Playoffs will mean redemption for SJS' Kurtz

With his car packed up and a baseball workout at Army on the horizon, Connor Kurtz dressed for St. John’s first football scrimmage this past fall against Eastern Mass. power Brockton -- a scrimmage that would severely impact the rest of his senior year.

Kurtz -- the starting quarterback on the football team, expected contributor on the basketball team, and presumed starting second baseman on the baseball team -- pulled the ball on a read option on the second play from scrimmage. The charging defensive lineman pulled Kurtz to the ground, on a tackle that Kurtz reiterates was completely clean, and he heard a snap in his left knee.

The torn ACL and PCL would require surgery that would leave him unable to participate in athletics for most of the school year.

“I was supposed to go for a baseball workout, that night, right after the scrimmage. [Army] stopped talking to me after that. I was a kid with an injured knee,” Kurtz said.

Following knee surgery last fall, he spent two months in a wheelchair. The majority of his time thereafter was spent at school, studying, sitting at football practice, and doing physical therapy three to four times a week.

“I went every day I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment,” he said. “That was the hardest thing, it just really tightened up and it was pretty painful. My leg was up straight for over a month. I was in a wheelchair for two months, after that it was crutches and a little walking.”

Kurtz’ injury gave way for backup quarterback Drew Smiley to put up record-setting numbers, breaking the Central Mass. single-season passing record and earning a spot on ESPN Boston's All-State Team as the Pioneers led the state in offense (442.2 yards per game). Smiley, who led the Pioneers to the Central Mass. Division 1 Super Bowl, says he couldn’t help but admire Kurtz’ willingness to help him with plays and adjustments on a daily basis.

“When he was on the bench with ice on his knee after he got injured, I asked him if he had any advice or what he thinks I should try and improve on," Smiley said. "He told me to not worry about it and that he knows I’m ready to play and I’ll be fine. Even though we were battling for the spot in the beginning of the year, as soon as he got hurt he was rooting for me 100% and just wanted the team to be as success as possible."

The Pioneers came up just short of Leominster in the Central Mass. Division 1 Super Bowl, Kurtz watched from the sideline as the Blue Devils’ star quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie had 392 all-purpose yards to lead Leominster to a 42-32 Super Bowl victory.

Expected to be a contributor off the bench at the guard spot during hoops season, Kurtz sat on the bench for every game and practice for the Pioneers’ run to WPI. With Kurtz out for the season and senior captain Ken Harrington out for a large chunk of games in the middle of the regular season, Pioneers’ Coach Bob Foley often started sophomore Davon Jones and freshman Adham Floyd in his backcourt.

St. John’s advanced to the Central Mass. title game, but once again, Kurtz could only watch as his team came up just short of a district title, losing 56-54 to Milford.

“That was difficult...Coach Foley doesn’t say much after a loss, we just kind of sat there for awhile, everyone was quiet and saying their goodbyes,” he said.

For the fall and winter seasons of his senior year, Kurtz was an innocent bystander as his football and basketball teams came up just short of a championship. St. John’s baseball Coach Charlie Eppinger, also a Math teacher at the school, would often see Kurtz wheeling around in the hallways at school while joking with friends or hear stories of his second basemen schooling Smiley on coverages.

“He’s stoic, he’d be a great poker player,” Eppinger joked. “He never led on when he was discouraged, even though he was having a hard time running like he used to, he never has shown discouragement. Everyone knows he’s had wonderful days, and he’s had some really tough days, too. But he doesn’t call attention to himself. Connor’s a great example of overcoming adversity and perseverance.”

This year, Kurtz has embraced his role as mildly-used reserve second and third baseman. Eppinger estimates that Connor has had 15 to 18 at-bats this season, but he has been a reliable presence in the Pioneers’ infield. He isn’t too close to 100 percent, he still can’t run the bases with the speed that he could in year’s past, but his attitude quickly earned the respect of his teammates.

“You can hear everybody [on the bench] when he comes up to the plate. When something good happens to Connor, you can hear a little bit extra,” Eppinger says.

With a true poker face that Eppinger so admires about his senior, Kurtz downplays any disappointment that comes in his direction.

“It’s definitely a different role going from playing every inning to not playing as much, I just try to stay positive and cheer guys on as much as possible,” Kurtz says.

On July 1, Connor will report for a six-week boot camp to the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Based on his remarkable academic record and achievement on the athletic field, he was appointed an invitation to attend the school. While studying Mechanical Engineering, he will also play baseball for the Bears.

“Baseball’s a tough game, it’s a game of failure," his coach says. "He knows how to be able to deal with that failure, not have it be the end of the world, and understand we’re lucky to play the game every day. It’s disappointing for him this year, but he’s handled it with tremendous grace and dignity."

He does have a little bit of unfinished business before he heads to Connecticut in July, though. The Pioneers baseball team, now 16-5, is the third-ranked team in the state in the ESPN Boston top 25 poll. With the tournament coming up next week, he won’t have to sit on the bench in a cast and sweatpants this time around.

“Winning...that’s been our goal since the district loss last year," he said. "We just want to get to the championship and see what we can do.”