It probably didn't seem strange to anyone but San Juan softball fans that coach Craig Swenson didn't coach third base in the Broncos first-round games of the state tournament.

That was about the only aspect of his coaching duties he relinquished as he dealt with both a stroke and heart surgery while his players struggled to realize their dream of a 2A state championship.

The coach had a minor stroke during a tournament three weeks ago in which his left side went numb. Yet he remained at the softball complex and coached his team to wins over 4A and 5A schools. Then, the following Monday, he went to the medical clinic in Blanding.

"They told me I'd probably had a few smaller (strokes) and sent me to a doctor in Salt Lake City," he said. That was on Wednesday, April 30. Doctors found a hole in Swenson's heart that they said needed to be patched.

He checked into the hospital on Wednesday, had the hole repaired on Thursday and checked out of the hospital Friday afternoon.

Saturday he was at the Spanish Fork Softball Complex coaching the San Juan softball team in the first round of the 2A state tournament. His concession to his doctors and family was to stay in the dugout in an effort to reduce his stress.

"I'm sure some of the parents were wondering," he said. "But I really tried to keep it off the field. The girls had their goals. I wanted them to stay focused on what they were doing. I reassured them everything was OK. We really didn't talk about it much."

For a coach whose top priority is helping his players have as much success in life as they do on the softball field, it might seem a contradiction. But for those who know him best, his efforts to put the players — and their goal of a state title — before even his own health are typical.

"Sometimes ... somewhere along the way, the true integrity of high school sports gets lost," said San Juan assistant coach Monte Lee. "But Craig always shows me he never forgets what it's about. It's about the kids and teaching them to love what they do, respect what they do and to care about each other ... I think he'd give up every single win just to see these kids succeed in things besides softball."

Swenson tries to teach his players that dedication and discipline that's learned in a game can be utilized in a classroom, in a relationship and even in life's most discouraging and frightening moments.

"And it wasn't business as usual, it was fun and pleasure as usual," said Lee.

His players see him as more than just a teacher of the game.

"He's been like our father," said San Juan pitcher Generra Nielson. "We see him at school, and he's always checking up on us. We were so worried about him, but we managed to get through it because he was so positive."

Once the players found out, they gathered together and decided to fast and pray for him the day surgeons repaired his heart. When Swenson showed up at the ball field and assured them he was OK, the found comfort and confidence in the the coach's appearance.

"We pulled together because that's what he'd want us to do," said Lee. "They didn't miss a practice ... It was really strange in some ways because they never once showed a sign of panic. They would not allow themselves to entertain thoughts about what might happen."

Lee believes that's Swenson's coaching in practice. Athletes don't compete in a vacuum. Real-life problems and concerns can weigh down the hearts and distract the minds of players who are struggling to accomplish something great while dealing with something painful. Swenson has often told his players there is more to life than softball, but he also uses the lessons of the game to teach them how to succeed off the field.

"I think that's one of the reasons Craig was so insistent that they continue to play and focus," Lee said. "He didn't want them to have any excuses, any regrets. He didn't want to be the cause of them not reaching that goal. "

The Broncos reached that goal Saturday with a win over Juab. And for one, brief but glorious moment, those teenage girls felt the power that comes from making a dream reality. As they hoisted the school's first gold softball trophy and took team pictures, they also learned how to be grateful for seemingly small things.

"It was nice to finally get him back on third base where he belongs," said Nielson.


E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com