NORMAL — Bill Mohl had just ordered lunch at a barbeque restaurant in Miami on March 12 when he received the call that changed his life.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Illinois State’s pitching coach said Thursday. “I got a phone call from my wife saying she had two weeks to live.”
Mohl secured a flight that night back to Columbus, Ohio, to be with his wife. Sarah Mohl died of large-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, a rare form of cervical cancer, on March 25 at just 28 years old.
Sarah Mohl was diagnosed with cancer on Aug. 19, 2012. On New Year’s Day, the Mohls learned treatment Sarah had been receiving was not working. Two forms of experimental drugs also did not have the desired effect.
“It was emotional,” Mohl said. “The best thing that came out of this was seeing all the guys at the memorial service for her.
“I’ve got two families. I’ve got my family at home and I’ve got these guys. When that bus rolled in to Columbus with all 35 guys and all the Illinois State people, that meant a lot to me.”
Mohl returned to his Redbird duties for an April 5 game against Missouri State at Duffy Bass Field. On a touching evening, ISU starter Chris Razo allowed just one hit in a complete-game 2-1 victory.
“He threw me the game ball after that game and I was pretty teary eyed,” Mohl said.
Mohl’s return to the Redbird dugout has sparked a white hot streak keyed by his pitching staff.
ISU was 7-7 with a team ERA of 4.94 during Mohl’s absence. Since his return, the Redbirds are 17-2 with a sparkling 2.62 ERA.
“Watching what we’re doing right now, I wonder if somebody up above is looking after us,” said Mohl, whose mother has moved in with him to help care for his 2-year-old son Hunter. “It’s been really special to watch.”
Razo and fellow weekend starters Dan Savas and Brad Sorkin have combined for a 9-1 record and a 1.33 ERA in 12 starts since Mohl’s guidance was restored.
“The three starters have a special connection with Bill. When he was gone, we had to figure out things for ourselves,” said Razo. “You don’t realize you had something great until it’s gone.”
“It was a tough time for sure,” Sorkin said. “We said we’ve got to do this for Coach Mohl. We kept pushing each other and pushing all the pitchers. Now we’re starting to click on all cylinders. It’s great to have him back.”
ISU head coach Mark Kingston believes his team has grown closer through the sadness of Sarah Mohl’s death.
“Sports are so secondary to what Billy has been through,” Kingston said. “But I think the pitchers in some small way said let’s show Billy how much we care about him by how hard we compete for him on the field.
“How well we’re playing doesn’t change what happened. But I think it’s brought a little bit of support Billy’s way. It’s given Billy an indication of how much this team cares about him.”
The 29-16 Redbirds are riding a 10-game winning streak entering today’s 6 p.m. Missouri Valley Conference game against Creighton at Duffy Bass Field. The teams also meet Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
After Sunday’s game, all ISU players and coaches will have their heads shaved as part of a St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser for children’s cancer research that has already reached its goal of $10,000.
The fundraiser, initiated ironically enough by Mohl in 2012, is still accepting donations.
“Sunday will be a special day,” said Mohl. “It’s a great cause.”
And Mohl will be at the ballpark, surrounded by his second family.
“There’s no place I would rather be than out on the field with these guys,” he said. “I don’t go home to a full house anymore. But I always come to the field with a full pack of kids.”