CONOVER, N.C. – Zach Sardina was limping during the youth basketball game, but nobody could figure out why.He had not fallen or bumped into anybody particularly hard, but there he was, struggling to get up and down the court. He was eventually diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes’ Disease, which restricts blood flow to the ball at the top of the femur. The bone becomes brittle, almost like chalk, and can even break away from its attachment point at the hip.
He played football and basketball and absolutely loved baseball, playing at one point on three teams -- one club travel team, one Little League and his school squad. Despite his devotion to the game, Sardina’s career in sports where contact was possible was over. Imagine being in the fifth grade and hearing such a dire prognosis.
He couldn’t run or jump for fourteen months, but he still needed something to fuel his competitive fire. He had taken golf lessons once upon a time from T.L. Brown at a city course in Phoenix, but it was so long ago and he was so young at the time, he can barely remember it.
But golf? Golf might just be the answer.
“It was hard for me, because baseball and sports were my life,” Sardina said. “I couldn’t do them anymore, but I wanted to stay active. You know golf … you don’t have to run or jump. I’d done it before and had lessons with Travis. I enjoyed it. It was an easier transition than people would’ve thought going into golf.”
Brown remembers those lessons better than Sardina, who was in maybe the second grade or so, very young. He was quiet, and his intelligence blew Brown away. Brown was also struck by how talented the kid was, not to mention his attention span.
For fifteen or twenty minutes, Sardina would hang on every word Brown happened to say or every move he had him make. Other children his age, of course, would be tapped out after five.
At the most.
When Brown left Phoenix to take the job as the head coach of Chico State’s men’s golf team, he lost personal contact with Sardina but still kept track of his progress on the links. Sardina’s dad reached out to Brown as college approached, but Brown didn’t think he was quite ready for Division II competition.
After two good years at Scottsdale Community College, however, that changed. Sardina was on board at Chico State, but played in only one tournament before going down with a torn labrum. It wasn’t something that Sardina broadcast to the world, or even his coach.
“He was pressing,” Brown said. “He just really wasn’t hitting it very far. We let him play and he didn’t play bad, he just didn’t play that well. I knew something was up.”
Not that Sardina knew what to tell anybody. Again, he’d had no apparent injury, nothing he could point to as the reason for the pain he was experiencing.
He tried to play through the pain, but struggled. All he knew was that something was keeping from getting a clean swing. There was no stability -- he’d get to the top and his club would go wherever it wanted to go.
He was not expected to contribute much, if any, this season at Chico State because of the problem. Still, he worked to rehabilitate the injury, and when teammates went down with academic issues, Sardina stepped in to fill the void.
And now here this week, he’s helping the Wildcats compete for a national championship. After a poor front nine Tuesday that dropped the team into tenth place in the standings, Chico State rebounded on the final nine holes to move back to eighth.
The top eight teams following play Wednesday will move into the title-deciding match play beginning Thursday. Sardina shot one-under-par on the second nine holes Tuesday, and stands at seven-over-par 159 for the tournament’s first thirty-six holes.
“He was really about proving himself,” Brown said. “I was very impressed with just the change in his competitiveness and his confidence when he came into his final year of college golf. It was a big change. In his mind, he was going to travel and make the most of his final year.”
Sardina has definitely made the most of his final year on the golf course, but also in the classroom as well. Majoring in business entrepreneurship, Sardina was named to the First Team CoSIDA Academic All-District Team the day after taking his final exam of the spring semester.
“My dad just instilled that I had to do my homework before I could go play baseball or play any kind of sport,” Sardina concluded. “It’s just something I’ve always had to do. At a young age, I knew how to manage my time. I think that’s all it is, is just time management. I know what I’ve got to do to prepare for a class. I know what I’ve got to do to prepare on the golf course. Being in college, I’m a student-athlete and the student side comes first.”