains. A CT scan showed soft-tissue sarcoma called desmoplastic small round cell tumors.

According to the University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center -- where Wegner will go if surgery is necessary -- about 200 cases of this have been diagnosed since it was first discovered in 1989. The main mass is often found in the pelvis, as with Justin, who also had it spread to his abdomen and lungs.

The hope is "obviously the chemotherapy wipes out everything," said Wegner, who played football and baseball at Naperville Central and hit .250 in 22 games for Whitewater as a true freshman in 2016, starting 14 games.

"But with that not being completely realistic, the chemo wiping out the smaller masses and the spotting and then, hopefully, if the chemo takes care of that then surgery can take out the main mass," he said.

The chemotherapy treatments are planned through November. Community support and a fund to help defray treatment costs -- #Jwegstrong, at First Community Bank of Naperville -- has been constant since shortly after the diagnosis.

The most recent, at least till Friday when Naperville Central students plan a #Jwegstrong theme for the football game at Wheaton Warrenville South, came Monday in a Naperville Central-Naperville North golf match at Cress Creek Country Club in Naperville.

In 2015 the competition, named the Mikey Gustafson Match Play, supported the Swifty Foundation. That was created to fund pediatric brain cancer research following the death of Naperville North freshman Michael Gustafson in 2013. On Monday proceeds went to #Jwegstrong.

Naperville Central boys golf coach Barry Baldwin, who worked with Justin as a J. Kyle Braid Foundation scholar and had current "JKB kids" selling T-shirts to raise funds, spoke with Naperville North coach Ryan Hantak about Wegner.

"Since Naperville Central helped with Swifty, we thought we should return the favor," said Hantak, who called Monday's match a highlight of the season. "Our kids obviously were happy to help out any way they could."

The coaches first disseminated fundraising information on Sept. 13. Six days later after the two teams played at Cress Creek the #Jwegstrong Fund was more than $5,000 richer. One Naperville North golfer donated $1,500.

"I started crying. And this is a kid who didn't even know him, he just wanted to help the cause," Baldwin said.

"The support from Naperville North for a rival like Naperville Central, it really speaks volumes to the character of their athletic program. It's a class act over there," he said.

It's a case of good karma. Nowak called Wegner the "greatest" person he knows; Baldwin said if he had a son, he'd want him to be like Justin.

He has good days and bad days. But like Nowak said, though the cancer touched him physically, it hasn't diminished him mentally.

"My spirits are up. I feel like I've handled everything that's been thrown my way pretty well so far," Wegner said.

"That has a lot to do with my support system, from my friends at Wisconsin-Whitewater to my friends here at home, even all the kids at the high school right now who I don't even know, who are doing all this stuff for me.

"It's really overwhelming to see this support. That's huge, really."

A Hasty decision

In West Chicago's final home match of the 2016 boys volleyball season, two of coach Kris Hasty's former Wildcats came to wish her good luck in retirement.

"No, you're putting me out the door too early," she said.

They'll be back. Hasty will indeed retire after this school year, ending 23 years coaching both West Chicago's boys and girls varsity volleyball teams.

"The guys just want to play, so you can be a little more stern with the guys, not worry about hurting their feelings," said Hasty, who lives in North Aurora. "The girls, you must be a little more sensitive to their personalities."

That she is. In addition to teaching physical education and strength classes to West Chicago juniors and seniors, Hasty is in her 12th year heading West Chicago's Teen Moms group. That's heightened sensitivity.

Plus she's got two children of her own, the main reason that even after 36 years overall in education she's leaving West Chicago a couple years early. Daughter Lauren, a cross country runner, will be a West Aurora freshman next school year. Son Colin plays soccer at Aurora's Herget Middle School.

"I just would like to be a part of that more than I have been," Kris Hasty said. "I want to follow them and be that parent who hopefully exercises good sportsmanship and not be that sideline coach -- be there to support your children and be positive."

One of 81 students in her graduating class at Deer Creek-Mackinaw, southwest of Peoria, Hasty played volleyball and softball at Illinois Central College and volleyball for two years at the former hotbed of George Williams College in Downers Grove.

She taught and coached for eight years at Eureka High School, earning top-four state finishes in 1984 and '85, before West Chicago's Gail George approached Hasty about a position.

"I was," Hasty said, "I guess what she thought a decent coach."

As she spoke, Hasty was observing West Chicago's "Jersey Day" by wearing a U.S. National Team volleyball jersey given to her by West Chicago graduate Andy Hein.

The former 6-foot-11 middle blocker remains the standard-bearer for West Chicago volleyball. He led Hasty's Wildcats to a fourth-place finish in 2001 and Elite Eight spot in 2002 before earning All-America honors at Pepperdine and playing professionally in Europe.

Former players who return -- and maybe even assistant coaches and Wildcats graduates Adrian Porcayo and Isaias Flores -- say she's gotten softer. Hasty agreed, saying parenthood probably softened her edges.

Next summer she'll have more time to explore that reasoning.

"It's been a great run here at West Chicago," Hasty said. "I think the reason I stayed was the people that I work with. I work in a great department and I've just had some really great times here, the kids are fantastic. You've got to love what you do, and I absolutely do."

doberhelman@dailyherald.com

Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1

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