TAMPA — Between sniffles, Meredith Bissette's roommate and teammate spoke Tuesday of a buoyant brunette who loves dancing and Disney movies.
The girl known as "Mere" — or #MereBearStrong in the hashtag realm — will swing her hips to anything, Bulls sophomore Astin Donovan said. Country, hip-hop, no matter. Mere doesn't discriminate.
Tragically, neither does cancer.
Days after collecting her first collegiate hit (which scored Donovan from second base) in a March 25 victory at East Carolina, Bissette and grief-stricken coach Ken Eriksen were informing the team that Bissette's worsening back pain and leg numbness was the result of a rare pelvic tumor.
Chordoma cancer, according to chordomafoundation.org, afflicts one in a million people annually (an estimated 125,000 people are living with chordoma). This time, it struck the Bulls' leader in positive vibes.
"I'll tell you one thing, when Mere comes to the field, there's always that smile on her face, 100 percent," Bulls assistant Tommy Santiago said. "And she's handling this tremendously. … Cancer has a fight on its hands, 'cause Mere's swingin'."
In a breezeway of their ballpark Tuesday, Santiago and Donovan (Eriksen was tending to a personal issue) met with reporters to discuss Mere, to attach a person to the hashtag. A sophomore from Raleigh, N.C., she's bracing for rounds of treatment in Boston, but has remained in touch with teammates and coaches.
"We just see her as a big teddy bear," Donovan said.
In her physical absence, the Bulls hang her jersey (No. 00) in the dugout before each game. Then, they hang between five and six runs on the opposition. Since learning of their teammate's diagnosis, the 20th-ranked Bulls — who play tonight at No. 1 Florida — have gone 11-1.
"The kids on our team, they've been handling it awesome," Santiago said. "It's pretty amazing that you've got 18- to 22-year-old kids doing this right now."
Perhaps even more astounding is the outpouring from the local and national communities. Practically every USF sports team has expressed its support of Bissette via social media, but the solidarity stretches way beyond Fowler Avenue.
Before a game last weekend at Memphis, both teams posed for a picture that included a placard with Bissette's jersey number. Players from Grand Canyon University — in Phoenix — formed a human "00" in their outfield and tweeted a photo. North Carolina softball, St. John's softball, even FAU football have made similar social-media gestures.
On May 8, the greater bay area has a chance to make one of its own. At 4:30 p.m., following the Bulls baseball home game against Tulane, the softball team will host a home-run derby fundraiser at its adjacent ballpark.
Student-athletes and celebrities are expected to participate; supporters can make a set donation or pledge a certain amount per homer. A silent auction also is planned.
"Tremendous how widespread this is right now," Santiago said. "She's getting that support and she's not in this fight alone."
BACKYARD BALL: Deliberate all you wish about whether Saturday afternoon's Green and White Game can serve as any sort of barometer for the fall. What can't be argued is how effectively Willie Taggart's staff has recruited — and developed — bay area talent.
If the first-team units employed for much of the spring hold true, as many as 12 of the Bulls' 22 offensive/defensive starters for the Sept. 3 season opener will hail from Hillsborough or Pinellas County. In Skip Holtz's final game, a 27-3 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 1, 2012, only four starters hailed from that same two-county area.
Five of those projected starters — DL Bruce Hector, WLB Nigel Harris, MLB Auggie Sanchez, S Nate Godwin and LG Cameron Ruff — were members of Taggart's first signing class.
ODDS AND ENDS: The Bulls women's golf team placed third at the American Athletic Conference tournament, finishing the 54-hole event in Palm Coast at 46-over. Junior Nicole Autrique (3-over) tied for third individually. … For the fourth time this season, left-handed ace Erica Nunn has been named the AAC's Pitcher of the Week. Nunn went 2-0 last weekend, allowing five hits in 11 scoreless innings. … Entering Tuesday night's home game against Bethune-Cookman, the injury-besieged baseball team (17-19) had a 181 RPI. The Bulls seek to claim their first conference series this weekend at Houston.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.