Jamie Dillard was just off the plate, “a little inside,” her kid sister, Maryville College catcher Angela Dillard, said.
Kandis Schram was a little high, a little wide, but she hit the mitt. Scots catcher Jamey Davis made the grab then trotted to the mound to give the school’s athletics director a hug.
The Dillards and Schram were the guests of honor on an awfully big day for Maryville last weekend, the trio throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for the school’s softball and baseball teams, respectively.
For the Lady Scots it was “Strike Out Pink” day, the team donning pink jerseys, pink socks and pink wristbands, all in an effort to help raise awareness for breast cancer screening and research.
The Dillards lost their mother, Connie, to the disease on Oct. 4, 2009. The team probably doesn’t know how much it meant for Jamey to throw out the first pitch in a conference doubleheader with LaGrange College, Angela said.
“It was tough,” she said, “but it was great that we got the share that.”
Across campus, the Scots retired Maryville’s orange and garnet colors for a day to don yellow jerseys, socks and matching wristbands. The bases, home plate and pitching rubber received similar treatment as the Lady Scots had done with pink.
When Schram strode to the mound to make the toss, many in the crowd were in shock. It was the first time all but a guarded few at the school learned how close they’d come to losing their AD to colon cancer six years ago.
Since 2004 Schram had kept her silence. A sense of guilt for having survived when so many others on the same hospital ward hadn’t made it difficult to talk about it, she said.
“You’re happy to be alive,” she said, “but you feel so guilty because so many other people didn’t make it.”
When Maryville baseball coach Daniel Washburn asked her to be the centerpiece for the team’s “Livestrong” day, Schram said she felt it was time for everyone to know.
“Daniel came to me and said we want to do something,” Schram said. “They wanted to get behind the Livestrong Foundation because it’s about several cancers. We thought it would have more bang for the campus (joining the two events). We were really trying to make people aware of the importance of screening and research. It was so personal to me obviously because I’m a survivor.”
Connie Dillard had been a fixture at Angela’s games at Maryville, just as she’d done during Angela’s days behind the plate at softball powerhouse Gibbs. Connie didn’t smoke. She took good are of herself. It’s hard to imagine anyone any more alive, Lady Scots coach Kim Woodard said. When Angela informed her of Connie’s diagnosis, Woodard said there was no question how she and the team would proceed.
“When I found out her momma was having trouble, I said, ‘You be with her as much as you have to,’” she said. “I told the girls from the beginning, ‘If anything comes up with your family, you deal with family first.’”
In September of 2008 Connie had gone for a mammogram and doctors had found nothing. Five months later, they found a lump.
With husband, James, alongside, Connie Dillard began chemotherapy in February of last year. Things could hardly have gone better, the cancer seemingly in remission by the time she went for surgery in July.
Just as quickly the family learned the disease had returned and moved to the fluid in Connie’s spine, migrating eventually to her brain. Surgery to relieve pressure there initially brought relief. Five days later, with James and Angela at her bedside, Connie Dillard passed away.
It was her birthday.
“My dad and I were with her when she drew her last breath,” Angela said. “It was peaceful, so that helped. She told us she was ready.”
The Lady Scots rallied fiercely around their sophomore catcher. Senior Haley Johnson had her father, who owns a screen printing company, make up wrist bands with Connie’s initials stitched on them for the team to wear. The team as a whole attended Connie’s mass.
“I don’t think they know how much it helped me that they were there,” Angela said.
While there’s little that can really be said at such times, the team resolved to be there as much as they could, senior second baseman Lindsy Little said.
“We’ve all tried to be real supportive,” she said. “We all wear arm bands with her (Connie’s) initials on it. It’s hard and you don’t know what to say to anybody when that happens. You just try to be there to support her.”
Sophomore outfielder Rachel Harris, Dillard’s roommate at Maryville, remembers the evening Angela got the call informing her of her mom’s diagnosis.
“You don’t know what to do, what to say,” Harris said. “I remember I just went in there and held her. You can’t fix it. You just try to be there for her.”
A deeply religious woman, Schram’s diagnosis was largely one of divine providence. Maryville changed insurers in early 2004. For reasons Schram said still doesn’t quite know, she decided to go for a checkup. A colonoscopy during the visit revealed the cancer.
“I was so lucky because I was someone who was never sick,” Schram said, “and they caught it in a routine checkup.”
Had it not been detected, had Schram not decided to go for the checkup when she did, her prognosis likely would have been far worse.
“The doctors said two months later, it would have been different,” Schram said. “The good news is they caught it in time. The bad news is it’s the most aggressive type of cancer.”
Schram, who doubles as the school’s volleyball coach, was scheduled for surgery less than a week after being diagnosed. She would have part of her colon, her appendix and an ovary removed during the procedure. The entire ordeal couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Maryville’s men’s basketball team had qualified for the national tournament. As athletics director, Schram’s role as an administrator was vital. Those within the athletic department privy to Schram’s plight quickly closed ranks around the long-time coach.
“She wanted to keep it secret,” Maryville men’s basketball coach Randy Lambert said. “She didn’t want a whole lot of people to know about it.
“Obviously, our department was very concerned about her well being. We tried to be there for her. She’s a strong individual and she really wanted to deal with it herself.
“That’s the way Kandi lives her life. One of her strengths as a coach is she’s such a good role model for her players, and not just when it comes to athletics. She’s one of my dear friends. We’ve been through a lot together.”
Schram’s volleyball team that season had been one of her best. Informing them she had cancer was one of the toughest things she’s ever had to do, she said.
“I just looked at them and said, ‘Girls, I’ve got something to tell you. I have cancer,’” she said.
At the same time, it was also one of the most important things she’s ever told one of her teams, Schram said. Statistics say one of her former players will face the same fight one day.
“It’s not if but when they’re going to have to deal with it,” Schram said, “with themselves or someone they love. It’s everywhere. We can’t run from it. We can’t hide from it. We just have to learn to deal with it and combat it, and the only way to deal with it is through research.”
The team had two questions when given the news, Schram said.
“‘What about your hair?’” came one question, she said.
The other question — “Can we visit?” — was a layup, the veteran coach said.
During Schram’s hospital stay, former Lady Scot volleyball player Kate Poeppelman visited her coach every day to braid her hair. Others, including school record-holders Jenna Jones and Sarah Arlinghaus, read daily to their coach from magazines to keep her spirits up.
“For me, my team is everything,” Schram said. “These girls mean everything to me. It was important that I handle it with grace. It never occurred to me that I would have a different result. ”
The toughest thing about it all is “living with the knowledge you’ve been given a second chance,” Schram said. “I feel responsible for the days I have.
“I was 40 years old. I’d never smoked and there’s nothing that runs in my family that said I should have it.”
The cancer awareness weekend was largely a product of Maryville’s athletics administration class, taught by sports information director Eric Etchison. They made all the calls to the various cancer foundations. They took charge of ordering the uniforms.
Corporate sponsors Hardees, Chick-fil-A and Lee’s Famous Recipe helped make the weekend a rousing success, Etchison said. Schram deciding to go public with her story then brought it all together, he said.
“She wanted to step up and help,” Etchison said.
Dillard has displayed genuinely inspiring strength through it all, Harris said. If there’s one word to describe her teammate through it all it would be “amazing,” she said.
“Given the situation, I don’t see how she did it,” Harris said. “She’s really very strong.”
Still, Dillard said, there are times when no amount of counseling can help.
“It’s hard,” she said. “When something happens, you want to pick up the phone and call her but you can’t.”
At such times, her teammates, without saying a word, make all the difference, Dillard said.
“If you have faith, you hold onto it,” she said. “You grasp it and you lean on the support of the people around you and you take it one day at a time.”