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Fivay baseball coach Justin Kunick, whose battle with cancer inspired his team and touched the community, died Friday morning at a hospice center. He was 32.
The former Ridgewood assistant was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer near the start of this season. He coached long enough to hear his team sing to him on his 32nd birthday before stepping away to receive chemotherapy.
He was transferred to a hospice center late last week and died at 10 a.m. Friday — four days after his team’s season ended.
“I was kind of bracing myself for the bad news,” Fivay senior second baseman AJ Suriano said, “but nothing can prepare you for when it actually happens.”
Kunick is survived by his wife, Anne. The funeral is Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at North Meadowlawn Funeral Home, 4244 Madison Street in New Port Richey, with visitation from 2-9 p.m.
“There are so many things that run through a young wife’s head at a time like this, the unfairness of it all, the fun things you’ll never be able to do, the family you’ll never have,” Anne Kunick said in an email shortly before her husband’s death. “And you know that you have no choice but to get through it. So that’s what you do; you wake up every day and you do the best you can. My husband is a very special person; a beloved teacher, coach and friend.
“But this letter isn’t about him. It’s a thank you from both of us to the community for rallying around us with fundraisers; and to our friends, family and the Fivay baseball team for visiting Coach Kunick in the hospital and at hospice when he needed you most. And finally, a very special thank you to coach Matt Hayes for all he did for the Falcons baseball team this season in my husband’s absence.”
Hayes, Kunick’s protégé who took over head coaching duties this spring, said he was misty-eyed as he told his players.
“Justin was really just a man among men,” Hayes said. “He was a guy that would do absolutely anything and everything for you. It didn’t matter if it was in the classroom or on the baseball field. … Coach Kunick meant the world to a lot of those boys.”
Earlier this week, Kunick was talking with his players about next season.
After Friday’s news sunk in, Fivay players picked up their bowed heads and shared stories about their upbeat coach flinging a fungo bat, tripping over a bucket or showing off his fastball during batting practice.
“He tried to act like a real pitcher and try to strike us out,” Falcons pitcher Jarred Mattos said. “It was fun.”
Kunick fought heart problems since birth but overcame them to have a successful baseball career. The left-handed pitcher appeared in more games (36) than anyone in Keuka (N.Y.) College history. After college he moved to Florida to coach and teach chemistry, first at Ridgewood and then at Fivay before its first season last spring.
Kunick’s struggle with cancer resonated in the community. A fundraiser at Chili’s had a line that stretched out the door. Former Ridgewood coach Larry Beets wore a T-shirt with Kunick’s name on the night Beets’ jersey was retired.
Last week, the FACA District 10 baseball coaches named Kunick their Class 5A coach of the year — even though he coaches in another district.
Catcher Ryan Mettler said Kunick’s teachings have stuck with him.
“You’ve got to keep fighting,” catcher Ryan Mettler said. “Fight as long as you can.”
Kunick’s legacy will continue at his program in another way. This week, Allen Sportswear announced Fivay baseball was one of five area teams to receive new uniforms for overcoming adversity.
The contest’s theme was one of Kunick’s team mottoes, one that adorned his team’s caps and shirts this spring: Rise above.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.