By Matt Jenkins Staff Writer
The Salem News
---- — BOXFORD — Golf isn’t particularly high on Ben Hodges’ list of concerns currently. But the sport did help bring a smile to his face yesterday afternoon.
Hodges, the Masconomet golf coach, was only a partial contributor to the Chieftains this fall. All of Hodges’ concentration for the past several months has been dedicated to his family — in particular his wife Laurie, who is battling cancer.
Hodges was at Far Corner Golf Course yesterday, though, to watch Masconomet finish second in the Division 2 North sectional tournament. The Chieftains’ 325 put them one shot behind Concord-Carlisle, but allowed them to advance to next week’s state final.
The performance also gave Hodges a chance to simply enjoy a victory with a team that he holds in high esteem.
Laurie Hodges was diagnosed with a type of liver cancer called intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma and has been going through treatment since having half of her liver removed in July.
Laurie and Ben Hodges have three children: a 4-year old son, a 3-year old daughter and a 7-month old daughter.
“It’s as good as it can be,” said a choked-up Hodges. “We’re in a place now that’s a good place. With cancer, anything can change on a given day and we’re going to enjoy where we’re at right now.”
Hodges has been encouraged by Laurie’s condition in recent weeks. She has been able to hold their 7-month-old and has started doing some exercising.
Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer, however. The Hodges’ focus seems to be making the most of today.
“The road is winding down in terms of the treatment that they can actually do. The follow-up stuff is more scans,” Hodges said. “It’s a type of cancer that is aggressive. It’s a more than 50 percent chance of recurrence, but there are a lot of positives — good margins, no lymph node involvement. There was some vascular invasion and that’s why they’re doing chemo.”
Laurie Hodges may still be facing radiation and the family might have more obstacles down the road, but they have found comfort in their strong support system.
As small as it may seem in comparison to the Hodges’ fight, Kathleen Natale’s ability to help coach the Masco golf team has been invaluable to Ben Hodges.
Balancing time has been one of Hodges’ biggest challenges and having Natale, an accomplished amateur golfer and math teacher at Masco, handle the day-to-day coaching of the Chieftains has opened up time for him to care for his children.
Hodges guessed that before yesterday, he had only attended one full Masconomet golf match this year. He attended home matches for an hour or so, just to see the kids tee off and maybe watch them play a couple holes.
Even though he hasn’t been able to fully invest his time to the team, Natale knows the Chieftains were still playing hard for Hodges.
“That adds to their motivation,” Natale said of the Chieftain golfers. “They knew it made him happy.”
Natale made the transition easy for Masconomet. The players now feel like they have the advantage of two coaches.
“Coach Natale did a great job stepping in and taking over for Mr. Hodges,” Masco senior captain Charlie May said after shooting a 79 in swirling winds yesterday. “It’s a tough situation, but everything (with the team) was like the same. It wasn’t that much different than last year. Everybody played well throughout the year, so it wasn’t much of a change. We had a lot of experience involved ... and not many other teams have two golf coaches.”
Hodges knew the Chieftains’ experience and business-like approach would make it easy for everyone involved.
“Ben is very easy to work with and we had a great team returning. There wasn’t a lot for me to do other than count the six numbers at the end,” Natale joked.
Players like May and fellow Chieftain seniors Zack Staub, Dan Reblin, and Matt Peacock, plus underclassmen Joe Klingensmith and George May were a huge reason why Hodges didn’t want to completely step away from the program.
“Balancing the schedule was the challenge, and that’s what’s great about having Kathy. Golf was one less thing I had to worry about,” Hodges said. “If I could be there, then I’d be there but she mentioned I didn’t need to worry about it. I didn’t want to show up and make her think I was lacking confidence. I was more than confident, but I’ve had so much fun coaching golf not only at Masco, but with these particular kids.”
Now, Hodges hopes this team can give him one more thing to smile about on Monday. He believes the Chieftains have an excellent chance of winning the Division 2 state title at Lynn’s Gannon Golf Course.
“I would say 5-6 years ago if we made the state finals, it was just gravy on top of the season. I think the change in culture has come over the last three years. The expectation is there and the kids really compete and want to do well. I think all six (players), on any given day, could (shoot in) the 70s; that’s the joy of coaching such a good team,” Hodges said.
“The last few weeks I’ve really been enjoying the ride. It’s so much fun going out and watching these kids play.”