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story.lead_photo.caption Bud Sullins/Special to the Herald-Leader Chandler Cook was a four-year starter for the Siloam Springs baseball team.

Chandler Cook is chomping at the bit to get back out on the baseball field.

Cook, a former Siloam Springs standout, saw his freshman baseball season at Crowder College (Mo.) come to a screeching halt last fall when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his pitching elbow.

Typically, a UCL tear requires the famous "Tommy John" surgery, named after former Major League Baseball pitcher Tommy John, who the surgery was first performed on in 1974.

Tommy John surgery was an option for Cook as well, but another option was presented to him -- Primary Repair of the UCL -- which could have a shorter recovery time and get Cook back on the baseball field faster.

Cook had primary repair of the UCL on Nov. 16 and is more than seven months into recovery and on pace to return to the baseball diamond later this summer when Crowder starts fall practice in August.

"I'm ready to go," Cook said. "I don't feel any pain."

Dual threat in high school

Cook signed a baseball scholarship at Crowder after his senior season at Siloam Springs in 2017.

He originally signed with the Roughriders as a dual threat player that pitches and plays in the field and bats as well.

Cook played in the field and pitched in four years as a starter for Siloam Springs.

He was one of the Panthers' top hitters, hitting eight home runs and producing 53 RBIs over his final three seasons, including five home runs, 25 RBIs and a .432 batting average his senior year.

Cook also was one of the Panthers' top pitchers. As a junior he had a 3.38 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched for Siloam Springs. He possessed a fastball that stayed in the mid-80 mph-range and he had the ability to touch 90

One of Cook's finest games came during his junior season when he pitched a 11-strikeout shutout against Memphis University School in the Best of the West Tournament in Memphis during spring break.

"That was probably the last dominant start I had," Cook said.

Cook never could re-find that magic that he had that night in Memphis.

He struggled the rest of his junior season on the mound and only pitched in 16 innings his senior year.

What most people didn't know was that Cook was battling an arm injury, that he was trying to play through instead. He spent the majority of his senior season at shortstop.

"I was in pain a little bit. I fought through most of it," Cook said. "I knew I probably wasn't going to be able to pitch all my senior year. I knew that a throw or two from shortstop wouldn't hurt all that much."

Specializing with pitching

In a dream world, a lot of baseball players would be able to hit, play the field and pitch at the college level and beyond.

At the high school level, you often see the team's best player is often their best pitcher, hitter, fielder and base-runner.

The reality is that moving up from high school to the college level, players begin to specialize.

This was no different for Cook.

Cook was practicing at shortstop one day in fall practice at Crowder when assistant coach, Tyler Sawyer, pulled him aside.

"I was fielding ground balls at shortstop," Cook said. "He said, 'Hey, you know you have a good arm. I think pitching is where you might be able to get your money's worth. You might be able to go on to the next level after this if you focus on pitching because you have the arm to do it.' I said OK, let's start focusing on pitching."

Focus on pitching is what Cook decided to do.

Not long after that though, he was pitching in a fall game and he felt his right arm tightening up.

"I threw the first inning and I noticed I was tightening up," Cook said. "Usually when something's about to pop you start throwing a little harder. Right before I snapped, I knew I was throwing hard."

Cook went into the dugout and knew something was messed up in his elbow.

"I knew something was messed up. I called my mom right after I went down and said I needed to schedule an MRI," Cook said. "I knew something was wrong. I went and talked to the (Crowder) trainer. They agreed I needed to get this looked at."

Cook said the day after he felt discomfort pitching, he went out to the mound again and attempted to throw.

"I had no velocity," he said. "Couldn't do it. That's when they scheduled the MRI."

MRI results

The MRI revealed a ligament tear on the interior closest to the bone, slowly peeling off the very end.

"My worst fears were confirmed," Cook said. "My UCL was torn and I was told that if I wanted to pitch that I was going to require Tommy John surgery and that I would probably need to have the surgery done as quickly as possible so that I would be able to pitch again the spring of my sophomore year due to the fact that rehab from Tommy John surgery can take up to a year and sometimes longer."

Cook initially saw Dr. Cox in Fayetteville, who was the one who suggested Tommy John surgery.

However, the quickest he would be able to do the surgery on Cook would have been in December.

Cook turned to another option, Dr. Christopher Dougherty in Bentonville, an orthopedic surgeon who works with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals minor league baseball team.

"I had heard from a friend that Dr. Dougherty in Bentonville was a great physician and we made an appointment with him," Cook said.

Cook brought Dougherty his MRI and the doctor began talking to Cook about primary repair instead of Tommy John.

"He explained that with this procedure the ligament is repaired instead of replaced with a tendon (from the wrist)," Cook said. "He explained that the recovery time was much shorter because the tendon did not have to learn to become a ligament. Rehab time would be cut in half or more if he would be able to do this procedure."

Cook said the doctor told him it's a fairly new procedure with less than 200 having been performed so far.

The only hangup was, primary repair could only be done if the ligament was still attached. If it was a complete tear it would have to be full out Tommy John surgery, and there was no way to know which way they had to go until they opened up Cook's arm for surgery.

"He said that he would only know if he could do the procedure after he opened my arm up," Cook said. "We scheduled surgery for Nov. 16. I remember when I woke up the first thing I can remember was asking the nurse if I had the repair or the full Tommy John and then looking at my left wrist to see if they removed a tendon."

Turns out, Cook's ligament was still attached, but just barely. The doctor was able to perform the primary repair surgery after all.

"I was going in there thinking the worst," Cook said. "They had marked my wrist where they were going to take the tendons."

Post surgery

Based on everything he's seen so far, Cook's surgery was successful.

He had the operation on Nov. 16, and a little more than two weeks later, he reported arm movement that was much better at this point than some of his Crowder teammates who have had Tommy John surgery.

Cook was told his complete recovery would take anywhere from three to six months.

Being the competitor he is, Cook wanted to be back playing on the short side of that window -- three months. The reality is everyone's timetable is different.

Cook has been on a 22-week rehab program, which he is about three-fourths of the way through. He took a redshirt season his freshman year at Crowder, giving him four years of eligibility left in college baseball.

For four months, Cook would drive twice a week from Neosho, Mo., to Bentonville for rehab. There was a period where he had to stop for three weeks because he was too aggressive in his rehab.

"I tried to jump back into throwing too soon," he said.

"The biggest thing has been patience. I'm not very patient. I can honestly say that. I was wanting to get out there as soon as possible."

Cook said early in his rehab he was not allowed to throw a baseball unsupervised, but now he can do whatever he wants as long as he's not hurting.

"I'm not much of one for patience either," said Wes Cook, Chandler Cook's dad. "So that may be where he gets it from. We'll just keep an eye on him. The coaches and trainers told him, 'Don't overdo it. We want you to go by spring when season starts. Fall ball is just something to get you geared up and ready to go.' They're going to keep an eye on him.

"The trainers and coaches have told him they're probably going to have to keep him dialed back a little bit so he doesn't get out there and overdo it."

Cook, who has never suffered a major injury until this one, said he is at about 90 percent back healthy.

"I'm to the point where I can full-out unleash it," he said. "You might get a little soreness back and forth just because I haven't been there since I've had the surgery. I'm at the point where I can throw hard as I want right now.

"The biggest thing I've learned is patience. Like I said, throughout the whole thing, patience has been the key for me. If you don't have patience, then you're going to end up hurting yourself even more."

Keep playing baseball

Cook wants to keep playing baseball as long as he can.

With Crowder being a two-year college, and Cook having already spent one year academically at the school, it's likely this upcoming year will be his last at the Neosho school.

That's where baseball comes in.

"My goal after this year is to obtain another scholarship," he said. "I'm looking to go to another school to get the rest of my schooling.

"As long as I can keep playing or they keep giving me money to keep playing, I'm going to play as long as I can. We'll see where it takes me after this next year."

As for this upcoming year, Cook hopes to work his way into the starting rotation for Crowder.

"That's what I'm shooting for and that's what I hope," he said.

He's hoping that the newly reconstructed elbow will help with his pitching. In fact, the doctors have told him that he should have better control with his pitches.

"They said you're probably going to get more accurate with your throwing just because there's been all that wiggling around in your arm," he said. "Just focus on pitching and getting back and in more control."

Sports on 06/27/2018

Print Headline: On the road to recovery

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