By Tris Wykes

LEBANON – Zach Whitcomb limped off the darkening Lebanon High football practice field Wednesday, a minor consequence of a playoff run the 17-year old hopes will extend past Saturday’s NHIAA Division II semifinal tilt with visiting Plymouth. 

The Raiders junior center has dealt with worse. Becoming a two-year starter in anything appeared a long shot in middle school, when his mobility was so limited that the only position he could reliably play in Little League was first base. 

Lebanon High center Zach Whitcomb (56) after a 2019 victory at Hillsboro-Deering/Hopkinton. Cameron Davio is at left.

Whitcomb suffered from Sever’s disease, a condition affecting the area where the Achilles tendon and heel bone meet. The bone grows faster than the leg’s muscles, tightening the tendon and causing inflammation and possible growth plate damage. In Whitcomb’s case, he altered his gait in an attempt to lessen the pain, which contributed to hairline fractures in his heels.

“I could barely move,” said Whitcomb, who would sometimes have to stop at first base after delivering hits that should have placed him at second or third. 

Given Whitcomb’s restrictions, football’s line competition made perfect sense. In it, the boy saw a spot that few of his peers coveted, but where he could find immediate playing time. His first year in the sport, the regular center went on vacation and Whitcomb pounced. He’s been Old Reliable ever since.

“I never have to worry about the snap,” said Lebanon head coach Chris Childs, who coached his son, C.J., and Whitcomb on a 2015 baseball team. “He’s a unique kid, because he always asks the right questions. He’s always been a bit undersized, but he works his butt off in the weight room.”

As the group that now comprises Lebanon’s football junior class rose through the ranks, they didn’t lose often. And even at ages where other kids goofed around, Whitcomb was more attentive. He was neither a ringleader nor a follower, but a steady performer who never mentioned or complained about the pain he bore for more than five years.

“Most kids have Sever’s disease for a year or two,” he said. “Mine just lasted longer than most.”

Whitcomb’s father, Chris, a 1995 Lebanon High graduate, said it was difficult to watch his son struggle. Related back pain also arose, the multiple aches necessitating visits to physical therapists and chiropractors. Orthotic heel inserts helped, cushioning the blow for an athlete who also plays basketball.

Lebanon High quarterback Jon Willeman rolls out against Newport on Sept. 7, 2019. Center Zach Whitcomb (56) is at left.

“He would get down on himself and say he wasn’t as good as some of the other kids and that he was being held back,” said Chris Whitcomb, noting that his son often reduced frustration by exercising and weightlifting at home. “But we gave him support and told him things would work out and he eventually latched on to that.”

The pain gradually relented as Whitcomb hit adolescence, but there are lingering affects. Physical therapy was a boon, not only increasing range of motion in his ankles, but teaching him the value of consistent stretching. Whitcomb learned to be precise in the way he steps and slides on the field.

“I really focus on the fundamentals,” he said. “If I’m where I need to be and I’m not stumbling to get there, I’m fine.”

Whitcomb makes a concerted effort to put on weight, but his metabolism isn’t yet cooperating. At 5 feet 11 and 160 pounds, he’s one of the smallest centers in the division. Opposing coaches used to jokingly ask Childs if he really couldn’t find anyone bigger, but No. 56 has earned respect the past two seasons.

“I want to face the other team’s best player,” said Whitcomb, an honors student who’s considering teaching and coaching as a career. “You get excited to see how you do.”

Notes: Lebanon cornerback Logan Sanchez was one of 21 seniors to earn “highest honors” during the academic first quarter… Whitcomb’s older brother, Austin, a 2019 Lebanon High graduate, played receiver for the Raiders… Plymouth has won 26 state titles. The 2018 Bobcats were undefeated and last year’s squad lost in the division final… Plymouth (5-0) and Lebanon (6-0) were scheduled to play at Plymouth on Oct. 17 but the game was canceled because of the hosts’ issues with Covid-19. Saturday’s game site was decided by the flip of a coin.

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Zach Whitcomb fields a ground ball during an April 29, 2016, baseball practice.