When Dublin Jerome High School senior James Eastep suffered a major knee injury while helping lead the boys lacrosse team to a 17-2 victory over Hudson in a Division I state semifinal May 30, he was devastated by the timing of the injury for two reasons.
First, it meant that he had to sit on the bench when the lacrosse team lost to Upper Arlington 7-6 in the state final three days later.
Then, after undergoing surgery June 19 to repair a torn ACL and torn meniscus in his left knee and discovering that he had a hairline fracture in his left femur, Eastep was told by his surgeon that he likely would miss half of this season with the hockey team.
"I was in shock and disbelief because that injury is one of those things that I never expected to happen to me," he said. "It was pretty heartbreaking to not get to play in the state final because I wanted to be on the field helping my team, and it was disappointing because I also missed playing lacrosse in the summer, which is the time when you get recruited.
"And when I had my surgery, I was told that it would take about six months for a full recovery and some of my trainers suggested that maybe I shouldn't play hockey because of the risk of tearing my ACL again."
Despite having plans to play lacrosse at the college level, Eastep never considered skipping his final hockey season. Instead, he worked diligently to rehabilitate his knee and was medically cleared to play hockey just four months and three weeks after surgery.
Eastep has returned to the ice with a vengeance, as he had a team-high 15 goals and 13 assists in his first 21 games. As a precaution, he missed two of the first four games.
"We weren't expecting to get James back on the ice until early January because he had such a major reconstructive surgery on his knee, but there was never any question in my mind that he would come back strong because he loves hockey and he loves our team," coach Pat Murphy said. "The fact that he was able to come back five weeks ahead of schedule is a testament to his hard work and toughness.
"Right now, James is still getting back some of his conditioning and strength, but he's got great hand-eye coordination and he can really shoot the puck."
Eastep is the program's leader in goals (91) and points (147).
Last season, Eastep, a forward, had a team-high 26 goals and 15 assists in 41 games while leading Jerome to the CHC-Red Division championship and the Blue Jackets Cup title.
As a sophomore, he had 36 goals and 14 assists in 36 games to help lead the Celtics to their first CHC regular-season championship.
"Playing with good teammates and good linemates helps a lot because I wouldn't score many goals without them setting me up," Eastep said. "A lot of my goal-scoring has to do with getting into the right place at the right time and getting great passes from my teammates."
Eastep's offensive contributions have helped Jerome remain one of central Ohio's top teams. In the area coaches poll last week, the Celtics were second behind Olentangy Liberty.
"I can't imagine where we'd be without James' goals and assists because we've had trouble scoring in so many games this year," Murphy said. "James has great athletic ability and he has a flare for the offensive portion of both hockey and lacrosse. I expect him to increase his offensive production over the next five to six weeks to help us get to where we want to be."
Murphy also has been so impressed with Eastep's defensive play this season that he added him to the penalty-kill unit for the first time.
Eastep is determined to lead Jerome to its first district title and he's drawing inspiration from his grandfather, Carl Mack, to put forth his best effort every game. Mack, 74, has battled cancer twice in the past 20 years.
"I'm doing what I can to help my team win," Eastep said. "Whether it's leading my team in scoring or going to the bench so that someone else can score a winning goal, I'll be happy as long as we have a great season and make it to the state final four.
"Seeing my grandpa fight through having cancer with two months of radiation treatments and come through it OK has been very inspirational to me. He's taught me that life's short and that I shouldn't take anything for granted, so I'm going to give my best effort in everything I do."