Casey LaDuke has had a season that most coaches only dream of having. His Floyd Central baseball team is a 23-1 and ranked No. 1 in the state’s Class 4A ranking.
Despite the wins and success this season, something has been missing. The smile on Casey’s face is real and the joy he feels coaching the 2013 Highlanders will likely never be duplicated. But it’s not the same as it was a year or two ago. His best friend, the love of his life, is no longer hanging around the ballpark or waiting for him after a game. Leukemia made sure of that.
“I don’t want to be selfish, but when I look back at everything I’ve been through, I sometimes think I deserve it,” Casey said of his success this season. “But look what it cost me. I have a lot of mixed emotions.”
Casey’s biggest fan, his wife Dora, died June 13 of last year after a 13-year battle with leukemia. She was just 45. The couple experienced many ups and downs that came with the disease, especially after it returned following years of remission. He said he would trade anything to have her back with him.
“She was doing great. It’s rare that it comes back so late [after first being diagnosed and treated],” he said. “I’ve always heard if it comes back it’s harder to fight. I was confident in the treatments she was getting and was hoping she would go back into remission. We did everything we could, she got the best treatment possible. In the end, it got in her lungs and she couldn’t breath. That is what got her. I could help her get up but you can’t help someone breath.”
So the wins this year sometimes leave the coach with an empty feeling afterwards. While his teenage daughter supports her father and his team, Dora was always there, waiting for her husband with a big smile on her face.
“She had done some announcing for us, and every time I came home happy she would high five me,” Casey said. “That is one of the hardest things through all this. Staying busy ... teaching and coaching helps. It’s the time when I’m home alone that I start thinking about it. It’s hard because after big wins I have no one to celebrate with.”
The last two seasons, Casey was away from his team periodically while taking care of his wife. The couple were in Seattle for several weeks two years ago while she underwent a bone marrow transplant. Last year, her condition worsened, which prevented Casey from coaching his team in the final few weeks of the season, including the sectional.
Despite her battles, she never asked her husband to step away from coaching. She never asked him to quit, because she never quit.
“She played softball here so she knew what I had to do to be successful. She knew the time I had to put in,” he said. “She understood the time commitment. Even after she was diagnosed in 1999, she told me she didn’t want me to give up.”
Both Casey and Dora had athletic backgrounds and he said that helped get both of them through the hard times.
“Being in athletics has helped me and it helped her. In sports, you don’t know when something is going to happen, and when it does, you have to get through it,” he said. “When we would get results back, some days were good and some were bad. But being involved in varsity sports helped me mentally get through it.”
Despite the emptiness and sadness, Casey’s team has given him plenty to celebrate this season. He said he knew his team had a chance to be good this year, but never dreamed they would still be undefeated with one week left in the regular season. This is his 14th year as Floyd Central’s head coach.
“I knew what New Albany and Jeff had. I felt like I had a team to compete with them,” he said. “I think with baseball it’s harder to go undefeated because so many things can happen and it depends on who is pitching.”
He said this team is a different group. They have just enough swagger, listen to the coaches and have fun playing baseball.
“We try to knock them down a little at practice,” Casey said. “We had Coach [Dan] McDonald from U of L out here talking to the kids. He told them about his U of L teams having success and said a lot of that is because they don’t put a lot of pressure on themselves. I tell them to enjoy the season and have fun. This is a fun group. Every day in practice or during a game they are laughing about something.”
Casey has been successful at Floyd Central but has only won one sectional. He said with Jeff and New Albany in the same sectional, the draw, which takes place Tuesday, is a big deal since pitching is a key element in baseball — especially at the high school level.
Next week Floyd Central will begin sectional play in Bedford. The Highlanders are the favorite to win the title, but with baseball there are no guarantees, just like in life. Casey knows all too well nothing should ever be taken for granted. He never thought he would have to say good-bye to his wife at such a young age, and he admits he takes life one day at a time.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her,” he said.
He is also thankful for all the support his wife received through her illness and the love he has felt since her death.
“The community we live in ... some might take it for granted,” he said. “We both grew up here and we had so much support over the years. The parents and kids have been great.”