Thursday, July 19, 2018
Colleges

Cancer victim inspires FSU softball team

Each day, before stepping inside the lines of JoAnne Graf Field, FSU's softball players convened at "The Gate," and dropped off all unwanted mental baggage. No distraction — midterm, moody roommate, meager checking account — crossed its threshold.

At this spot, just outside the Seminole Softball Complex, the players would form a circle, lock arms, close their eyes and visualize the day's workout or game. Then, as if on cue, they'd start humming FSU's war chant.

Invariably, the ritual achieved two things: All preoccupations were purged, and Taylor Foster's spirit was evoked. The ebullient 17-year-old with the zeal for softball, the outdoors and country music heartthrob Luke Bryan may as well have been standing in the circle's center.

"She really had an impact on all of us," said junior Bailey Schinella, a former Newsome High standout. "Her parents always said that we helped her out a lot, but I think in reality she helped us out much more than we did for them."

Today, the No. 8-seeded 'Noles (55-7) begin play in the Women's College World Series buoyed by something far greater than history. FSU, seeking the program's first NCAA national title, is honoring the spirit of its adopted teammate, the spunky girl who refused to mince words or the chance to befriend a forlorn classmate.

Foster died April 27 after a four-year struggle with bone cancer.

"It's so sad seeing someone so young pass away," Schinella said by phone from Oklahoma City, the WCWS's annual site. "But she always had such a great attitude about it, and really just put a lot of perspective into everything we do."

These days, Foster's memory dominates the players' wardrobe as much as their psyche. Those catching a 'Noles practice in Oklahoma City this week may find them wearing yellow T-shirts and headbands in her honor. Recently, Schinella said, Foster's parents — Brian and Wendy — sent each player a dog tag with Taylor's name inscribed.

Her dream always had been to wear their attire.

A certified softball nut from Browns Summit, N.C., Foster was just embarking on her high school playing career — with aspirations of suiting up for FSU — when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. According to kidshealth.org, it's the most common form of bone cancer and sixth-most common type of cancer in children.

According to Eric Dudley, her youth pastor at Apple's Chapel Christian Church in nearby Gibsonville, a parishioner with ACC connections got word of Foster's fight to FSU's staff. In no time, she was texting regularly with 'Noles coach Lonni Alameda and chatting with players via Skype.

When FSU played at North Carolina in 2013, she met the team and received a 'Noles jersey for her 16th birthday.

"You know, it gave her something else to focus on," Dudley said. "It gave her an opportunity to still be around a sport she loved, even though she wasn't able to play it. … I think it really meant the world to her to have people care about how she was doing."

The connection between Taylor and her adoptive team grew so palpable, pitcher Lacey Waldrop was inspired to write a first-person tribute to her honorary teammate for ESPNW.com in March.

"Taylor is fighting a battle for her life every day, and we are lucky enough to play softball each and every one of those days," Waldrop wrote. "So when Taylor gives us encouragement and tells us to kick it into high gear, we do it."

Her funeral at Apple's Chapel filled the 500-seat sanctuary, Dudley said, with roughly 125 more watching from an adjacent room normally reserved for the youth ministry. Dudley recalls a couple of eulogists describing themselves as a "social outcast" with whom Taylor struck up a chat.

"Very positive, always had a smile on her face," said Dudley, who knew Taylor for seven years.

"I call her sassy; a lot of spunk, very straightforward. She loved being around her family and her friends. She was just always more concerned about other people than herself. I could go on and on of course, but those were some main things."

Today, a thousand miles and one time zone west of "The Gate," the 'Noles will lock arms in a circle, visualize the encounter with top-seeded Oregon, hum a few bars of their fight song and break the huddle.

Then, their minds unclogged, they'll try to cross immortality's threshold.

Foster will be waiting on the other side.

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