The 2015 golf season at Austintown Fitch High School was in solid position Labor Day weekend.
The team stood at 4-1 out of the gate and had just set a school record with a low score of 146.
And this was to be a rebuilding year for coach Andy DeNiro. Last year’s squad went 15-2 with six now-graduated seniors.
“We were just thinking of rebuilding this year, not reloading,” said DeNiro.
The glue, DeNiro said of the young team, was senior captain Joey Shushok.
This was the season Shushok had worked for so long.
Built more for the defensive line, golf has been Joey’s passion since age 6.
The past two years, it has been an obsession.
“I can’t think of a day this summer he did not play golf in some way,” said mom Paula Cipriano.
So good has Joey’s game been this year, in July he won the coveted Greatest Golfer of the Valley juniors title – beating a handful of others who had previous Greatest championships and who would be top picks if there were a fantasy junior golf league.
Heck, Joey had never even won third place in The Vindicator’s Greatest event he’s participated in since it began in 2011. But he stood out even without placing. A grin as big as his driver. Clothes bright enough to play nine holes at night. And hats. A favorite is an old man’s bucket hat.
DeNiro lets seniors have some say over team apparel each year. But he drew the line with bucket hats. No one looks good in a bucket hat, he claims. But he admits this: Joey can rock it.
There’s just one Joey. And this season, he was rocking.
“That Greatest win put him over the top; it showed him he could win,” said DeNiro.
That July win rolled into the August high-school season. Joey just kept rolling, as did the Fitch team.
Then came the news. For DeNiro, it came in a text from Paula.
“The first few hours was pure shock.”
Buddy Nick Braydich, a Cardinal Mooney golfer, got a call from Joey.
“I was stunned.”
It came to Poland Seminary buddy Brian Velasquez as a text from Joey, who said to let the others know. It was Brian who texted me just one simple, but stunning, line:
“Joey has testicular cancer.”
There’s just one Joey.
The boys of summer
Greatest Golfer is one of my fun roles at The Vindy, and Greatest doesn’t get much more fun than watching Joey’s pack of buddies.
They’ve been with us since Day 1 in 2011 – from shy pre-teens to awkward teens to poised young men. They’re from four or five high schools – I lose count.
Golf includes a lot of complaining. It just comes with the sport – like snow with Lake Erie.
But in five summers with this pack of teens, I can’t recall one of them complaining about the courses, our rules, their competitors or anything else.
All of them are mini PGA Tour players – refined in their clothing, in their emotions, in their demeanor – just like the pros.
And then there’s Joey.
A picture of him in that bucket hat is my favorite. His toothy grin says: “I know you’re laughing. Me, too.” Or there’s the photo with the Skittles-like shirt.
If the other kids were on a mission with golf, Joey was out for a stroll.
It’s possibly why it took him a little longer to find the Greatest winner’s circle. When he did this summer, he was in no hurry to leave the patio at Avalon Lakes, and neither was anybody in the pack.
When they gathered for a group photo, one of the moms cooed, “It’s our boys of summer.”
(See photos on the Vindicator’s Facebook page.)
“Greatest kind of brought us all together,” said Braydich. “As much as we are friends, we all still want to win. But when any one of us wins, we all feel pretty good.”
As they did when Joey won this summer.
“He deserved it so much,” said Zach Jacobson of Poland Seminary. “In 2014, the rain delay in the finals cost him a win and he ended up in fourth after tiebreakers. That was too bad.”
I’m not sure how many of them – previous winners or top finishers – would have picked Joey to win this summer. One did.
“The night before Greatest,” said Braydich, “we were all hanging out talking about it, wondering what the winning score would be.”
“Joey said, ‘It’s going to be 72 from yours truly.’”
And that’s just what he did.
It happened fast
For three weeks, Joey had increasing pain in a testicle. Labor Day Monday, he had enough.
“Thank god he spoke up,” Paula said. “Guys don’t want to talk about that, but he did.”
Still, they had no idea how their world was to change. Thinking it was nothing major, Joey went to the doctor by himself that Tuesday.
“Our doctor called me at work and said, ‘I need to talk to you,’” Paula said.
She went to the office immediately. More tests were taken, and it was decided Joey’s testicle was coming out the next day. The cancer already had spread into his lymph nodes.
The week before, he scored his best for Fitch – a 33. Sunday he was golfing with his dad, Joe, readying for big matches that week versus Poland and Boardman. Tuesday, he went to the doctors. Wednesday, life changed.
“When the ‘C’ word came up, I cried,” said Paula. “I looked at Joey, and he started to get a little emotional. And that was the last time I saw him upset. He’s been unbelievable.”
Last week, he started chemotherapy. It’s 5-hour days for a week, then two weeks of 1-hour sessions; then back to the 5-hour sessions. He will do that for nine weeks.
This week, he’ll shave his hair before the chemo takes it.
Doctors believe a full recovery will happen for Joey. Recovery has started, too, for those around Joey – through Joey.
“You think the worst, of course,” said Joey’s father. “Then you talk to Joey, and you feel better.”
Coach DeNiro wants to feel bad due to all that it cost – mainly golf.
Joey’s dedication was robbed as it ended his season on the spot. The 4-1 team start turned into a 9-7 season.
“He was Greatest Golfer, having a great senior season and setting himself for a great college opportunity,” said DeNiro.
“It’s tragic to happen to anyone, but especially tragic for Joey for where he was headed. I feel bad about the whole thing – until I hang round with Joey. Every time I see him, I feel better about it.”
It could be worse
It happened quickly, and it stunned everyone.
Monday the pain; Tuesday the discovery; and Wednesday the life-changing surgery.
If you were looking for Joey that Thursday, you needed to be at the No. 1 tee as his team took on Boardman High School without him.
“It meant a lot to me this year to represent a school that’s meant so much to me. Not being able to do that has hurt the most,” said Joey. “It was weird watching them tee off and not me. But I wanted to be there.”
That want is probably best explained in that Joey’s favorite PGA player is John Daly – a guy, explains Joey, determined to be how he wants to be. “He owns who he is, and I love that.”
As it all happened real fast, Joey said it took about a week for it all to sink in.
“I’m not upset about it. I’m not going to roll over because of this,” said Joey. “It’s just a bump, and I have to pass it. There are a lot of worse things than this. That I got it now when I’m healthy and young is a positive.”
Like anyone would, he wonders why.
“I’m still trying to find why it was me. That’s the hardest. And why it happened now – my last golf season when I was playing well. I haven’t found an answer yet.”
He recognizes that his golf ambitions have to wait. He was set on making state finals this year.
“Not being able to showcase myself to some colleges – it sure narrows my options. I’ll get into some events next summer and see what happens.”
His dad said getting healthy is first.
“Golf will have to just get figured out after this,” said Joe, who caddied for Joey for the Greatest title.
Those boys of summer
While golf is on hold, the golf friendships are not.
Paula checks off the many great things the boys have done in recent days and weeks.
“People easily say ‘kids nowadays’ in disgust. Those boys have rallied around Joey, and their parents have helped me.”
One night, 15 golfers from a handful of schools sprawled on her living room floor in the first days.
“They weren’t sure what to do. But they wanted to be here.”
That community has rallied for some events to help the family with costs and spirits.
Knoll Run Golf Course, Joey’s golf home, has a golf scramble Oct. 24. It’s already sold out, but sponsors are still welcome. And Lil’ Paws Winery is hosting an event in November. “Shustrong” T-shirts are for sale. A fund was started at Home Savings & Loan.
Golf grew their friendship over the years regardless of who won.
Ken Keller of Cardinal Mooney walked down No. 18 at Greatest with Joey – one stroke behind. A flinch from either, and the other was likely champ. Their first golf photo together was at age 7.
“I just said, ‘Whatever happens, nothing changes,’” said Keller, a Greatest champ already. “I was so glad he won.”
Velasquez said they would text each other their golf troubles to find guidance. Cancer now teaches them.
Joey and Paula hope that by talking about it, other boys will be proactive in checking themselves and speaking up.
“It’s a serious term. It sets you back when you hear it,” said Braydich.
“I don’t think I could handle it the way Joey is,” said Velasquez.
“I couldn’t,” Keller said.
My lasting image of this group is the big celebratory dinner they were having at Avalon after Joey’s Greatest win.
Nearly an hour after the event was over and the parents had gone, the boys of summer just sat, laughed, and dined like 50-year-old bank executives.
“We’ll be friends for a long time, and you need that to enjoy life,” said Joey.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at email@example.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.