The pain of what felt like a toothache in the back of his mouth woke Kamron Willman up around 2 or 3 a.m. It soon turned into migraine that engulfed the right side of his head. His face felt like it was buzzing and throbbing, he said.
Willman spent the rest of the morning throwing up.
On two hours of sleep, he ran Bakersfield College baseball’s six-minute mile test. He passed in about 5:45, but it was one of Willman’s worst days with a severe illness.
Willman was diagnosed with valley fever, an insidious respiratory disease endemic to Kern County, about a week before the start of the season in January 2018. He thought he’d miss a few weeks and get a late start to the year, but the fungal infection knocked Willman, a Ridgeview graduate, out for the entire season.
After redshirting because of the illness, Willman returned for his sophomore season in 2019. Entering Tuesday's game against LA Pierce, he led the Renegades with a .336 batting average and a .443 on-base percentage. He was also tied for the team lead with 40 hits and ranked second with a .527 slugging percentage. Though it pained him to sit out, Willman considered contracting valley fever to be a “blessing in disguise.”
“He didn’t do anything last year,” BC head coach Tim Painton said. “He didn’t take ground balls. He didn’t swing a bat and he came back a better player.”
The symptoms started in late December with pain in Willman’s respiratory system. He thought it was a cramp from not drinking enough water. But it kept coming back so he went to the doctor.
When BC reconvened in January, both Willman and Painton came back with diagnoses of pneumonia. They even compared medication they were prescribed.
“I was feeling better in a few days,” Painton said, “and he wasn’t getting better.”
Willman had his blood drawn for tests. Learning he had valley fever was “shocking,” he said. Willman had a close friend’s mother die from valley fever. Caused when airborne Coccidioidal fungal spores are inhaled, valley fever infected 2,929 people in Kern County in 2017 and killed nine of them.
Doctors told Willman he likely had it for about two or three months without knowing.
The infection caused aches throughout his whole body and his “joints were done.”
“It felt like I was 80 years old, no clown to all the older citizens,” Willman said. “Just my energy level. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to school. I love being around baseball so when I would text Coach P, ‘Hey, coach, I’m not feeling that well today.’ I really didn't want to send those texts. I really wanted to be out there, but that’s when I realized this is more serious than I thought.”
Willman was prescribed Diflucan, an antifungal drug, for about four or five months. He lost 30 pounds, dropping to 140.
The hardest part, Willman said, was not playing baseball. He watched the entire season, still making it to practices and virtually every game.
Making things worse, Willman missed what could have been his final year playing with his twin brother Kyle. The two played on the same baseball teams since they were about 5 or 6. Kyle Willman moved on to Division I Campbell in North Carolina, where he is redshirting after getting into a car accident, Willman said.
“Not being able to play with him kind of stuck with me a lot, kind of hit me hard, too,” Willman said.
Instead of hitting or taking grounders in the infield, Willman took mental repetitions. He watched how pitchers approached certain batters. He took note of how each one of his teammates approached their actual repetitions in games and practice.
Willman returned in the summer as a different player. It’s part of his improved offensive performance and leadership in the infield, and why he was able to commit to Kansas State for next season.
“I think he would tell you, as a freshman, he was emotional at times,” Painton said. “He kind of rode a rollercoaster at times and that disappeared … That year and having it taken away allowed him to see the game from a different perspective. There was a maturity that he came back with that he didn't leave with last January. It’s crazy but that’s kind of how it all evolved.”