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Back Where He Belongs
After losing two seasons to a broken vertebra and the COVID-19 pandemic, Highland's Jaxon Christensen is pitching once again.
Published: 3/30/2021 11:23:43 PM
 

Photo courtesy of Sage Clark Photography

Jaxon Christensen dreamed of playing college baseball. But he could barely walk. The brace on his back was a constant reminder of how far he still had to go to achieve his goal, and that a return to life as he knew it was not guaranteed.

The young, slight pitcher with “whippy” mechanics spent months crucial to his development recovering from a debilitating back injury, halting his progress toward being Highland High School’s next ace and a Power 5 prospect. Christensen had the command, the velocity and the pitch repertoire college coaches desire. But he could barely walk.

Yet in a few months, he’ll head to the College of Southern Idaho on a baseball scholarship. The back brace isn’t invited.

“It’s been a rollercoaster,” Christensen’s father, Jared Christensen, said. “That’s probably the best way to describe it.”

Jaxon Christensen has possessed next-level talent for as long as long as Highland varsity baseball coach Christian Colonel has known him. Colonel coached Christensen as a youth on the Pocatello-based Idaho Prime travel ball team, and his eventual impending status as a Highland freshman was part of Colonel’s motivation to apply for the school’s head coaching vacancy in 2017.

“I knew if I could have a guy like that for four years, those are going to be kind of fun,” Colonel said.

Jaxon Christensen was a varsity player right away for the Rams, and his talent was evident beyond Highland’s clubhouse. The ninth-grade right-hander earned second-team all-conference honors and was invited to play in a postseason all-star game, among other showcase events.

Pretty impressive for someone who played his whole freshman season with a broken vertebra.

Jaxon Christensen suffered the initial injury in the fall, when he was playing quarterback for Highland’s freshman football team. He rolled out to his right, jumped, took a hit and landed hard on his backside. The discomfort later forced him out of the game and lingered on and off for months. He underwent multiple X-rays, but they never indicated serious damage. 

The pain flared up during a preseason baseball weightlifting workout and persisted throughout Jaxon Christensen’s freshman baseball season, but he mostly ignored it. By the time the summer American Legion season rolled around, he couldn’t play it off anymore. The football injury, weightlifting flare-up and that whippy rotation, which helps the 160-pounder reach the mid-80s with his fastball, all piled up over time.

He took four ibuprofen before his first summer start on the mound. He struggled through the first inning but powered through three more. After the top of the fourth, he knew something was wrong.

“I sat down on the bench and my coach was like, ‘Hey, can you do another (inning)?’” Jaxon Christensen said. “And I was like, ‘I can’t hardly move. I don’t think I can even run.’”

Jaxon Christensen barely played the rest of the summer. He underwent several MRIs, attended physical therapy and sought second opinions on his back, which was ultimately revealed to have a stress fracture in the L5 vertebra, just above the tailbone. He had it surgically repaired in January 2019, about two months before his sophomore baseball season began.

His early prognosis was no baseball until August, meaning his spring and summer seasons were lost. He couldn’t do much in the short-term, either, eliminating any plans of offseason training.

“For about 12 weeks, (he) was really limited outside of walking,” Jared Christensen said. “He wasn’t supposed to do anything. You’re supposed to get up, move around. Just walk.”

Jaxon Christensen strictly followed that regimen and his condition quickly improved.

Shortly following the 12-week mark, he started playing catch from about 30 feet. Soon after, he was cleared to run and swing a bat. He returned to the field for his game in late April, not even four months after his surgery. He couldn’t pitch yet, but he could run, hit and throw well enough to play outfield. He went 2-for-4 with two runs and one RBI.

“And then by June, the doctor was telling me, ‘Get out of the way and let him go,’” Jared Christensen said.
 
Jaxon Christensen returned to the mound on June 2, 2019, for an American Legion game. It hadn’t even been five months since his surgery. He admittedly struggled, giving up two runs and two walks during his 28-pitch, one-inning outing.

“That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to get it back very easy and had to go to work again,” he said.

To get back to full strength, Jaxon Christensen had to strengthen his core and stretch out his hamstrings. His lower back had been bearing the brunt of his pitching motion, which Colonel compared to that of former San Francisco Giants star Tim Lincecum, and he needed to use his legs more.

“Going from a zero to 100, back to zero in a snap of a finger,” Jaxon Christensen said. “That’s really what did it for me.”

Thanks in part to his new core- and leg-focused workout plan, Jaxon Christensen had a strong ending to the summer season. He closed out a win against Twin Falls that clinched a state tournament berth for his Legion team, the Pocatello Runnin Rebels, by allowing no hits and striking out four during his 1 1/3 innings.

Nine days later at the state tournament, he gave up one run over 5 1/3 innings against the Idaho Falls Bandits, who later won the American Legion World Series.

“(That’s) when I knew he was really back,” Jared Christensen said.

His college recruiting revved back up, too.

After the Legion season was over, Jaxon Christensen participated in a showcase event in Centralia, Washington, with College of Southern Idaho pitching coach Nick Aiello in attendance. The young pitcher had been on CSI’s radar for a while, but his outing in Centralia was Aiello’s first chance to watch him in person. Aiello liked what he saw and invited Jaxon Christensen to pitch at the school’s Christmastime camp.

There, Jaxon Christensen threw a bullpen and was later approached by one of CSI’s players.

“He goes, ‘Nick (Aiello) wants to talk to you,’” Jaxon Christensen recalled. “I walk up to (Aiello) and he goes, ‘How would you feel if I offered to pay for all your school?’

“I was in shock. I was like, holy crap, dude. I get to go play college baseball.”

Jaxon Christensen publicly announced his scholarship offer on Twitter on Jan. 3, 2020, almost exactly one year after he had two stainless steel screws surgically inserted into his spine.

It was a special moment and a major sigh of relief for the Christensen family, who wasn’t sure if Jaxon would ever achieve his dream of playing college baseball — let alone lead a normal life — while he endured his injury and recovery.

Little did they know that in just a few months, Jaxon Christensen would lose yet another baseball season.

The Idaho High School Activities Association canceled the state’s spring sports seasons in April 2020, one of many casualties of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Jaxon Christensen’s Highland Rams had a state championship in their sights but instead played just three games.

The lost season didn’t dissuade CSI in its pursuit Jaxon Christensen, however, and the pause may have in fact benefited the program.
Aiello and Colonel agreed that with more exposure — and normal recruiting circumstances, which were also paused by the pandemic — Jaxon Christensen may have been scooped up by a school much larger than the two-year junior college in Twin Falls.

“The pandemic has really helped us with him because it kept people away from seeing him,” Aiello said. “If he pitches all last year in high school and goes out and has a great summer, I think someone from the Northwest is going to take that kid.”

But that can still happen in time. Aiello and CSI have a track record of progressing their players into Division I and Division II talents.

That trend, Aiello and Colonel believe, will continue with Jaxon Christensen. Colonel said the pitcher’s velocity can top out at 95 mph eventually, and Aiello called his breaking ball one of the best he’s seen “from a recruiting standpoint.”

“Everything goes right, he’s going to pitch in the Power 5,” Aiello said. “No question.”

Jaxon Christensen finally inked his college baseball dream into reality when he signed with CSI in November 2020. He has since charged ahead with his final high school season and said there are hardly any lingering effects from his surgery, just the screws in his back occasionally tingling when it’s cold outside or rain is approaching — lifelong souvenirs to remind him of his incredible journey.

“He loves baseball. He gets an opportunity to go play beyond high school and that was a dream that he always had, we always had,” Jared Christensen said. “Through two years of disappointment and heartache, he still gets to go.”

 

 


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