PLANT CITY — The pickups and PT Cruisers that follow the area’s most flabbergasting softball story into the stomach of Florida’s peninsula Sunday will be accompanied by two certainties.
Pink ribbons will secure the ponytails of Durant High School’s softball players, and “Momma C” will be there.
Will she ever. To this point, the cancer that cut a swath through Antionette Cuellar’s 48-year-old body rendered her too weak to watch most of the Cougars’ improbable playoff journey in person. But she’ll be watching Sunday. Don’t even suggest otherwise.
This is, after all, the state semifinals. Momma C won’t miss her baby girl on Mother’s Day of all days.
“Oh yeah,” said Cougars shortstop Olivia Cuellar, the youngest of Antionette’s three daughters known as “OC” to teammates. “She’ll be right there with me.”
She’ll be with them all. Inspired in part by Antionette (“AC” to her fellow Durant parents), the Cougars (22-4) have pulled off miracles in triplicate. Three times in their past four games, they staged staggering rallies, including one from an 11-0 deficit. Eleven runs.
Two of their Class 8A playoff wins, and three of their past five games, ended with triumphant walk-off home runs.
“We’ve had some other good years,” coach Matt Carter said, “but nothing as crazy as this one.”
All the while, Momma C’s fight elevated the fight in these Cardiac Cougars. The team was especially galvanized by a breast cancer-awareness game at home against Wharton on April 5.
Antionette, in attendance but too weak to talk, instead pre-recorded an address that was delivered over the PA system. Two by two, Cougars baseball and softball players — walking arm-in-arm and bedecked in pink jerseys — delivered a pink rose to her. Mariah Carey’s Hero was played, over and over.
By night’s end, more than $2,000 was raised — via T-shirt sales and a barbecue dinner — for the Cuellar family and a foundation established in honor of a local woman who had died from breast cancer at age 27. Wharton’s team was so moved that it also gave money.
Durant, fresh off three consecutive losses, won that night.
The Cougars haven’t lost since. To a player, they insist Momma C’s battle has buoyed them.
“It’s probably been the No. 1 reason why we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten,” leadoff hitter Jordan “JoJo” LaFave said.
A tireless team mom
In an era when softball is played year round and the pursuit of scholarships often gets less scrupulous, the term “softball parent” sometimes can carry a negative connotation.
A giggling, effervescent exception: Antionette Lombardi “AC” Cuellar, fifth of eight kids in a sprawling but tight-knit Italian family.
Friends and loved ones describe a devoted parent and parishioner who, until the surgeries came in succession, laughed like Betty Rubble and cooked like Betty Crocker.
“A sweet personality,” fellow team mom Kristi Dean said.
Until the cancer segued from her breasts to her bones to her lungs, she rarely missed anything involving Olivia or her 21-year-old twin daughters, Alyssa and Alexandra. Husband David became a fixture by the side of her wheelchair.
As recently as Easter, she attended mass at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon.
“She loved going to tournaments for softball,” Olivia added. “I don’t think she ever really missed a tournament.”
AC never met a stranger, her sisters insist. For roughly a decade, until she became too weak to work, she handled customer service chores at Bill’s Prescription Center, which has existed on Brandon’s main drag for more than half a century.
“She was a walking commercial for Bill’s pharmacy,” said her priest, Fr. Arthur Proulx.
She had successfully battled thyroid cancer, which killed one of her brothers, in a previous decade. It resurfaced in another form eight years ago.
“I was at a softball practice with my travel-ball team,” Olivia recalled. “She and some of the other moms were talking about it. And she went home and did a self-examination and felt a bump.”
From there, a fierce physical war ensued, one rife with hospitalizations and resilience.
Dean, a longtime acquaintance of AC's, said because of her upbeat attitude, many never really knew she had cancer until this past year when "it was kind of overcoming her."
AC kept working when possible, kept going to mass, kept making that homemade pasta sauce that buckled knees and those decadent brownies sprinkled with crushed Reese’s peanut butter cups. She even helped coordinate a cancer-awareness game at Durant in 2010.
But as the sun set on 2011, her condition seemed to regress. She had to leave her job at the pharmacy, but still salvaged the energy to follow Olivia for most of her senior season.
“Every game that she could be here she was here,” said Carter, who lost his first wife, Jan, to a rare soft-tissue cancer in 1997. “It was a struggle for her, but she came.”
From a wheelchair that had an oxygen tank attached, Momma C was at Plant High when the Cougars — with a postseason berth at stake — got an eighth-inning walk-off home run from Kelli Tidwell to again top Wharton 2-1 in the district semifinals.
Two nights later, she was there when Alonso built an 11-0 lead on Durant in the district title game. Too weak to make it through the entire contest, she missed the spawning of the Cardiac Cougars, who scored 11 runs in the sixth inning and won 15-13.
“She probably shouldn’t have gone,” said her brother, John Lombardi, “but she wanted to.”
By playoff time, AC had been admitted to LifePath Hospice in Ruskin. On April 24, the Cougars spotted East Lake an early 6-0 lead before rallying for a 9-7 win on Paige Davis’ three-run walk-off homer in the seventh.
“How many times can you see a team this far into the tournament get down that far …and stay together enough to come out and conquer?” Carter said afterward. “I mean, it doesn’t happen.”
Except it kept happening.
Three nights later, as relatives began logging around-the-clock shifts at AC’s bedside, Olivia and her teammates fell behind 3-0 against Palm Harbor University. They still trailed 5-4 in the bottom of the seventh when junior Alyssa Colding hit the first home run of her prep career.
In the bottom of the eighth, LaFave — a singles hitter — convinced Carter to let her swing away. She put the first pitch over the rightfield fence to win it.
A less eventful, but no less intense, 2-0 win over Orlando Timber Creek on May 1 propelled the Cougars into the final four. In the pre-dawn hours of May 4, David Cuellar summoned Olivia and her sisters, as well as Olivia’s grandma and an aunt, into AC’s hospice room.
She slipped away moments later, three days shy of Alyssa and Alexandra’s 21st birthday. On Wednesday, several hundred people, including the entire softball team, funneled into the Nativity Catholic Church for the funeral. A pink floral arrangement in the shape of a cancer ribbon stood at the foot of the casket.
AC’s three sisters took turns eulogizing her.
“I define courage as my sister, Antionette Cuellar,” Mary Gray said.
An ever-present fan
Olivia acknowledges Sunday’s game, against Jacksonville Mandarin at the National Training Center in Clermont, could be overwhelming emotionally. She had a tough enough time making it through last weekend’s prom at the Museum of Science and Industry, which she attended with a group of about 30.
But to this point, Carter says, she has sparkled amid her mother’s valiant battle. In the seventh inning of the Timber Creek game, she committed a fielding error that put the leadoff batter at first, then promptly fielded the next batter’s grounder to start a game-sealing double play.
“There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of pressure, but she’s done an excellent job,” Carter said. “And that’s all you can ask.”
It’s that reservoir of resilience, forged by her mother, into which Olivia will tap tonight. As usual, she’ll look heavenward and implore God to help the Cougars, for her mom’s sake.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit hard,” Olivia said, “but in the end I’m just going to play for her and I know she’d want me to stay strong.”
Besides, Momma C herself will be there; don’t infer she won’t. Olivia will hear that giggle, see that smile, siphon that fortitude into her own veins, into her own dugout.
Only this time, Momma C has traded in her wheelchair for a seat in a celestial skybox.
“We have a guardian angel watching over all of us,” senior Melissa Mertely said. “We’re going to place it all out on the field.”
Where: National Training Center at Clermont
Admission: $9 per session
TV: Finals on BHSN
8A semifinal: Durant vs. Jacksonville Mandarin, 7 p.m. Sunday
On the Web: Follow @JoeyHomeTeam on Twitter for live updates.