Widmann, Tigers Ready for 2008

CLEMSON – Some may consider it a small medical miracle, but Stan Widmann had absolutely no doubt that he'd be back at his customary position at shortstop when Clemson took to diamond in its season opener against Mercer on Friday.

"I never thought in my mind (that I wouldn't be back)," the Texas native said. "Maybe my parents or some of my friends – and I heard rumors I wouldn't be able to play again. I kept my mindset that I would be able to play again because I didn't want to lose any ground on the mental aspect of my game."

Widmann started 133 games as a freshman and sophomore and was one of the more integral parts on defense as shortstop. But just six games into last year, he was held out with what was dubbed a stiff neck.

A few days later, he was diagnosed with a non-malignant giant-cell tumor that attached itself to the C-3 vertebrae in his neck, which covers spinal cord at the bottom of the neck.

A 12-hour surgery ensued in late March and nearly all figured Widmann's baseball career was over. However, Widmann wasn't one of them. He knew all along he'd be sporting the white uniform and white cleats again.

"The competitor in me wanted to say it was never over until someone told me I couldn't play or Clemson wouldn't give me an opportunity to play," Widmann said. When the redshirt junior had just finished the team's first official practice of the season on February 1, there was Widmann once again with the look of a freshman. It was though he had just experienced his first day with the Tigers.

And in a sense, he had because he had been given a second chance at the sport he loves so dearly.

"It was awesome. I was like a kid in a candy shop," Widmann said. "Even the cold weather didn't put me in a bad mood. I was silly, excited, happy. I was overwhelmed almost."

Other than Widmann and his parents, no one on this planet was more excited to have him back than Clemson coach Jack Leggett.

"It's huge," Leggett said. "We would really be searching to try and find a shortstop if he wasn't back. I'm glad he's back and can help. …

"He is a good leader on the team and is a good player by example. He is out there working hard every time. He has a lot of pride in his game. We need him on this baseball team, and we need to have him back healthy. He is making every effort to help his team out like he did last year."

Although, Widmann readily admits that it could take him a little time to get back into the groove offensively. Being successful against elite pitching isn't something that just happens naturally, especially for someone who hasn't faced it in over a year.

"I'm already pressing," Widmann said. "I don't think I've gotten the ball out of the infield yet in intrasquad (games). I think it'll come with time. I don't expect to go out there and be lights-out like I was before the surgery. It's going to take time. It might take three weeks, four weeks, might take a week."

Leggett is counting on Widmann to make a quick return because he needs the leadership and offense for his team, which may be the youngest of his entire coaching career.

"Hopefully he will get that back because obviously he hasn't seen live pitching in a long period of time," he said. "His defense will come back. He will feel his way through that. He is taking a lot of ground balls and is getting that going. It will be the hitting that will take a little while to get back I think."

On the surface, it looks as though offense is going to be at a premium for the Tigers, which lost all but one of its top hitters. Clemson really took a hit in this area, and its not like there were a lot of bats to begin with last season.

But Leggett is confident that his team will be able to score enough runs so that the pitchers, who are expected to be the best part of the team, don't have to throw gems every time out.

"All I know is that might be something somebody assumes when looking at the negative side of things," he said. "I'm always looking at the positive side. I know what we have done here. We're definitely at a different starting point because we have a lot of work to do, but I have confidence that we can do that work and that we can mold this team into one that can contend for things.

"We have a lot of work to do. There is no doubt about it. I can understand everyone's concern about it or opinion about where we are right now and how much we have lost. Maybe that's a good thing.

"We're going into the season with a little less pressure. We have lost some good people, but we are going to do everything we can to make these young kids the players they need to be in order to be successful in this conference. We are not writing this season off by any stretch of the imagination."

Neither did Widmann, who said life without baseball was, "brutal."

"It just puts things in perspective," he said. "Not in life, but a whole different topic, baseball-wise. Like guys that don't have the opportunity to go out there every day and be one of the nine guys on the field, day-in and day-out.

"It gives you a different aspect. You put yourself in their shoes and understand what they go through every day, to practice the way I practice and go to the games and watch them, it makes me respect them a little more."

And in turn, his teammates and everybody else fully feels the same way about him.

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