Feared hitter Handy returns from brain surgery to boost Pioneers' lineup

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 3, 2014 

Nooksack Valley junior Curtis Handy is the type of hitter who instills fear into opposing pitchers.

As one of the Northwest Conference's top hitters with his .455 batting average and .569 on-base percentage, Handy is slowly garnering a pitcher-beware reputation.

Pioneers coach Scott Gelwicks recalled a hit last week when an Anacortes third baseman, out of an act of desperation, barely maneuvered his glove in time to protect himself from a screaming liner off Handy's bat.

"He has meant a lot to us," Gelwicks said in a phone interview. "He is a heck of a hitter and doesn't miss the ball a whole lot. ... Watching him, he's kind of an old-school kind of hitter. He takes a big cut, but slouches over a little bit and kind of looks a little bit like Pete Rose. He hits the ball hard."

Gelwicks, like the rest of the league, is finding out for the first time this year how strong of an all-around ball player Handy is.

The junior catcher, who's played a myriad of other positions this spring, came to Everson from Class 3A Mount Si before his sophomore year.

Handy's already flashed his athleticism on the football field and basketball court. He caught 30 passes for 333 yards and five touchdowns and at linebacker was an integral piece of the Pioneers' defense as a sophomore. Handy also made varsity basketball season as a sophomore, but baseball, his favorite sport - the one he's played ever since he was able to pick up a ball - would have to wait.

Handy began suffering significant migraines after the basketball season started.

They affected his school work. They affected his play, and soon the unbearable headaches transitioned to frequent vomiting, which became so persistent he had to stay away from school and stop basketball all together.

"In football I started my sophomore year at middle linebacker and wide receiver, and I kind of got banged up a little bit, had some head issues," Handy said in a phone interview. "Then basketball rolled around, and I was just having terrible migraines. I was throwing up all the time in the bathroom or at home, so finally I thought maybe it was due to some concussion."

Handy finally sought medical attention and was floored when the doctor diagnosed him with Chiari formation - a herniation of the cerebellum, located in the lower back of the brain, that blocks circulation of cerebrospinal fluid from properly flowing into the brain.

According to chiariinstitute.com, current estimates suggest the malformation affects from 200,000 to 2 million Americans.

Handy was told brain surgery would be required to correct the malformation.

"It was really scary," he said. "I had good support, though. My family and everyone else really supported me. Really, I was ready for the operation to happen."

Handy underwent a complex surgery weeks before the baseball season started that included shaving down part of Handy's upper vertebrae.

"They basically cut open the back of my neck and shaved off the top part of my vertebrae and put a part of my skull from the top of my head there to kind of hold (the herniation) from going any farther and doing any more damage."

The migraines and vomiting dissipated shortly after the corrective surgery, Handy said, but he had to brave frequent neck spasms and underwent two months of retraining his neck muscles, which he admitted was "quite a task."

"It was a huge sigh of relief," said Handy of putting closure to his health scare. "The doctors down at Children's (in Seattle) did an amazing job. The doctor was with me at all times, and my girlfriend was a big help."

Doctors believed Handy was born with the malformation, but he was told the symptoms could have been triggered by a concussion or a big hit he took during football season.

And he couldn't stay away from the baseball field too long after his health returned.

"After he started getting up and getting round, he started coming out and watching games," Gelwicks said. "We have a lot of juniors on the team. Even last year, they were a close bunch, and he stayed connected primarily to them. He would talk to me a lot about how he was looking forward to playing."

Not only did Handy miss last season, he also played sparingly his freshman year at Mount Si after refracturing two back bones he had broken the year before.

Handy returned to the football field last fall to catch 29 passes for 392 yards and four TDs and played varsity basketball, too. He said his spring is the first time he's been 100 percent healthy during his high school baseball career, and he's certainly performing like a player who's been longing to get back on the diamond.

Handy bats No. 3 or 4 in the Pioneers' lineup and leads the club in hits, doubles, RBI, average and on-base percentage. In the field, he's strong behind the plate and has played tremendous at shortstop and just about anywhere else Gelwicks has needed him.

"I think it's impressive," Gelwicks said. "The idea a kid can have such a major issue and to see a kid out there playing ball. ... He played football in the fall, too. It's just exciting to see something good like that happening."

Reach Andrew Lang at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.

Reach ANDREW LANG at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call ext. 862.

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