Zaragozas Standing Together
At an OU baseball camp early in his high school career, Brandon Zaragoza had a stress fracture in his back, but he decided to play through it. While there, he made a tricky bare-handed catch, impressing the coaches, players and spectators there.
"That's when I thought, you know what? I think I'll stick to baseball and see where that takes me," Zaragoza said.
One of his coaches at the time was skeptical. "Well, I don't know about that," Zaragoza remembers him saying. "Hopefully it'll pay off for you."
"I'm hoping so, too," Zaragoza told him. He laughs as he tells the story. "And I'd say it's paid off."
OU baseball fans would say so, too. Now a junior shortstop, Zaragoza one of the pillars of this year's team, is on track for his best statistical season yet. He attributes his in-game success to the work he puts in on off days and the off-season.
"If I get fifty balls [in practice] one day, but miss one, I don't know why, but that one just sticks with me because I understand I should have made that play," he said. "So I'll take ten more reps on that same play. I put in too many hours out here to not expect to make those plays."
That work ethic isn't anything new. Back when Zaragoza was four and five years old, he'd wake his family up in the morning by throwing a ball around the living room to practice catching it. He wore out the knees of his pajamas sliding around the house, pretending like he was stealing bases.
Even if Zaragoza didn't know he would pursue baseball until high school, his parents saw his talent early on and supported it any way they could, taking him around the country to play baseball as he grew up. They knew his talent was something special.
"We knew God had given him a natural talent," his mom, Carmalieta, said. "He eats, sleeps, dreams, everything is baseball. Baseball is his passion, and that shows when he's on the field."
"All the car rides, the snacks, the hotel rooms—it was every single week," Brandon said. "From day one, my mom's always been supporting me. She always has, she always will."
The summer before Zaragoza started at OU, though, time came for him to support her, instead. On the Fourth of July that year, a sudden pain confined Carmalieta to bed, and within a few weeks, she was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer at the Stephenson Cancer Center, part of OU's Health Sciences complex, and had undergone emergency surgery.
That summer, Brandon did all he could to put on a brave face.
"When the rest of my family is sad or doesn't know what to do, a lot of times I'm the one who's very optimistic about every situation," he said. "That's how I've always been. Instead of dwelling on the situation, try to make the best of it."
"The whole time I was in chemo, I never missed a game, no matter how hot or cold. He was my inspiration to fight and to beat the cancer."
- Carmalieta Zaragoza
After surgery, Carmalieta had an intensive round of chemotherapy treatments while Brandon started his freshman year and practiced with the baseball team. He couldn't often visit his mom as she underwent her treatment, but he was comforted by the community he found on the team.
"The guys in the locker room and the guys on the staff were very supportive, constantly asking, ‘Hey man, how's your mom doing? How's her chemo?' Stuff like that," Brandon said. "That was really reassuring to me, knowing that my mom and I were on their minds, because that's your support system. I knew the hospital and my family were going to take care of her, but I was being taken care of here."
Just as the baseball program supported Brandon, his career with OU was a comfort and a reassurance to his mom. The team's emotional support helped him support her, and she remains one of the Sooners' biggest fans.
"The whole time I was in chemo, I never missed a game, no matter how hot or cold," she said. "He was my inspiration to fight and to beat the cancer... I survived my surgeries. I survived chemo. But I couldn't have done it without the support from Brandon and OU."
After the chemo, the cancer went into remission, but it recently reappeared elsewhere in her body. The family is still waiting on some test results to make their treatment options clear, but in some ways, Carmalieta knows exactly how she's going to handle it, because Brandon told her.
"When he heard about it, he said to me ‘You gotta fight,'" she remembers. "You gotta fight just as hard as you did the last time.'"
Right after Carmalieta told Brandon about the cancer's return, she came to a game in Norman, then traveled to Kansas State to watch the Sooners there. She's as devoted a fan as ever, and her dedication and resilience remain an inspiration.
"While we're out here battling, I know she's doing the same with her situation," Brandon said. "She inspired me to keep coming out here and working to be the best that I can, because I know she's fighting her fight."