One by one, family, friends and parents of players walked on to the field to give Thomas Worthington baseball coach Stephen Gussler big hugs and pecks on the cheek. Some had him pose for pictures.

One by one, family, friends and parents of players walked on to the field to give Thomas Worthington baseball coach Stephen Gussler big hugs and pecks on the cheek. Some had him pose for pictures.

The Cardinals had just come from behind to defeat Dublin Jerome 5-2 yesterday at Hilliard Davidson, putting them one victory away from winning a second straight Division I district championship. But the show of affection and admiration for Gussler had little to do with the final score.

The Worthington family appreciates every single day their brave coach is alive. Gussler was diagnosed with colorectal cancer almost three years ago. He has undergone nearly 40 rounds of chemotherapy and endured intense pain and fatigue.

In January 2012, he was given nine to 12 months to live. He has lost 35 pounds since last spring.

The next medical decision will come after the school year, when Gussler will undergo an evaluation at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital. The only options are surgery to remove the cancer or to combine two chemotherapy drugs in a clinical trial.

"I've lived well beyond that nine- to 12-month window," Gussler said. "But I've had some bad luck lately. I'm no longer on standard medicine. I'm having trouble sleeping. I have a lot of pain - mostly in the abdomen and back. I have to take (pain reliever) Percocet to get through some days."

During yesterday's game, Gussler's sister-in-law Laurie Barr sat in the stands behind home plate - beaming. In her arms were about a dozen purple and lavender T-shirts reading "GussStrong" to distribute to family members.

When asked whether she was surprised that Gussler returned to coach this season, Barr said, "Yes and no." "He is an amazing guy, the way he is fighting," she said. "He is an inspiration to the community. The kids are learning a lot of life lessons just by watching him. Stephen is giving this a run for its money."

Worthington will take a 23-6 record into the district championship game against Grove City on Thursday at Otterbein.

Gussler, 42, thought about retiring last year after leading the team to its first regional appearance since 1981.

It wasn't only his call. He took into account his wife, Angela, who's a teacher at Worthington, and children Michayla, Trey, Jaidyn and Yanni.

Of course, Gussler got their support.

"There was a lot of doubt whether I'd come back," he said. "Last year was a great year. I knew I had a battle with my health ahead of me this year. I didn't know if I could take it physically and emotionally. But I made the decision, and I have never looked back. Teaching (health) and coaching are good for the immune system. I will continue to do this as long as I can."

Davidson coach Jim Dougherty said Gussler, who is in his 16th season as coach, was more intense before the disease struck.

These days, Gussler calmly sits in the dugout on a 10-gallon paint bucket with a clipboard on his lap. He huddles with assistant coaches between innings before jogging to coach third base. His eyes dart quickly in picking up almost every move on the diamond.

"Stephen doesn't have to raise his voice, because those kids sure do listen to him," Dougherty said. "It's so impressive what he is doing. The kids see that and play for him."

Emerson Keppler, a senior captain and outfielder for the Cardinals, agrees.

"We just can't believe how strong Coach has been," Keppler said. "There are no limits with him. He can do anything. We play every game like it's our last, and that's because we have something to play for beyond the game. This is life or death (for Gussler). Cardinal baseball is intense."

As the players packed their gear, most took off their jerseys to reveal GussStrong T-shirts.

It was a great day to be a Cardinal. It also was a great day to be Stephen Gussler. It was another precious day of life lived on his terms.