When the Cougars took the field Monday to begin the latest baseball season with a scrimmage at home against Rowe, there were many questions to be answered. Foremost was, How well will North rebound from losing seven starters to graduation after a superb 21-6 record in 2009? Also, How will newcomer Nick Escobar fare in his attempt to fill the shoes of older brother J.D., a program star for two years?

But the biggest riddle was solved when Nick Cantu strode out onto the green to lead his ball club into the campaign. After suffering a near stroke several months ago, Cantu spent two weeks unable to walk, and has had to undergo severe lifestyle changes along with consistent medication.

So it was good to see the skipper back in action, after a period where North rooters worried that the long-time boss would be unable to continue in his role. Cantu, who turned 47 later in the week, said that for a while there, he himself was not sure it was in the cards.

“Man, that was scary,” said Cantu, looking svelte after having lost 45 pounds (doctor’s orders) since the health scare. “When it first happened I didn’t know what was going on, I couldn’t stand up or keep my balance, and later that day I knew that something was wrong with me.”

Used to teaching the detailed points of the game for over a decade, the coach found that in the early stages of recovery, he could not use his fine motor skills at all.

“I tried to pick up pinto beans to put in a jar, and I couldn’t do it,” he recalled, mimicking how he tried and failed to complete the seemingly elementary task. “It took a few weeks before I was able to do anything at all.”

Now that the worst appears to be over and the season is under way, Cantu can joke about the negative effects of the illness.

“Hey, they took away all the good foods, guisada, tortillas, everything, I am on a strict diet,” he groused. “My wife says I can have the wheat ones, but those taste like carpet!”

HOW IT LOOKS SO FAR

Now that the team has its rudder back, it’s time to begin addressing the list of questions confronting the Coogs in 2010. The losses were mammoth, including Escobar, who hit five home runs and won 10 games on the mound for a club that knocked off city rival EHS three times and then made the playoffs for the second year running, losing in bi-district to Brownsville Lopez. Also gone by grad route is most of the infield, including three-year standout Chris DeLuna.

Luckily, North has got a couple of experienced hands on deck to ease the pain while a bevy of youngsters learn the varsity ropes. The top returners are Noel Cruz, the hard-hitting third baseman who had 21 RBI while batting a hefty .365 last year, and 2009 Newcomer of the Year Andrew Arteaga, an outfielder with a sweet swing (.414 and a team-best 27 RBI as a sophomore).

Cantu and Company do get a “new” varsity vet into the lineup this year as Mark Esquivel, a transfer from Econ who can play multiple positions, is ready for a big senior year. Outfielder Joel De los Santos, who has good wheels, is expected to be a contributor early and often for the new-look Coogs.

Then there’s Nick Escobar, built somewhat along the same lines as his charismatic bro, who was dominant as a senior. Six-foot-three with a powerful delivery, the younger Esco has been a big winner on the lower levels and will get an immediate opportunity to step into the starter’s role.

Cruz, Arteaga and Esquivel will also see time on the hill this year, and will get a shot at starting as the team takes part in tournaments at McAllen, La Joya, and Sharyland. The rest of the lineup is anyone’s guess, with the tourneys offering Cantu a vital look at some of the unseasoned people.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said before the Rowe scrimmage. “We have some talent out there but many of the kids have not played at this level before. They are going to get the chance to produce, though, against some tough competition in the tournaments.”

Whatever the outcome of the pre-season, the Coogs are happy to have their mentor back in uniform, after a near-miss that threw a scare into the entire program. Cantu has always been one to downplay his own contributions to the charge, but the North family en masse is relieved he made it through to the season.

“He had us really worried about him for awhile there,” said football coach and AD Roy Garza. “Maybe all of us need to take a look at our health these days.”

NOTES: The Coogs lost to state-ranked Robstown over the weekend, but made a good effort in a 7-2 game.