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Battling Back

Hetherington returned from surgeries to play for beloved Bearcats


Riley Hetherington remembers being excited about his forthcoming appearance on the Aledo Bearcats varsity baseball roster for the 2021 season.

However, fate squelched that excitement, as an elbow injury forced that appearance to be delayed until this season.

“My junior year I started on JV, but the week I hurt my elbow Coach (Chad) Barry was going to add me to the varsity roster for a tournament,” Hetherington recalled.

And when his dream did become a reality, it was in a different form. He had hoped to pitch for the Bearcats, but after his second surgery was told that would not be possible.

“I knew to make the team, I had to find somewhere else to play. I had played first base in summer ball, so I decided that is where I would go try out.”

Hetherington did indeed make the team, and he and the Bearcats advanced to the Class 5A Region I final, finishing the season with a 29-12 record, including the District 5-5A championship.

“This season has meant everything to me.  When the varsity roster was released and my name was on there, my phone blew up with texts from my teammates saying things like, ‘Congrats, you deserve this, glad you will be on the team,’” Hetherington said.

Shortly after that his phone rang again. It was coach Barry. 

“He told me congratulations and that I was an inspiration to so many of the guys on the team. He told me ‘I need you to be a leader, I need you to use that fight, perseverance and determination you used to get back on the field to help us win a state championship,’” Hetherington remembered.

“I am a believer in Christ, and after injuring myself, I asked God to show me something to ‘lean on’ through my recovery,” he continued. “He showed me Proverbs 16:3, which says Commit to the Lord in whatever you do and your plans will succeed.’ This verse became my battle cry during my recovery.”

Hetherington said the most difficult part of his return to play was once again facing live pitching.

“My freshman year I played outfield and pitched. That was the last time I had stepped into the box and faced a live pitcher,” he said. “The moment I was released to swing a bat, I started to hit off a tee.  Every day in my garage for hours I would hit trying to get my swing ready for tryouts.”

Hetherington was first injured during the summer of his sophomore year, playing with his select team, the Fort Worth Cats, in a tournament in Missouri.

“I had all my pitches working and all of a sudden things changed. I lost feeling in my fingers and could not control the baseball,” he said. “We played several more games that week, and after the last game my coach suggested we see an arm doctor.”

An MRI showed major damage to his ulnar nerve and the only way to fix it was surgery. He had decompression surgery in June of 2020.

“The doctor told me my nerve moved all the way under my elbow and had to be surgically reattached in the proper location,” he said.

He spent the next eight months in rehab working through various throwing programs. He made the JV his junior year and had pitched in three games with no pain. 

Then, during an intersquad game, he threw a breaking ball and felt a pop in his arm.

“I looked directly at coach Barry with tears in my eyes and told him I hurt my elbow again,” he said, almost tearing up at the memory of that moment.

The next day Hetherington was back at the doctor and had another MRI, which revealed a complete tear of his Ulnar ligament. His doctor, John Conway, former team orthopedic doctor for the Texas Rangers and TCU baseball teams and current team orthopedic for the Houston Astros, had performed surgery on Hetherington’s dad for a torn rotator cuff while pitching in college.

“He said in 35 years of practice only five times had he seen an ulnar ligament torn that severely,” Hetherington said. “A piece of bone from my elbow broke off — the pop I heard — and severed my ligament in half.”

Hetherington had Tommy John surgery (named after the former major league pitcher who was the first to undergo it and return to his sport) to replace the ligament.

“After surgery the doctor told me he would understand if I did not want to play baseball again. I looked at my parents and said I am not done playing baseball,” he said. “The rehab was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I basically was reteaching the ligament how to throw again.”

He created a countdown log, which, on the top of the page read “Varsity 2022” and below that were numbers. They started at 296 and ended at 1.

“My goal was to be ready to play by the time I reached 1 (the first official day of high school baseball practice).  And with the help of my doctors, therapists, coaches, teammates, and my family I was ready to play on Jan. 18, 2022,” he said.

“Tommy John surgery is the most severe arm surgery any baseball player can undergo.  They took a ligament out of my left wrist and sewed it into my right arm. Just that is amazing. But all the hours of rehab, all the hours in my room doing exercises and stretches, all the throwing sessions (starting at 25 feet and moving back to 300 feet), all the days of soreness, pain and not being able to sleep, all the days of simply lying in my bed wondering if I will ever be able to get back on that field, makes each day I am on the field special.”

Hetherington also drew inspiration from remembering his older brother Reid battle back from a serious injury while playing basketball.

“He also had surgery and I watched him fight through rehab and work extremely hard to get back on the court. He used to tell people, ‘I refuse to let an injury tell me when I cannot play basketball anymore.’ Watching him go through this time inspired me on my journey back to playing,” Hetherington said.

Reid said Riley’s comeback was, likewise, an inspiration to him.

“I am really proud of my brother. He’s an incredible kid and an incredible fighter,” Reid said.

Barry said Riley’s comeback epitomizes Bearcat spirit.

“I think he encompasses this team M.O. They’re fighters with a fighting spirit,” Barry said. “It just says how much he loves the game. He’s a unique kid, a true fighter, and he was an inspiration to all of us.”

Growing up, Riley’s dad taught him every player has a role on a team and a team will only do great things if everyone knows their role and accepts it. While every athlete dreams of being a star, he understands that is not what he was called to do and is happy being a part of the success.

The dream of an athletic scholarship out of high school has also gone by the wayside — for now, at least, though he has been offered the opportunity to walk on at several colleges. He’s also going to return to playing summer baseball and hopefully find a place to play through that. 

“All I want is a chance to play,” he said.

He plans on majoring in secondary education and becoming a history teacher, as well as getting his special education certificate and working with special needs children, he said.

“I also want to coach baseball and told coach Barry he should hire me once I finish college,” he said with a grin.

“The support I have received over these past two years, from my family, doctors, therapists, coaches, teammates, and others has been tremendous,” he continued. “I read an article on Tommy John surgery, and it said in order to return to play after you must be willing to put in the work and surround yourself with a great support system. I had the very best support system.”


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