March 28, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It’s not often that the hero of a game is known before it even starts.
Saturday afternoon at Mewborn Field, prior to the start of the first game of the doubleheader between Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, this year’s annual Strike Out Cancer Game, will be one of those times.
Jeannie Pierannunzi, Yellow Jackets centerfielder Samantha Pierannunzi’s mom, Diane Justice, mother of team manager Megan Vonderhaar, and Jean Hollingsworth, grandmother of second baseman Maddie Lionberger, will take home the honors.
Mrs. Pierannunzi, and Ms. Justice, breast cancer survivors, will be there in person to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, while Lionberger, will represent while Ms. Hollingsworth, who lives in Texas, where she is currently in the midsts of her battle.
All three are very fitting dignitaries to represent women all over the world that are battling breast cancer.
“I think it’s great to be able to honor multiple women,” said Georgia Tech Head Coach Shelly Hoerner. “We do it as one day but it should be recognized on a daily basis. Anyone that fights cancer and is a cancer survivor should be honored every day because that is such a tough fight. I’ve never gone through it but I’ve seen those women, how strong they are. There are no words to describe it.
“it’s emotional, it’s humbling,” Hoerner continued. “It hits home, obviously, with those individuals, but it really hits home with everyone on our team because they see those people. They see Sam’s mom on a weekly basis. She’s like a mom to everyone on our team. I think it’s impacting for others to get to see how strong these women are. So if it ever happens to them or someone in their family, they know that people can fight it and beat it.”
Tech fans saw an example of Jeannie Pierannunzi’s strength prior to last year’s Strike Out Cancer Game against Notre Dame, when the 14-year cancer survivor inspired the crowd by whizzing the first pitch to her daughter.
Her presence this year means even more than usual for Sam.
“I couldn’t represent on the field what Pink Day meant,” she said. “This year I’ll actually have the opportunity to stand out on the field in my pink uniform. That means a lot. The Georgia Tech uniform means a lot but the pink Georgia Tech uniform means that much more because it represents the battle with breast cancer and all the people that have gone through such a terrible thing and have overcome it. It represents that resilience that you believe in the chances of beating the odds and you believe that firmly and you’re willing to live your life every day believing that firmly. I know personally that’s a big thing because of my mom and all that she went through. I look at my life every day as like, `Where can I beat the odds? How can I make the most of every opportunity that I have?'”
Jeannie serves as everyday inspiration to Sam.
“It’s scary because it’s someone that you look up to and it’s someone you use as your role model and then they’re put in this position where they’re in this place of weakness and it’s hard to sit and watch someone that you love go through it,” she said. “What’s even greater is to have them as your role model and watch them come out of it. It encourages you and makes you believe not only if they can do this I can do it, too. If they can get up every day and fight this disease, I can get up and I can step up to the plate in a pressure situation and I can pull through because they’ve instilled that kind of faith in me. I’m excited for them because what it takes to go through it and watch someone you love go through it is so hard and they’ve done it.”
Megan Vonderhaar, who has been a team manager for three years, and is Lionberger’s roommate, is pleased to see her mom, who celebrated her fifth anniversary of being cancer-free a few months ago, get the opportunity to be part of the ceremonial first pitch, especially after last year.
“It was such a special moment between Sam and her mom. My mom was in the stands and it was cool for her to see,” Megan said. “It’s cool that a year later she can come back and do the same thing. I know it means a lot to her, which, obviously, means a lot to me. It was awesome of Coach Hoerner to think of my mom and ask her. It will be awesome this Saturday when she gets to be out there and I get to catch her. It will be definitely a moment that she will never forget.”
Ms. Hollingsworth, currently in the early stages of her battle, is home in Texas, but will be with the team in spirit.
“She was just so thrilled. She was so touched by it,” said Lionberger. “I think that’s what’s so great about the day honoring those women. They’re so strong, especially my grandmother. She was just moved to tears. She was very happy.”
Tech’s second baseman is proud to not only represent women battling breast cancer, but also proud to use her standing in the community as a college athlete to bring attention to the fight against breast cancer and funding more research.
“When you get to play for breast cancer awareness or like when we had Wounded Warriors in the fall, you really can see what an impact you can make,” she said. “It definitely means so much just because it kind of takes the emphasis off of softball and makes you think about the bigger picture, it makes you think about breast cancer awareness, which is awesome. Just recently, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. So it definitely makes it more personal this year. I know that breast cancer affects so many women in so many different families. So I think it’s really cool how we focus on that for a day and dedicate a day of softball to breast cancer awareness.”
All proceeds from the games, as well as the Jackets’ game-worn pink jerseys, which will be auctioned off (bidding begins Saturday and ends April 11) will go to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
In an interesting quirk of the schedule, Tech’s opponent is NC State, which also has a major stake in the fight against breast cancer, Legendary Wolfpack basketball coach Kay Yow was an iconic figure, having fought the disease valiantly for more than 20 years, and founding the Kay Yow Cancer Fund in 2007. Yow passed away in 2009 at age 66.
“I think it’s really neat,” said Hoerner. “Obviously, Kay Yow was so instrumental in [cancer research]. It’s our enemy. I’m sure it will be very emotional for NC State. Anytime they do a Pink Day or play in a Pink Day I’m sure it’s very, very emotional for them. I think it will be a great day for both teams.”
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