May 12, 2014
By Renee Peggs
I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind.
Dr. Seuss may not have envisioned combating troubles with a literal bat, but the women of Notre Dame softball were “all ready” to swing theirs in the fight against pediatric cancer. They brought the bat in a big way April 25-28 at the fourth annual Strikeout Cancer weekend, and didn’t even need a broom to sweep the three-game series against the Maryland Terrapins.
Four years ago, when coach Deanna Gumpf’s daughter Tatum was diagnosed with leukemia, she and her staff made the decision to switch-hit in terms of team fundraising events. “We don’t have to do a pink game just to do a pink game. Wearing orange is a statement, it’s different, it’s a purpose,” says Gumpf of the inaugural leukemia strikeout weekend. “If something is affecting our team and it’s personal then we’re proud to help out. We’ve all been affected because it’s part of who we are as a family. I know our girls believe in this cause and they’re proud of it.”
Senior Monica Torres confirms her coach’s assertion: “Being the ND family means we treat each other a certain way and we support each other no matter what. We do everything we can for each other, in any struggle. This is the legacy I hope we can leave to younger players who haven’t done this for four years like we have.”
With conviction, Torres adds, “We take it to heart. This is what we do because this is who we are.”
Captain Chloe Saganowich, also a senior, agrees. “Since our first Strikeout Cancer weekend as freshmen, it’s been amazing to see how much the program has grown and how much money we’ve been able to raise. To be able to support our coach and her family in this way has been really great.”
Coach Gumpf returns gratitude to her players. With obvious delight and pride, she says, “This (season) is probably the best we’ve ever played in a Strikeout Cancer weekend. The weather was not perfect for this but I love the way our team brought game and brought energy and emotion. They were not gonna fail and I like that.”
Even the Maryland players wore orange in their hair, and their Twitter feeds showed open excitement at getting to participate in this special event, despite being shut out.
In its first three years, Strikeout Cancer was able to raise more than $75,000 for the pediatric oncology clinic at South Bend’s Memorial Hospital, setting single-team fundraising records on the national scale every year.
Doctors, nurses, and oncology staff from the hospital were on hand at Melissa Cook Stadium throughout this most recent weekend. Total funds raised this year are in excess of $30,000, pushing the four-year total to more than $100,000 raised for those battling pediatric cancer.
“While we haven’t raised enough money to make a big splash in the research of children’s cancer,” explains Gumpf, “at least we can help put a smile on faces for children dealing with cancer here locally. It’s really exciting and important to us that we get to see the money at work in tangible ways.”
In addition to sending kids on Make-a-Wish trips and subsidizing families' travel to Indianapolis for radiation treatments, the Strikeout funds have also been used for some amazing toys and technology in the Memorial clinic play rooms, so kids can have something fun to look forward to when they have hospital visits.
Besides the three-game sweep, Coach Gumpf said the highlight of the weekend for her was seeing the kids from the clinic walk the bases before the first game, escorted by Fighting Irish student-athletes. “It’s the most wonderful thing, to see their smiling faces,” she says.
Senior Lauren Stuhr adds, “Some of these kids have come back year after year for this event. We’ve welcomed them into our ND softball family as well and it’s been neat to watch them growing up.”
Gumpf’s expression epitomizes the deep, genuine admiration and celebration that only the mother of a cancer survivor could show. “They look so strong out there. They’re our celebrities, and our heroes.”
Among those heroes of the Sunday doubleheader was young Tatum Parker, two-time cancer survivor and Gumpf family friend, singing the National Anthem. With the crowd already on their feet, she brought down the house. Tatum Gumpf and Fighting Irish Fight for Life partner Brady Burkhart threw out the first pitch to kick off the three-game series. Burkhart also kept the crowd in the know as he handled the public address announcing during the first inning. Proud parents and supporters alike gave these kids a heroes’ welcome.
Coach Gumpf has been a hero in her own right, as Lara Saganowich, mom to Chloe, points out. “As a mother, we all go through struggles, but having your child be ill, especially with cancer, I don’t think anybody can imagine what that’s like unless you go through it. Deanna is amazing. It brings tears.”
Lara continues, “Not only is this the greatest university in the country, it’s also the biggest family. They opened their arms and hearts to their coach during a really hard time and I think that speaks so much to the character and quality of ND.”
With their deep faith in God and enduring love for Notre Dame, the Saganowich family became a microcosm of the ND family as they wholeheartedly took part in the weekend’s events. Lara bought her daughter’s jersey and helmet in the auction, and her husband Jerry participated in the home run derby Sunday afternoon.
Sponsored by Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, the derby featured more than a dozen hopefuls, ready with their bats, vying for the honor of derby champion. Six contestants managed to knock at least one ball out of the stadium, but it was Notre Dame football defensive lineman Tony Springmann who took home derby glory with four home runs… and the iPad Mini.
Friday’s trivia night, which alone brought in more than $20,000, featured the talents of local sports personalities Pete Byrne and Jack Nolan, embarrassing photos of the softball players, and Coach Gumpf singing at the top of her lungs with her iPod in. Perhaps the most surprising highlight was that the 50/50 raffle winner gave the entirety of his $992 pot back to Strikeout Cancer and the children of Memorial Hospital.
Torres sums it up: “This shows how something traumatic like your coach’s daughter getting cancer can turn into something really wonderful and supportive and life-giving, how people can be united around one cause.”
The philosopher Nietsche once wrote, “Whoever has a why to live for can endure almost any how.”
Torres holds up her coach’s daughter, now a year and a half off treatment, as a source of her inspiration. “Tatum is always so carefree, having a great time, she’s very outgoing and not afraid to talk to anybody,” describes Torres. “I look at her and think if a little girl like that can overcome leukemia, then there’s really nothing holding us back. Tatum is a great example for all of us.”
Cancer better look out: with their bats at the ready, Notre Dame softball has found their why.