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#TGW: Game Changers

Oct. 30, 2014

Jon Cooper
The Good Word

“Just happy to be here” is a phrase Georgia Tech Softball Coach Shelly Hoerner would prefer not hear spoken by any of her team once the Yellow Jackets report to the park to play their 2015 season.

Last Saturday at Centennial Park, however, it was a refrain spoken by all 17 team members, and couldn’t have made Hoerner happier to hear.

The occasion was the American Cancer Society Making Strides of Atlanta Presented by Independent Insurance Agents For A Cure walk, a 5K (3.1 miles) around town that helped raise money and awareness for breast cancer. Being there was an idea that came from within the team and was very important.

“It’s a big deal, especially because our sophomore, Samantha Pierannunzi, her mom is a survivor of breast cancer. I know that they had their eye set on this event since last year,” said second-year Volunteer Assistant Coach Alyssa Ishibashi. “It was really great just to be out there and to support all these women and their families. It really meant a lot to them and it meant a lot to our kids.”

Georgia Tech Softball’s participation was part of an initiative Hoerner created to get each class involved in community service project and was set into motion by sophomore outfielder Colleen Darragh. Darragh dedicated the project to her good friend Samantha’s mom, Jeannie, who is in her 14th year clear of breast cancer, and who kicked off last year’s Pink Day game by throwing the ceremonial first pitch.

“Sam is one of my best friends on the team so I’ve been over to her house a lot,” said Darragh. “Her mom is great. She is the nicest, most upbeat person I’ve ever met. The fact that she was strong and she beat cancer puts a lot of things into perspective. She’s one of the strongest women that I know and I’m blessed to know her and to have her in my life.

“The Making Strides organization is actually the biggest organization or network for breast cancer awareness,” Darragh continued. “I found the walk and it was a great opportunity for all of us to see how big an impact not only breast cancer has made on all these people, but their families supporting it and how many people showed up for this walk. It was great and it was really fun to see.”

It was less fun having to be at Centennial Park at 5:30 in the morning last Saturday, but, nonetheless, the entire team was there on time.

“It wasn’t particularly our favorite time but it’s one of those things where if you’re passionate about something it doesn’t matter what you have to do to help out with it, be a part of it or work for it,” said Pierannunzi. “It’s like softball practice. We had 6:00 a.m. practice for the week. For some people that wasn’t exactly ideal but softball is what we are passionate about. Showing up for a bunch of people that are also there to help, it’s not like you’re going to complain. So we jumped into it.”

“It was such a worthy cause and we wanted to work the event since last year so any time they told us we were like, ‘We’ll be there,’” said Ishibashi. “It was 5:30 in the morning. We told our kids, ‘Just dress warm and get ready to work.’”

The team was ready and so enthused that none of them left, even after the 9 a.m. start. In fact, they were just getting started and were at their best during the walk.

“Honestly, it was my favorite thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Darragh. “My teammates and I were making up a little cheer for the walkers as they walked by. They just looked so happy. I love putting a smile on people’s faces but these people were putting a smile on all our faces. They made me reflect on my life. This terrible, terrible thing is happening to these people but they’re fighting it. It’s definitely amazing to see how they can rally around each other and build up all this awareness and support. It’s something that is so negative but they find a positive in it.”

“Honestly, just being a part of it and being out there was rewarding,” said Pierannunzi. “There were thousands of people that participated in the walk. Other people, their families and volunteers just came out to support them. So just being in that huge mass of people, where everyone is so passionate. You could feel it in the air. When someone you love is diagnosed with a disease like cancer, it’s scary and it affects your whole family. It can just shake a community. But everyone just banded together, fighting for something. Everyone was passionate. People were there in costumes and we cheered on people in the walk. That was my favorite part, for sure. The most rewarding part was just being in the crowd of people and everyone wants to make a difference.”

Ishibashi was impressed with, but not surprised by, the team’s commitment.

“Everything we do we try to make sure that we go at it 100 percent and we’re 100 percent committed,” she said. “If you ask us to go out there and stand with a sign, we’re going to go the extra mile. We’re going to stand there with the sign, we’re going to high-five everyone and cheer them on. That’s just the way Georgia Tech Softball goes about doing things.”

The Making Strides 5K won’t be a one-and-done initiative. The Jackets plan to be back next year and the year after that and however long it takes to find a cure.

“I would love to do it again next year. My mom wasn’t able to take part in this event, unfortunately, but she knew we were doing it. She absolutely loves that we were a part of it,” said Pierannunzi. “In my lifetime I would love to see a cure for breast cancer. It’s something that affects so many people. We have the technology. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a cure.”

This year’s event, which featured 1,009 teams and 9,195 participants, raised $411,532.10.

Darragh, who is one of three softball representatives on Georgia Tech’s Student-Athlete Advisory Board, is counting on next year’s effort being even bigger than this year’s and expand beyond the softball team.

“I didn’t really think about it for this year. I just thought about the team,” she said. “But the thing about having a position on SAAB, in my view, it’s a position that can be very beneficial to be able to talk to the other athletes and being an athlete at Georgia Tech is a big deal. So I feel like if we were to go all out to Making Strides next year we can make an even bigger difference than we already did.”

For more information on Making Strides, please visit or visit The American Cancer Society’s website at

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