Life throws Illini pitcher a curveball

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Life has thrown Joyce a curve ball. The 21 year old has been through a lot this season.  He is recovering from elbow surgery, but more importantly he lost his biggest fan, his mom, to cancer last off season. That's what's giving this season an entirely different purpose.

Baseball is a game that demands repetition, consistency and routine, and like in all sports, players go through the highs and lows of winning and losing. But lefty pitcher Luke Joyce would tell you his toughest loss has come off the field.

"We didn't figure out she was sick until the middle of August," Joyce said.

That's when Luke's mom Lizanne suffered a collapsed lung.

"Which I didn't really know the extent to, you know, I was worried," Joyce said.  "I cried a little bit but I didn't really realize. The 'C' word never hit me right there. I never thought cancer you know."

She was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died two months later.

"She loved to watch me play," the reliever said. "She was my number one fan."

She and her husband Michael routinely traveled hundreds of miles to see their son play.

"She loved seeing me pitch," he said. "She cheered for everyone."

But now his junior season is like no other.

"Just seeing my dad up there is definitely different and it's hard on him," he said.

And it's been hard on Luke too.

"Like sometimes not that I'll forget but like, I just like subconsciously will reach into my pocket and go to call or text to text my mom and obviously I can't, um, I dunno. Her just not being there," he said fighting back tears. "Yeah, I mean just that... She's not coming back."

The field is his escape.

"Definitely takes my mind off of a lot of things," he explained. "It'll hit me sometimes, but I almost feel guilty going three hours without thinking of her."

His family is his strength.

"We're about as strong as it gets," Luke said. "We're extremely close... If I'm having a bad day I can always call one of them."

"He's a great person, comes from a great family," said Head Coach Dan Hartleb. "The thing that Luke has always done: He never looks at himself in situations, uh. The thing that he always talks about is how he can help other people, how he can help the younger players."

Now Luke has gotten some help from his second family, his teammates. Especially fellow pitcher Bryan Roberts who lost his dad to cancer when he was just 15 years old.

"It kind of hit me when I would be traveling on trips for baseball and everyone would have their dad there," Roberts said. "I'm just there to talk to him about some things and share my experiences with it."

Luke's experiences are still fresh. He's established new routines.

"During the national anthem I always pray," he said.

But as different as this season may be, there is still one thing that's the same.

"Yeah, still the biggest fan," Luke said smiling.

Lizanne Joyce hasn't missed a game.

This year the last home game of the regular season lands on Mother's Day.  He said it will just be a time where his family comes together. It will make them stronger.

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