At first, Charlie Christner thought it was a case of heartburn.
It was Jan. 12. He had taught social studies at Scranton Middle School for five hours and now was beginning his prep hour by preparing for his other job as baseball coach at Brighton High School.
“I was actually … in my last hour (of) the day, and just started having heartburn,” he said.
So he made a quick trip to a nearby store to get an over-the-counter heartburn remedy.
“I wanted something to help me before I went to (offseason) hitting,” he recalled.
But the feeling didn’t go away, and about 4 p.m. Christner told his coaches he wasn’t feeling well and was going home.
He didn’t get there.
“I made it about a mile down the road and had to pull over and just started throwing up,” he said. “(I) felt better and started back down the road and stopped, (and) just started throwing up again, and I said ‘I’ve got to get to the hospital.’”
He called his wife, Jackie, who was at home working, and she rushed to the hospital.
Once he was admitted, Christner was diagnosed with pancreatitis.
Waiting out a serious situation
The pancreas is a gland located under the stomach which secretes hormones, including insulin, to aid in digestion.
In Charlie’s case, gallstones had blocked the ducts connecting his pancreas to his small intestine. This, in turn, was leading to part of the tissue in his pancreas beginning to die.
Over the next several weeks, the Christners made several trips to the hospital while he dealt with pain and a gradual buildup of fluid due to a cyst that had formed around the inflammation in his pancreas. The cyst made him feel full all of the time and made it difficult to eat or drink.
The pain medication affected him, too.
“It messed up his thought process a little,” Jackie said. “Some days he didn't know what day it was or, you know, he doesn't remember those days.”
Although the diagnosis was fairly swift — the Christners knew from the beginning what was wrong and what needed to be done — surgery was delayed for nearly two months to let the inflammation in his pancreas go down.
But it was still a serious situation.
“It’s a most sobering experience to have a surgeon come out and tell you your son is very sick and it’s a very serious situation and has a 70 percent chance of survival,” said Dan Christner, who coaches with his son after a long career as a basketball coach at Brighton. “I’ve seen enough missed free throws to know that if you make 70 percent of your free throws, that means 30 percent aren’t going in. It gives you pause, and (you) say let’s make sure we’re a part of that 70 percent.”
The delay was to help increase those odds.
“They didn't want to do surgery (right away) because of all the inflammation and everything that's going on inside your body,“ Charlie said. “If you have to do it soon, then you end up being in a position where the odds of surviving are less if we have to do emergency surgery. So they delayed it.”
Charlie and Jackie made several trips to and from the hospital during the six weeks after the initial diagnosis.
When he felt up to it, Charlie was working on lesson plans along with administrative tasks while his coaches ran offseason workouts.
“He really wanted to make sure things were coordinated,” Jackie said. “And you know, that's Charlie to a T. He wants to make sure that everything runs smoothly and in that, you know, he's informed of any decisions or changes or things that are happening with the team.”
A veteran coaching staff, led by former Pinckney baseball coach Matt Evans, stepped into the breach.
“I think the big thing on our part was making sure that it was business as usual,” Evans said. “We weren’t going to let Charlie not being there through the winter be an excuse for why we performed or didn’t perform. He’s been a stable force and head of the program for a number of years now. We knew what we needed to do, and so it was about executing a plan that's pretty familiar to us.”
Christner went to a few offseason workouts, watching from a chair.
“(Jackie) would drive me up to hitting and I'd sit in there and watch the guys for as long as I could, 30 minutes or an hour, just to give me something to do," Charlie said. “Otherwise it was, you know, a lot of daytime TV and naps. I did do some stuff with baseball during that time, even if it was just to go watch hitting for an hour and talk to the coaches on how kids are doing. ... It gave me definitely something to do and something to look forward to.”
In the meantime, the Christners were flooded with cards, texts and phone calls of support, prompting Jackie to post regular updates on her Facebook page to lighten that load.
Their families were supportive, as was the community.
“Everybody was so gracious and heartwarming and opened their arms to us and said, ‘anything you need,’” Jackie said. “There's nothing that we really needed that the community could help us with too much because we were just stuck in a hospital, just kind of sitting there waiting for medicines, waiting for diagnosis, waiting for the doctor to progress the treatment, etc. And that was kind of what we needed.”
“I’m proud of the way that everybody came together and did what had to be done, and how excited people were to see him," Evans said. “That speaks to the time that Charlie’s put into this program over the last however many years as a coach, Any time you’re a coach, you look for those moments you can point to as having a positive impact on kids and the baseball community and all those things, and I would say the willingness of everyone to pitch in is a testament to how much he’s appreciated as part of the Brighton baseball community.”
On the way back
Surgery was March 3. Christner’s gallbladder was removed, along with the dead tissue on his pancreas. A pair of cysts were drained, and he went home a few days later.
Christner, always slender in physique, had lost 40 pounds – 10 of which liquid that had been building up in the cysts.
But, albeit from a chair, he was at tryouts March 15.
His voice was weak at first, but he made his presence known.
“When he was back at tryouts, those first couple times, he would cut loose and let out a yell,” Evans said. “And it was ‘OK, Charlie’s back, and he’s in it,’ and that made everyone feel good. Same old Charlie. He’s locked in. Same old competitor.”
A frustrated competitor, at one point, irritated because fungos weren’t being hit by his coaches in the manner he prefers. But he coached from third base, albeit from his normal spot a step or two from the dugout.
He progressed from liquids to solid food (his first solid food was pizza), and returned to the classroom April 12, three months to the day his medical odyssey began.
After an 8-8 start, the Bulldogs won District and Regional titles before falling in a Division 1 Quarterfinal.
The healing continues, but things are back on schedule for Christner, who turned 40 on Saturday.
He’s not outwardly emotional. He appreciates the love and support he and his family have received, but also wishes he could have accomplished more for his team during the time he was critically ill.
Jackie Christner is not as reserved.
“I just thank God every day that he is healthy,” said Jackie, who married Charlie in 2019. “And yes, our bond has strengthened. I think everything for us just knowing that we need each other and we need people in our lives as everybody does. But especially to know that we had each other and he had me. He often said, ‘I don't know what I would do if you weren't here. I don't know what I would do. If I hadn't met you, this would be 10 times harder to go through if you weren't here.’"
PHOTOS (Top) Brighton varsity baseball coach Charlie Christner, fifth from right, addresses his team. (Middle) Charlie and wife Jackie Christner enjoy a moment on the lakeshore. (Photos courtesy of Jackie Christner.)
Standish-Sterling’s run to the 2022 Division 3 Semifinals was driven in part by a record-setting offense, including a pair of senior standouts who posted single-season and career highlights.
The Panthers made the team record book in four categories, topped by a record 28 triples over 42 games. They also were added for 371 RBI (fourth all-time), 425 runs (12th) and 414 hits.
Cole Prout tied the MHSAA record for runs scored in one season with 84 and set the record with 27 career triples over three seasons (with 2020 canceled due to COVID-19). His 13 triples in 2022 tied for third on that list, while Chase Raymond’s 10 tied for 11th. Prout also tied for 12th all-time with 182 career runs, while Raymond is eighth on the single-season RBI list with 77 over 42 games in 2022 and earned a career RBI entry with 140.
Prout plays now at Central Michigan, and Raymond is playing at Saginaw Valley State.
See below for more recent additions to the MHSAA baseball record book:
Alden Stefanovski played a major role in Whitmore Lake reaching the 2022 Division 4 Semifinals. The senior also made the record book with 20 doubles over 33 games, the first from his school to earn a listing. He was joined in 2023 in the records by senior Alex Di Dio, who hit nine triples over 29 games and also three home runs in one game April 13 against Adrian Madison. Di Dio also was added for 13 triples and a .460 average for his three-season career, and he’s continuing at Kalamazoo College.
Trenton senior Jason Marshall was nearly unstoppable on the base paths during the 2022 season – and perfect stealing on them. He made the record book with 49 steals in 49 attempts, and also for seven triples over 35 games. He’s playing football at Eastern Michigan.
Trent Hagenbach finished his Saginaw Valley Lutheran career in 2022 tied for 11th on the career triples list with 16 despite not having a 2020 season and hitting all of them over the final two. He also made the records for his seven as a junior and nine as a senior.
Dansville had 10 pitchers contribute to its 388 strikeouts over 38 games during the 2022 season, a total which placed the Aggies second all-time. Tucker Mosley paced the team with 137 strikeouts.
Parchment’s Aaron Jasiak finished his three-season varsity career with seven record book entries, including one of the most impressive winning streaks all-time. He won all 26 pitching starts over his career, which didn’t start until his sophomore season because of the COVID-related cancelation of 2020. His winning streak is the seventh longest in MHSAA history, and his 0.87 ERA ranks 11th. He also made career lists with 163 runs scored, 112 stolen bases and a .460 batting average over 103 games, and his 60 steals over 38 games this spring rank 10th. He’s continuing at Hillsdale College.
Bay City Western finished 42-2 in winning the Division 1 championship in 2013, ranking sixth for most wins in a baseball season. The Warriors also tied the record with 21 shutouts, and their 1.02 ERA ranks fifth all-time.
Grandville Calvin Christian senior Blake Pettijohn struck out 20 batters in a 7-0 win over Belding on May 11, which tied for seventh-most for a seven-inning game. He’s continuing at Hope College.
Grant’s Oakley Obenauf made the single-season stolen bases list in the spring with 45 over 29 games – and was a major contributor as his team made the single-game list multiple times. He had a combined eight steals over two games as Grant swiped 13 and 11 bases during halves of a doubleheader May 11. Obenauf is a senior this school year.
Paw Paw reached the team record book this past spring after being hit by 50 pitches over 30 games. Seven players were hit by at least five pitches, with the team leader totaling 10.
Lansing Eastern earned its first record book entries from a pair of graduating seniors this spring. Dominic Wilson capped his three-season varsity career with 134 stolen bases, which rank 10th. He swiped a career-high 51 as a senior. Teammate Matthew Stevenson made the career batting average list at .472 despite getting only eight at bats as a sophomore because of an injury.
Benzie Central’s Wyatt Noffsinger enjoyed a memorable run to nearly finish off his high school career, throwing consecutive no-hitters against Buckley on May 24 and then Manton on June 3.
Okemos then-junior Caleb Bonemer earned his first record book entry with three home runs June 3 against Grand Ledge as his team clinched a Division 1 District title. Bonemer has committed to sign with Virginia.
After 45 years, Flint Southwestern’s Ruben Luna and Risto Nicevski were added for their accomplishments on the 1978 Class A championship team. Luna made the wins list with a record of 14-0 and the ERA list with a 0.71, and Nicevski made the ERA list with a 0.72. Both went on to play at Michigan State.
East Lansing’s Sam Busch enjoyed a career day on April 12, 2019, when he hit three home runs in consecutive at bats against Ionia. A junior that season, he’s now playing at Michigan State.
Powers North Central’s Adrian Mercier enjoyed a record-worthy junior season this spring. He hit .619 over 32 games, ranking 10th all-time for a single season.
Whitehall senior Cayden Ritchie chased and nearly caught the single-season stolen base record in 2021, when he tied for second with 72 steals over 36 games. He also made the single-game steals list five times, twice with a high of six.
Aidan Liedeke capped his Brighton Charyl Stockwell career in the spring with some of the most impressive strikeout numbers in state history. Already listed for averaging 15.41 strikeouts per game as a junior in 2022, he averaged 14.92 Ks per game this spring to finish his three-season career at 15 strikeouts per game. He posted a 0.88 ERA in the spring as well to finish with a career 1.52. He’s playing at Kalamazoo College.
Killian Bies finished his Marshall three-season career in the spring among leaders all-time for getting hit by pitches. He already had tied for sixth as a sophomore in 2021 with 22 HBPs, and with 14 more both his junior and senior seasons he finished with 50 to rank fifth on that list. He’s continuing at Cornerstone.
PHOTO Standish-Sterling's Cole Prout (8) readies for a pitch during his team's 2022 Division 3 Semifinal.