Saturday, September 22, 2018
  • USF Sports Bulletin
  • Joey Knight

Meredith Bissette finds new role with USF softball team

TAMPA — Before departing USF to go wage war against the baseball-sized tumor lodged in her lower back, Meredith Bissette jotted 11 words on a sheet of notebook paper and dropped it in coach Ken Eriksen's locker.

Hey coach, everything's gonna be okay, I promise. Much love, Meredith.

"Absolutely just broke me down," said Eriksen, who still carries the piece of paper — now nearly 2 years old — in his wallet. "Here she is going through her stuff, and she drops that in my locker."

At some point Thursday, before the first pitch of the 2018 season is tossed against Illinois State that night, Eriksen may break out the note again. If he does, the cascade of emotions it invariably elicits won't possess any grim undertow. Instead, Eriksen will splash in the words' prophetic fulfillment.

Bissette, cancer free and set to graduate this spring, will operate the scoreboard for the Bulls on Thursday, and every ensuing home game this season.

"It's very meaningful," said Bissette, diagnosed with chordoma cancer midway through her sophomore season in 2016.

"I've been with all these girls for almost four years now. It's like, beginning to end. Even though I hit that little bump in the road, I can still finish basically our senior season with the same girls I showed up with."

Bissette, 22, betrays nary a physical indicator of an ordeal that featured steroid treatments, chemotherapy and three surgeries (totaling roughly 20 hours) in a four-day span in August 2016.

Her face is full, her smile aglow. Bedecked in gray leggings and a green long-sleeved USF shirt on this mild morning, she looks fit enough to take batting practice.

Her doctors have told her the long-term prognosis is excellent, adding that they see no reason she can't some day have children.

"Because literally, I want like, four kids," she said.

But the side effects are palpable if not conspicuous.

Because her surgeries required the insertion of screws and pins, Bissette can bike but she can't run. Standing for long periods of time also can be painful. She still attends physical therapy and can lift light weights, albeit in moderation.

"I still have a little pain," she said. "After the surgeries I've had, I figured I was gonna have pain, but it's nothing to keep me down or keep me sitting, so I keep moving every day."

Only 18 months ago, she was trying to re-learn how to sit, and struggling mightily to get her swollen body out of the hospital bed.

Bissette said she first detected a problem shortly after her arrival at USF. Mesmerized by her power, Eriksen had recruited her out of Raleigh, N.C., where she earned Offensive Player of the Year honors three consecutive years at Leesville Road High.

Brandishing her raw power upon arrival in Tampa, she ended the 2015 fall season with a blast that hit the top of a tree in right centerfield.

"I'd never seen a ball hit that far at our field, whatsoever," Eriksen said.

But that September, she had experienced acute back pain following a horseback-riding trip. The pain soon dissipated, but returned with a fury the following spring.

She got her first collegiate base hit in an 11-3 win at East Carolina — her home state — on March 25, 2016. Because Easter was the following day, Eriksen allowed Bissette to remain with her family and fly back Monday to Tampa. By then, her entire body was in agony.

An MRI in Tampa on March 28 revealed the tumor. Clinically, Bissette had chordoma cancer, which can surface anywhere along the spine (from head to tailbone) and affects one out of a million people annually. Though normally slow-growing, chordomas are relentless and can recur after treatment, according to chordomafoundation.org.

Days later, Bissette and Eriksen were informing the team. Visibly unnerved, the Bulls lost 5-2 to Houston on April 3, snapping a 23-game win streak.

"When she left in pregame that day and headed back to North Carolina, I think you have to talk about the elephant in the room," Eriksen said. "People were like, 'Man, that might be the last time I see Meredith.' "

A national outpouring of support, from schools and softball programs across the country, followed. After her chemotherapy, she convinced a friend in Raleigh to train her at a gym, so her body would be strong for the surgery.

RELATED: USF teammates support Meredith Bissette in cancer battle

The first procedure was to cut off blood flow to the tumor, the second to remove the tumor itself. The third, in which doctors went in from her abdomen, was to remove a lingering sliver of cancerous tissue. An intensive-care stay of 14 days was expected. Bissette was moved out of ICU in three.

"The doctors were amazed," she said. "I was so strong, I stayed in ICU for three days, and then I only stayed in the hospital for 14 days. Then I was outta there."

She returned to school the following January. In February, she underwent another surgery for a small bowel obstruction, but was healthy enough to suit up for a home game against ECU in early April.

In a gesture as triumphant as it was ceremonial, Eriksen inserted Bissette into the starting lineup as a designated player, allowed her to be recognized during pregame introductions, then replaced her before her first scheduled at-bat.

Now, she's ready to be a far steadier presence. In addition to her scoreboard duties, Bissette will assist Val Arioto — the Bulls' director of tournaments and operations — with the coordination of upcoming tournaments in Clearwater.

Meantime, her regular checkups have been reduced in frequency, from every four months to twice a year. She'll receive her degree in health sciences this spring, then ultimately work to become a physician's assistant.

"The terminology my doctors use is 'no evidence of disease,' which is NED," she said. "Whenever I say, 'Okay, what's there?' They're like, 'Nothing, no evidence.' "

The Bulls' newest scorekeeper hopes to keep that zero glowing.

"Don't let her smile, don't let her great nature fool you on her competitiveness," Eriksen said. "She basically looked the beast in the eye and said, 'I'm gonna kick your (butt).' She's a wonderful woman that, in a dark alley in a fight, I wouldn't want to be near."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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