Junior Austin Keller is playing tennis for Annville-Cleona for the first time this season after fighting a currently successful battle with the bone cancer Osteosarcoma
A first-year player as a junior, Austin Keller is ranked near the bottom of the Annville-Cleona boys tennis team's singles roster.
But in every other way that matters, Keller is a top-notch, winning competitor.
Keller's life changed forever a few days after Valentine's Day 2012, when he was diagnosed with a type of bone cancer, Osteosarcoma, in his jawbone.
Except it didn't. A relentlessly upbeat, decidedly pleasant kid, Keller has unassumingly fought a so-far-highly-successful battle with the disease that is no longer in his body, and is currently as healthy and as happy he's been since that fateful day of diagnosis.
In short, life dealt Keller a rotten hand early in life, and he swatted it away like a weak lob thrown up by an opponent.
Back in school on a half-day basis for the first time since he was in seventh grade, Keller is thriving in school and on the court, where he is both a valued member of the Little Dutchmen team and a daily source of inspiration to both his teammates and head coach and history teacher Joe Heckard.
"He's a tough kid. Obviously he's been through quite a bit," Heckard said. "But I never hear him complain about anything. Next week, he has to go in for a minor surgery, but it's no big thing to him. He's like, 'I'll be back on Monday, ready to roll.'
"He's been an inspiration to myself. Any time I have a tough day and think I don't have any more to give, I look at this young man and think, 'He's here, so I have no right to complain about anything.'"
Keller does and did, but simply chose not to, serving more as a caretaker for his parents, Theodore and Heather Keller, than a victim after his diagnosis.
"I wasn't really affected by it that much," he said with a shrug. "I didn't really understand what was going on at the time. I didn't really cry, but I was there for my mom when she was upset about it. I just saw it as an opportunity to make myself a better person."
And so he did, staying on top of his classes through home schooling in eighth and ninth grade, and via cyberschool last year as a sophomore.
He then returned as an in-person student at A-C this school year, taking a half day of classes - which begins on an upbeat note with lunch - and becoming active on the tennis team and participating in A-C's Thon fundraising activities for cancer as a guest speaker at the event.
"Tennis is good," he said. "It's the first sport I could do since being diagnosed. I kinda missed the feeling of getting out here and doing sports. I know I'm among the bottom four, but it feels great. I missed the chance to compete in sports. I played baseball, football and wrestling when I was younger. I miss them a lot. I especially miss baseball and football."
Whether or not he's able to resume those passions in the future is unknown, but one thing is for sure: He's fighting and winning against his most formidable competition.
"Right now, there's nothing in my body," he said of the cancer. "I'm due to be done in August with treatments, and I'm having a surgery next Thursday to have the port removed out of my chest. It's a box for them to put needles in. Since right now I'm technically cancer-free, I figured, 'Why need it?' I can deal with a few IVs."
He's certainly dealt with worse and still managed to remain positive and pursue a bright future.
"I really want to go into culinary, do cooking," he said. "My dad cooks for us a lot, and I think it's really neat. It seems like a cool passion to have. I want to own a house someday and a nice car and have a steady job and a family."
But for now, it's about the simple joys of life, including the feeling of camaraderie and fun that come with being a member of a team.
"Being a part of a team is something special," Keller said. "It's like a big family event you can come to every day after school. They're always there for you when you need them. They're always helping you and having your back."
For a closer look at Lebanon County boys tennis, see the team-by-team capsules that follow:
Coach: Joe Heckard, 4th year
Last year's record: 4-9
Current record: 5-2
Key players lost: Ben O’Connor
Top returning players: Julian DyReyes-Kapp, Sr. Colin Myers, Sr., William Klatchko Soph.,Drew Speraw, Jr., Sam Mintz, Jr. Robert Mayfield, Jr.
Promising newcomers: Santi Paris, Jr., Koy Alwine, Jr., Gordan Parks, Sr., Brett Clark, Jr.
Outlook: A-C has already surpassed last season's win total, and is primed for its best season in recent memory thanks to a deep and committed roster that has embraced off-court conditioning as much as working on the finer points of the game.
"This year we are looking to improve on last year’s performance," Heckard said. "Our players have dedicated themselves to the off-season workout programs, and have competed in multiple sports throughout the year. Our strength is in our numbers. We have grown to 22 players this year as a direct result of our athletic program dedicating itself to having as many student-athletes as possible. Our kids are dedicated to attending period 10 (after school weightlifting program) and becoming the best athlete they can be.
Coach: Mike Rohrbach, 12th year
Last year's record: 11-4
Current record: 4-1
Key players lost: Colin Muraika, Marko Resetar, Liam Easter, Lucas Kerbis, Connor Verhagen
Top returning players: Nick Tull, Sr. Austin Moore, Sr.
Promising newcomers: Jackson Muriaka, Fr., Alexander Ellis, Sr., Evan Dissinger, Sr., Tim Cheng, Chris Hilty, Sr. Max Mesaros, Alex Osborne, Sr., Surya Kamboj, Elian Lin, Sr.
Outlook: The Falcons said goodbye to the District Three Class AAA singles champ in Colin Muraika, and all but one starter, but with Muraika's talented freshman brother Jackson joining Tull at the top of the lineup, the Falcons should still be a force to be reckoned with.
"2016 will certainly be a year we need to learn on the fly with more than half of the starting lineup not having varsity experience," Rohrbach said. "Although we’ve shared in the county tourney (title) in the past twio seasons, It’s been four years since we’ve won the county tournament outright and we’ll certainly have our work cut out for us. We’d like to put ourselves in position to compete at the district team level. Nick Tull and Jackson Muraika will certainly compete for individual accolades at the league & district level. Both will have a chance to compete at the state level too. Should be a fun season."
Coach: Zach Cook, 9th year
Last year's record: 15-4
Current record: 3-3
Key players lost: Adam Bahney, Galen McNaughton
Top returning players: Linden Bennetch, Sr., Mason Bennetch, Soph., Dylan Spitler, Jr., Christian Stahl, Sr., Dawson Smith, Soph.
Promising newcomers: Adam Omar, Jr., Ryan Woelfling, Soph.
Outlook: Led by graduated Class AA state doubles champs Bahney and McNaughton, the Raiders enjoyed a banner 2015 highlighted by a trip to the state team semifinals. Replacing those two key cogs will be difficult, if not impossible, but a deep and experienced lineup still returns and should keep Elco in the hunt for some sort of hardware this spring.
"We look to be competitive in the section and put ourselves in position to return to the big stages with the depth of our team," Cook said.
Coach: Cathy Uzar, 4th season
Last year's record: 3-11
Current record: 0-6
Key players lost: Ben Secoges, Keegan Maguire, Jake Cramer
Top returning players: Ivan Aguilar, Sr., Cameron Weaver, Sr., Austin Ginder, Sr.
Promising newcomers: Luke Foster, Soph., Tavian Sumlin, Soph., Alex Hartman, Sr., Alex Mease, Soph., Lucas Imm, Sr.
Outlook: After losing its top three players to graduation, the Cedars' focus is again on simply building skills and a love for the game that will hopefully pay off for the program down the road.
"This year our focus is gaining numbers, teaching kids to love the game of tennis, and learning as we re-build," Uzar said. "Of course we’d love to improve on our record, but to get there we have to really teach kids the game and give them tools and resources to work in the off season."
Coach: Derek Margetan, 2nd year
Last year's record: 0-11
Current record: 0-3
Key players lost: None
Top returning players: Owen Stover, Sr., Kyle Moore, Sr. Devin Tipton, Sr., Tyler Smith, Jr.., Nick White, Soph., Aiden Powell, Soph.
Promising newcomers: Nick Rhoads, Sr., John Ordona, Sr., Mark Tinto, Fr.
Outlook: The Vikings had another rough season in 2015, going winless for the spring, but there is some optimism this time around thanks to an increase in depth and a number of players returning with experience.
"After a difficult season last year, Northern Lebanon will be much more experienced for 2016," Margetan said. "While the team lacks the top-end talent found on most LL League squads, we are looking forward to being more competitive this season with added depth."
Coach: Abbie Mahaffey, 5th season
Last year's record: 13-3
Current record: 4-2
Key players lost: Campbell Graff, Juan Cruz
Top returning players: Eric Lynn, Sr., Ben Rusling, Sr., Eric Kohl, Jr., Quinn Marcus, Jr.
Promising newcomers: None listed
Outlook: The Cougars went unbeaten in the Mid-Penn Colonial Division last season and despite losing two key players in Graff and Cruz should be in the title mix again this spring.
"We're returning most of the team from last year when we won the Colonial Division and qualified for the district team tournament," said Mahaffey, "so we're hoping to be competitive in the Colonial Division again this year. "