By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
Tim Zeimet is back in charge -- and loving it -- trying to improve his impressive record of helping the Preston softball team get to Fort Dodge for the softball state tournament.
The path to the state tournament isn’t easy for the Trojans. Tonight they run into returning state qualifier Marquette Catholic, a team that has beaten Preston three times this season, in a 7 p.m. Class 1A regional semifinal in Bellevue.
But serving as head coach again – heck, living, for that matter – is a victory in itself.
Zeimet had taken over the Trojans when Scott Jess left after guiding the team to within a game of the 2007 state tournament. With standout pitcher Kelcie Bormann coming into her own as a freshman and his daughter, Megan, in the starting lineup, too, Zeimet guided Preston to a state tournament berth in 2008.
With those two classmates leading a bunch of talented teammates, the possibilities seemed endless for the Trojans. And Tim Zeimet was in the best shape of his life, working out three times a day to drop 80 pounds from a 300-pound frame.
But, he realized something was wrong.
“Starting in February (2009), I couldn’t swallow meat,” he recalled. “A friend said, ‘Maybe you need your throat stretched.’ I went to the doctor in March or whatever it was. They did an upper scope, (it was) cancer and away I went. They didn’t mess around.”
On April 17, 2009, Zeimet was diagnosed with Stage 3 esophageal cancer -- a death sentence for most with the disease.
“I was only give a 20 percent chance to live five years,” he said.
“It shocked the hell out of me. At that time I was in the best shape of my life. I was at 220 pounds, I was working out three times a day and I really kind of felt like God was sending me a message because I was at 300 pounds before that.”
As medical treatment began, Zeimet had to walk away from the sport he loved. Sarah Manning, whom he had added to the staff as an assistant that year, was thrust into the role of head coach, guiding a bunch of girls worried about their coach.
Out of sight but not out of mind, Zeimet battled the disease.
“I had the fight from the get-go,” he said, “as bad as the statistics and as bad as the oncologists kept coming back at me. You go through surgery out in Iowa City. I had a lymph node wrapped around the aorta, and if that would have been cancer they would have just sewed me back up (and said), ‘You’re done.’ Even when I got through that, had that surgery and was like, ‘All right, that was a huge step,’ the oncologists said, ‘Your chances didn’t help you one bit; you’re still at 20 percent to live five years. So that was discouraging, but I never pitty-pattied myself.”
He told his children -- Megan, Matt and Marc -- not to do it, either.
“I sat them all down and No. 1 I said, ‘You don’t take this out on God.’ I told them, ‘Why not me?’ There are a lot worse things happening to people all over the world. No. 2, You don’t ask for sympathy and go out and play hard for your dad, play hard for your team, play hard for your school.”
But he stayed away from softball and the Trojans were unable to make a return trip to state that season. He largely kept to himself, undergoing eight rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation. He had surgery that removed his esophagus and pulled his stomach up to replace it. He still has a scar on his neck and another long one from his belly button to his chest as reminders.
“As bad as I was looking, I didn’t want people to see me,” he said. “I didn’t come out a lot that first year I was out. I went to work (for the Department of Transportation in Maquoketa), did my treatments and went home. I didn’t want people to see me go down.”
But, the outlooks began to look better for Zeimet.
“As soon as I heard that word ‘remission’ in January 2010, right away that was turning point, I’m coming out,” he said.
And, he wanted to coach again.
When Manning’s assistant didn’t return for the 2010 season, Zeimet returned as her assistant.
“I volunteered to come back those next two years, with my sons playing baseball,” he said. “That shows how much passion I have for softball and these kids.”
And things started clicking again. In Bormann’s final two years, she led the Trojans to two more state tournament berths. They finished seventh in Class 1A in 2010 and made it to the semifinals in 2011.
He took last year off from coaching to watch his sons play baseball for Preston.
But, Zeimet still wanted to be the guy. When Manning resigned, the opportunity was there. He grabbed it.
“The reason I took the job back was to get back what I once had,” he said. “I coached a lot of these girls through the years, and I felt like it was taken away from me. To get my life back, I wanted to take this job back to get where I was at.”
It came at a cost.
“Softball has always been my passion,” he said. “I played years and years of fast pitch. I’ll tell you how much I wanted it back: I have two boys playing baseball … I’m not there watching them half the time. I’m here. You’ve got to have the love of really wanting to do something and really loving this game to give up not watching your boys play.”
Zeimet knows how fortunate he is.
“I consider myself a little bit of a walking miracle right now,” he said. “I was only given a 20 percent chance to live five years. I’ve got four years in remission going and things are looking really well.”
The Trojans have had their moments on the softball field, too. They got off to an 11-2 and broke into the Class 1A state rankings.
But, they’ve had setbacks, too. After that strong start, senior leader Cassie Aldis went down with an injury, and the Trojans one just three of their next 16 games.
But they kicked off the postseason by beating Central City on Wednesday to get back to .500 heading into tonight’s game, and Zeimet is getting to do what he loves.
“I’m thrilled to be coaching these girls, win or lose,” he said.