HARRISON, Tenn. (WRCB) -- Chase Spurgeon has eyed a professional baseball career from an early age.
As if the right-handed pitcher didn't stand out enough with a unique delivery that features an extremely high leg kick, he developed some of the area's most impressive breaking pitches courtesy of years of work with Los Angeles Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.
However, his path to the pros took a detour late in 2011 at the Smokies Showcase.
"I threw a pitch and actually felt both of my elbow ligaments pull apart and break away," Spurgeon recalled. "It was the worst pain I've ever had. I tried to throw another pitch and the ball went like ten feet. I knew it was serious.
"I thought my career was over."
A local doctor initially diagnosed the injury as a strain and recommended a few months of physical therapy. After showing little improvement, Spurgeon decided to get a second opinion early in 2012.
"It's what I knew it was all along -- they said the ligaments were torn," Spurgeon said.
Soon after, the Ooltewah High standout was en route to Florida where renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed the Tommy John ligament replacement procedure on Spurgeon's elbow.
Typical rehab for the surgery is at least a year, meaning Spurgeon's junior season with the Owls was a complete loss.
After six months of rehab, Spurgeon decided to transfer and play his limited senior season at Central High, where he was reunited with a group of old friends with which he played little league ball a decade ago.
As enjoyable as it was to be back with old teammates, Spurgeon was still far from confident in his ability when it was time to start preseason workouts.
"The doctors all told me (the recovery) would be a lot more mental," said Spurgeon, who now has a tattoo of baseball stitches around his scar. "In my head I was worried about tearing it again. It was the scariest thing to start throwing again for real."
That's when his connection with Honeycutt, a Fort Oglethorpe native, and the Dodgers provided some relief.
"Chase met with one of the team's doctors to do some rehab work and they invited him out to do some bullpen work with their big-leaguers side-by-side at spring training," said Central head coach Glen Carter. "Now that's a unique way to get your rehab done and gain some new insight to the game."
Spurgeon spent a week at the team's spring training facility in Arizona, watching games and meeting legends like Mark McGwire and Tommy Lasorda.
He was also invited to work out with the Dodgers' pitching staff, throwing alongside the likes of Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsly, in addition to several former Chattanooga Lookouts.
"I was pitching next to (former Lookout) Kenley Jansen. Right when he started his wind-up I tried to start mine to see how fast I threw compared to him," Spurgeon said with a smile. "It was really close. That's when I knew then that I could start letting loose."
In addition to the workouts, Spurgeon got to compare scars and share stories with other pitchers and players who rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. Their tips and experiences reassured Spurgeon that he was on the right track.
"He's usually a really quiet kid. He never raises his voice and doesn't say much, but he came back from that trip with pictures and videos and was sharing them with everybody," Carter said.
Slowly but surely, Spurgeon started to regain his form.
Carter and the Central coaches made sure to keep him on a tight leash, starting him on a small pitch count that steadily increased across the season. Spurgeon made a few starts, but played more of a key role as a reliever while helping the Purple Pounders win their first district title in more than a decade.
"It was a great ride, this senior year," he said with a smile. "It was certainly an experience."
But his journey is far from over.
Spurgeon plans to pitch next year at Hiwassee College, a program in the National Christian College Athletic Association. The opportunity on the non-Division I level will give him more time to get back to full strength, but also keeps him eligible to enter the Major League Baseball Draft after each season.
If Spurgeon had tried to play for a Division I program, he would not have been draft eligible for the next three years.
"It's certainly been nerve-racking, but when I got up (on the mound) I felt really comfortable and felt that was where I needed to be," Spurgeon said. "It took 14 months, but I'm blessed to be back and able to pitch again.
"Now we'll just see what happens next."