Jaymee Junge was preparing the batting lineup for her Benton Lady Tigers one recent March morning when her health suddenly started going south.
Not that it was unusual for the second-year head coach to be feeling under the weather. Disclosed and undisclosed illnesses since 2006 have left the former Northwood assistant with lots of bad days that she doesn’t like to talk about. She’s a private person who prefers to suffer in silence. Being a softball coach, however, doesn’t always allow that to happen.
On this particular day, Lady Tiger Anna Crooks sensed something was amiss with her coach, confidante and friend. Crooks is entrusted with a lot and says Junge “has more faith in me than my parents. Sometimes that’s scary, but I’ve never had a coach like her. She’s very positive and inspiring to me.”
But the senior manager went to the office, secured the nurse and promised to stay mum with the rest of the team.
“She doesn’t like us to know when she’s hurting, because she is all about us,” Crooks said. “Her parents were in town, and she didn’t want them to know she was sick, so I even had to keep it a secret from them.”
Junge was whisked out a Benton side door and taken to Willis Knighton North where she underwent a battery of tests — a heart cath, a CAT scan, an upper GI — all in one day. She had to stay overnight in the hospital, which worried her, because the team was supposed to leave for the Tioga Tournament on Friday. But tournament officials moved her Friday game to Saturday, and she was back on the field with her team after a day of rest.
That attack was just the latest in a long line of health issues Junge has dealt with since her teaching days at Northwood.
She drew some comfort recently when her Lady Tigers won the District 1-4A title in just her second season at the Bossier Parish school. Benton will play on the road at Bastrop at 5 p.m. Monday in the opening round of the LHSAA state playoffs.
In 2006 Junge was diagnosed with a rare form of autoimmune vasculitis, which affects each person differently. Her gastrointestinal system received the brunt of the negative attention. She’s had multiple surgeries, including a bypass of her celiac trunk, a major blood vessel in her abdomen.
Junge’s spent so much time in hospitals that she wonders if she has more doctors than friends.
But spending time on the dusty fields around northwest Louisiana with teenage girls not much younger than she has been a therapeutic release. Coaching has given her an outlet and her players have provided a support group. They’re ever watchful of changes in her personality and her body that might signal trouble.
“If something serious happens with coach Junge, we can usually figure it out, even though she likes to hide things from us,” sophomore Savannah Collo said. “When we found out she had left for the hospital, it kinda scared us, but that next week she brought in her coaching Bible. We get inspiration from that.”
Junge’s tenacity at fighting the disease and her refusal to succumb to the temptation of taking it easy have made her a role model to her players past and present.
“I consider her a friend, but I look up to her as an inspiration,” Northwood catcher Kaitlyn Williams said. “I often go to her for advice. But when she’s sick and won’t go to the doctor, I tell her not to be so stubborn.”
Shortly after the 2012 softball season ended, Junge was rushed from Benton High to the hospital where doctors found elevated pancreatic and liver enzyme levels. She was diagnosed with autoimmune pancreatitis.
Junge started school this past fall while undergoing immunosuppressant therapy, although the treatment brought on secondary infections like the shingles and the flu. There were days she was so weak she couldn’t stand straight, but she still looked forward to being on the softball field. She began feeling worse in early March when a severe chest pain knocked her to her knees. EMS personnel were discreetly running an EKG on her in the classroom while the Lady Tigers were conducting their game prep on the field. The EMS didn’t diagnose a heart attack, so Junge headed for the field to coach “her girls.” She directed several tournament games that weekend, went back to the WK emergency room on Sunday but returned to school Monday. That Thursday was her long day at the hospital.
While she was being wheeled into the heart cath she was still confirming hotel arrangements and transportation to a tournament with Crooks. She even tried to deliver a scouting report while she was on pain medication.
“We still laugh about that,” Junge said.
She was released from the hospital and made it to Tioga but was restricted to her bucket in the dugout. Seeing her team execute was not only spiritually uplifting, it brought a smile to Junge’s face. The smile encouraged her team.–
“We’re like a family and if one member of the family is hurting, it isn’t good,” left fielder Yancey Cox said. “Coach Junge is a fighter — we know that. She gets strength from her faith and her relationship with Christ. Because she is so dedicated and keeps such a positive attitude, it makes us want to do it also.”
Junge’s days aren’t getting any easier and her doctors still struggle to discover exactly what ails her. After the Lady Tigers’ season ends, she’ll see a specialist in Dallas, hoping for answers. But she isn’t letting the unknown slow her down.
“Life isn’t going to be fair; life isn’t going to be easy; but if you have the support from those around you, and you have faith, anything is possible,” she said. “I may not have all the answers, but I will keep coaching as God gives me strength and we will accomplish great things. I am so excited to see these girls compete in the playoffs. They are incredible, and they deserve great things. We will do it together.”