North Xtra: North Allegheny grad overcomes injuries to finish strong at Kent State

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By 15 months of age, most toddlers have conquered those first early steps; most will be running by 18 to 24 months.

So when Jon Wilson was told he had to relearn how to run after doing that same instinctual task for 22 years, it's no wonder he was a bit dismayed.

Wilson, a redshirt senior outfielder at Kent State, had a baseball career derailed by knee injuries almost from the instant he helped North Allegheny win the 2009 WPIAL Class AAAA championship.

A Post-Gazette North player of the year after his senior season, Wilson, a McCandless resident, received a scholarship to the University of Maryland, where he appeared in 38 games with 28 starts and had a .226 batting average.

Tendinitis set in both knees midway through that 2010 season, but like any committed athlete, he tried to play through it. The pain became unbearable, he said, and he was trying to compete at nowhere near his potential.

"Being in the [Atlantic Coast Conference] and playing at half my ability, it wasn't good," he said. "I was really struggling. At that point baseball was very frustrating. It's one thing to struggle and be in slumps, but it's another thing to be injured and have what you're good at taken away from you. I was going through a tough time."

After the season, Wilson went home to rest and try to rehab the knees. At that point he thought maybe a change in scenery would help so he decided to transfer. After a call from coach Scott Stricklin, who is now head coach at Georgia, and with his knees feeling better, Wilson decided to give Kent State a try.

Stricklin gave Wilson the opportunity to walk on, but because of the NCAA transfer rules, Wilson was forced to sit out the 2011 season. He rehabbed the entire year and was all set to come back 100 percent.

His second year at Kent State started promising enough. He had a good fall baseball season but then the tendinitis flared up once again. He ended up taking himself off the roster, he said, because he could no longer compete.

"At that point I was done," he said. "It was too frustrating to try to continue to play. That summer I decided to have surgery on my knees, the summer of 2012. I had the right knee done and six weeks later in July I had the left knee done.

"I couldn't do anything that whole summer except sit on the couch. I lost all my leg muscles. It was ridiculous."

Optimistic that the surgery was a success and feeling 100 percent, Wilson decided to give baseball another shot. Stricklin again gave him another tryout to see how his knees felt and once again Wilson impressed enough to land a spot on the roster.

The excitement was short-lived, however, as the knee pain returned.

"At that point I really wasn't even that upset because I didn't expect to be given a tryout. I thought to myself, that's it, I'm done. This is it. It was fun while it lasted but I'm just not meant to play baseball right now."

It was at that point that Wilson was introduced to trainer Frank Velasquez at REV Sports Rehab & Athletic Development, now called Vesla 360 in Cranberry Township. Velasquez was the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Pirates from 2003-11.

"He got me to a point where I was 100 percent again but he thought he figured out what was actually causing my pain," Wilson said. "He thought it was the way I was running. After 22 years of running one way, I had to change. He changed it and I think that's why I was having pain because it was putting too much stress on my knees."

It was determined that Wilson was taking too big of strides and landing on the heels too much. Velasquez showed him how to run more on the balls of his feet to take the pressure off the knees.

"All of a sudden, I felt faster, I wasn't having pain. It was like magic. Just like that, I was fine."

But Stricklin left Kent State for Georgia and now Wilson had to impress a new coach, Jeff Duncan.

"I took this job in June and he was in my office in July contemplating whether he was going to play," Duncan said. "He hadn't played in two years and his knees just weren't holding up. He said he wanted to come in the fall and play and see what happened.

"During our fall practice season I saw immediately that he had the tool of speed. He can really run and he can really do some things. He went through our walk-on trial. I'm definitely glad we kept him because we couldn't do it without Jon Wilson. He was in and out of the lineup that first month but after about a month he locked down that leadoff spot."

Wilson finally wrapped up his first true season of college baseball May 31 when the Golden Flashes lost to Kentucky, 4-2, in a double-elimination NCAA Regional at Louisville.

A 5-foot-10, 175-pounder who bats left-handed and throws right-handed, Wilson finished the season with a .339 batting average (74 for 218), which was third highest on the team, with 35 runs scored and 32 RBIs. He was also third on the team in stolen bases with 10 in 12 attempts.

He ended his collegiate career hitting safely in 14 of his last 16 games but really seemed to shine in the postseason.

In the Mid-American Conference championship, Wilson went 4 for 4 including a single to start a three-run eighth inning that broke a 0-0 tie and helped Kent State to a 3-0 victory against Akron in Avon, Ohio. He also was named to the MAC all-tournament team.

"I ended up getting on base four times that game and helped give us a chance to win. That's all they asked of me and that's all I wanted to do. I was definitely getting some luck."

That "luck" continued as he put together a string of eight consecutive hits into the NCAA regional, where the Golden Flashes dropped the opener to top-seeded Louisville, 5-0, before being eliminated by Kentucky.

In his final four games through the postseason, Wilson, who played left field most of the season but moved to center in the final two weeks of the regular season due to injury to a teammate, totaled 11 hits from his leadoff spot in the lineup.

"Jon has great leadership skills for a guy who hadn't really played much college baseball," Duncan said. "It was amazing to see him take off as a baseball player. I wish I had him another year. I'm going to miss him. I think the whole team will miss him. He's a great baseball player and more important, he's a great kid. I'm really happy to have coached him."

Now that he finally got the opportunity to experience a full season of baseball, it's time for Wilson to concentrate on another goal ... graduating.

"I need two classes for a degree in accounting. I'm going to try to finish that this summer.

"But I'm letting my body rest because it's pretty banged up. The most important thing is I'm OK stepping away from the game, because that's all it is, a game. It was fun and an awesome experience. Obviously it has to end sometime.

"I'm 23 years old and spent five years in college. It's time to move on. I'm excited to see what comes next."

Rick Davis: or 412-263-3789.

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