Last Wednesday, Rowan County’s baseball team won the 16th Region championship. This Wednesday, it practiced without its head coach.
Keith Prater, a 38-year-old in his second year guiding the Vikings, was diagnosed with leukemia on Tuesday. He is in residence at the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center.
Prater visited St. Claire Regional Medical Center in Morehead on Monday because of a lingering foot injury suffered when a line drive struck his ankle during a game at Montgomery County on May 15. He stayed overnight at St. Claire and was transferred Tuesday to UK, where the cancer diagnosis was confirmed.
Leukemia is a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Rowan County assistant coach Rob Ward told the Herald-Leader that doctors are “fairly certain” Prater is suffering from acute myeloid leukemia, a treatable form of the disease where the cancer originates in immature stages of white blood cells, red blood cells or platelet-making cells.
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Prater has previously suffered from gout and the foot injury had been treated for the past three weeks with that in mind.
“He’s just been coaching through the pain,” Ward said. “But he woke up Monday morning and was just in so much pain and he’s been bruising, so he thought he better go see his doctor and they decided to do a (blood) test. And that’s when they found out, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look right.’”
Players learned about the diagnosis after Tuesday’s practice. Prater communicated the news to them via a video stream.
The assistant coaches revealed the news to the players’ parents before sitting down with their kids. They wanted them to have their parents nearby, too.
“All the kids broke down,” said Scott Hacker, the father of Vikings sophomore AJ Hacker. “... It was pretty upsetting hearing what Coach Prater was saying and the battle that he has to go through now.”
AJ Hacker, Rowan County’s No. 1 pitcher, asked for prayers as part of an extended message he shared on Twitter.
“After an amazing year of baseball and getting us to state for the first time in 34 years, coach won’t be able to fight with us at Whitaker (Bank) park,” AJ Hacker wrote. “Give him all of the love and support you can.”
Prater was the head coach at Lewis County from 2012 to 2014 before taking the reins at Rowan County. His career record is 119-57.
Rowan County defeated West Carter 6-3 to win the 16th Region Tournament and earn its first berth to state since 1983. That win was the culmination of a two-year plan Prater envisioned and discussed with his assistant coaches in a hotel room when he took over the Vikings in 2015.
“It’s went pretty much to the ‘T’ of how coach planned it,” Ward said. “Literally almost to the ‘T.’”
Prater was “beyond excited” about ending Rowan’s long drought.
“It’s tough to have this news come out at any point, but it was even tougher to have it happen two days before state because you wouldn’t have found a more excited person about the state tournament and making it to where we have,” Ward said.
Ward said the assistants are “coaching as a team” with Prater sidelined for the foreseeable future. Assistant coach Allen Prater, Keith’s dad, will coach first base in his son’s absence. Scott Collins was selected as the designated head coach for KHSAA purposes.
“He’s kind of our mellow, older guy,” Ward said. “... Coach was like, ‘If we have to designate somebody, let’s designate him.’ So that’s what we did.”
The Vikings meet Muhlenberg County at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament. Players have started using a slogan — #KeithsKorner — on Twitter, and a local shop in Morehead is embroidering the phrase on fans’ shirts without charge.
Prater hopes his diagnosis doesn’t add any additional pressure to his players.
“He doesn’t want their experience in the state tournament to be saddened by this,” Ward said. “He wants them to have the full experience, ’cause this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity potentially for some of these kids.
“He was more worried about them than he was about himself. ... No matter win, lose, or draw, he’s gonna be proud of his boys.”
They might hear from him quickly if they win.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we had a big thing happen in a game, a big run scored or a big win, and we hear coach all the way from UK Hospital just going nuts all the way out at Whitaker Bank Ballpark,” Ward said. “I joke that it’ll be a real squeaky voice, cause when he gets excited he starts getting squeaky.”
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