SAUK CENTRE – The V Foundation for Cancer Research is based in Cary, North Carolina. It was named for Jim Valvano, the college basketball coach and broadcaster who died of cancer in 1993 at age 47. More than 1,300 miles separate Cary and Sauk Centre, but the V Foundation and its mission to conquer cancer were the focus of a softball game played here Tuesday in central Minnesota.
Each year since 2014, Sauk Centre has hosted Melrose in a softball game billed as a Strike Out Cancer fundraiser for the V Foundation. The latest version, which ended in a 3-2 victory for Melrose, was filled with pregame pomp and in-game excitement.
In the winter prior to the 2014 season, two losses struck hard in Sauk Centre. Just days apart, Mainstreeters softball coach T.J. Schmiesing’s mother, Aloise, died of lung cancer and player Emily Winters' mother, Susan, died from pancreatic cancer. The annual Strike Out Cancer game was soon a reality. Players on both teams sell multi-colored rubber bracelets bearing the words “Strike Out Cancer” … the fundraising total reached $10,000 this year.
“It means a lot to me,” Schmiesing said. “The girls do an excellent job in selling the wrist bands, it’s such a great thing these girls do and the school does for us to put this on, for a great research foundation like the V Foundation. Every dollar is spent for cancer research. It’s definitely something the girls are proud of every year and take a lot of pride in.”
One of the dominant colors Tuesday was, not surprisingly, pink. Players on both teams wore pink stripes on their cheeks, with the Mainstreeters adding a streak of black. The Sauk Centre players also wore bright pink socks.
Pregame was impressive, since the event also was Mom’s Night for the Mainstreeters. All the junior-varsity and varsity players and their mothers were introduced, and they stood along the first-base line while the Melrose Dutchmen stood on the third-base line. Then came two things that were simply magical.
First, Marty Saletti, a talented musician from Melrose, stood between home plate and the pitching circle, knocking out a phenomenal version of the Star Spangled Banner on his saxophone. And then Helen Miller walked out on the field.
Helen is a 1954 Sauk Centre graduate and lifelong Mainstreeters backer. She attended school before girls sports were available, but she has always been a familiar face at sporting and school events of all kinds. After being diagnosed with colon cancer, she has undergone several surgeries and chemo treatments over the last year.
When the time came, Helen sent a nice underhand toss to home plate, where Kenzie Schmiesing made a clean catch. Kenzie, Emily Gapinski and Kailyn Seidel jogged out to the circle and embraced Helen in a big group hug.
The game was well-played, with Sauk Centre leading 2-0 through six innings. The Dutchmen scored their three in the top of the seventh to get the win, and then came the handshake line and the familiar refrain of “good game … good game … good game.”
Like all spring sports, softball is in a pickle after the extended winter. Teams are playing rescheduled games at a frantic pace. Sauk Centre is playing seven games this week alone; They had finished 15 games by Tuesday but had held only three outdoor practices. Melrose had played six games the previous week and five the week before that. Tuesday’s weather was a bit chilly, with some fans watching from underneath blankets, but rain stayed away.
“It’s always a super-friendly, tight competition between us and Sauk Centre,” said Melrose coach Kristie Ekstrom.
The most important thing, however, was the experience as well as the end result: thousands of dollars for cancer research.
“It is important for them,” Ekstrom said of the players. “They love being part of this and being able to support this.”
That message was heard all the way across the country in Cary, North Carolina.
Good game indeed.--To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn