July 1, 2011

In our hearts

A friend’s death leads softball team on emotional journey to championship

Members of the softball team of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis crowd around home plate and cheer for teammate Andrea Rodriguez after she hit a three-run home run in the first inning of their June 11 Indiana High School Athletic Association 3A championship game against Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind. The game was played at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Roncalli defeated Andrean 8-0. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Members of the softball team of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis crowd around home plate and cheer for teammate Andrea Rodriguez after she hit a three-run home run in the first inning of their June 11 Indiana High School Athletic Association 3A championship game against Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind. The game was played at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Roncalli defeated Andrean 8-0. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By John Shaughnessy

Everywhere he looked, David Lauck savored the scenes of pure emotion that come from winning a high school state championship.

He watched the girls in the dugout rush across the softball diamond to join their teammates on the field, all of them diving on each other in a joyous, tangled pile of bodies on the pitcher’s mound.

He saw the celebration in the bleachers where moms and dads beamed and hugged, and the players’ friends and fans clapped and cheered for the Roncalli High School softball team that had just captured the 2011 Class 3A state championship of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. (Related: See a photo gallery from the game)

As the head coach of Roncalli’s team, Lauck reveled in every second of the celebration on June 11. But his joy was also touched with a feeling of wistfulness in what may have been the most emotional moment of the day.

That moment joined Lauck with Marty and Kathleen Lynch. Ever gracious, even in their deep pain, the husband and wife hugged Lauck and told him how happy they were for him and the girls on the team.

In that moment, Lauck once again pictured the couple’s daughter, Kaitlin “Katie” Lynch. As he thought of her, he knew in his heart that the overflowing joy of this state championship was inspired by the devastating heartbreak of Katie’s death.

Setting an example for living life

When Katie died at age 17 on May 20, the news rocked the Roncalli community and everyone who knew and loved her. After an announcement about her sudden and unexpected death was made at the school on that Friday morning, shocked, grief-stricken students looked for understanding and comfort from each other and their teachers—teachers who needed understanding and comfort, too.

A Roncalli teacher, Lauck was at home on that morning, helping his wife, Kara, with their newborn baby, Aubree, who had entered the world just five days earlier. When Lauck received the phone call about Katie, the news took away the breath of the father of four.

Similar to everyone familiar with Katie’s story, Lauck knew that she had been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a type of cancer—for three years. But the expectations and the medical percentages were always high that she would eventually recover.

Her doctors believed that she was getting better every day after she received an adult stem-cell transplant at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis on May 12. She was even dancing and laughing in her hospital room on the night before she died of a blood clot.

“She was happy-go-lucky, always smiling on the field and off the field,” Lauck recalls. “She was a very confident player. Softball was going to be her sport in high school.”

In her freshman year, she played for Roncalli even as she received radiation treatments for the disease. When she couldn’t play in her sophomore year, she served as a manager for the team. She also attended as many games as she could this season. Even more telling, she reached out to nearly everyone at Roncalli, making special efforts to connect with students who are quiet, shy or doubted themselves.

That helps explain why more than 4,000 people attended her wake in the Roncalli gym.

“She had a fighter’s personality,” Lauck says. “She went around nationally speaking about cancer awareness. She was also involved in the St. Baldrick’s Foundation [an effort in which people agree to shave their heads for donations that benefit research for a cure of childhood cancer]. A number of kids at Roncalli shaved their heads every year because of her.”

As he thought of Katie, Lauck also focused on some of the girls who knew her well—the members of the softball team.

‘We came together’

Since the beginning of the softball season in March, Lauck believed he had a state championship-caliber team. But the team just wasn’t playing like it or acting like it as the season moved deeper into May.

“There were some trust and chemistry issues with the team,” Lauck says. “It wasn’t a united team.”

Looking back now, everyone connected with the team says the change in attitude came with the news about Katie.

On the afternoon of the day that she died, the team was scheduled to play against a team from Whiteland High School. The players all told Lauck that they still wanted to play. When he met with them before the game, he noticed the depth of their shared sadness. He also noted that the air of invincibility that marks many teenagers had been shaken. As the players took the field that day, they all had written Katie’s initials—K.M.L.—on their upper right arms.

“After Katie passed away, everyone was so impacted,” says Kristen Thomas, a senior pitcher on the team. “It brought the team closer together. Everyone was so inspired by her efforts to fight off the cancer.”

Roncalli won the game against Whiteland, but it was a scene afterward that was more memorable.

“We came together at home plate with Whiteland’s team and offered a prayer for Katie, for her energy and her personality,” Lauck recalls. “All the fans were on the field, too. It was a touching moment [that] I’ll never forget and the players won’t ever forget.”

In the days that followed, Lauck used the tragedy of Katie’s death to talk about the priorities and foundations of life—family, faith, relationships, trust, forgiveness and support for others. He had stressed those themes throughout the season. This time, the players embraced them.

The team also set a goal: “Win State for Kate!”

“We wanted to show her what she meant to us, the whole softball program and all of Roncalli,” Kristen says.

Nine straight wins later, the team made it to the state championship game.

‘They never forgot her’

Before the championship game against the team from Andrean High School in Merrillville, the Roncalli players hung Katie’s softball jersey in their dugout, just as they had before every game throughout the state tournament. They also once again displayed her initials on their upper right arms.

In the stands, the majority of the Roncalli fans wore special T-shirts honoring the team and Katie. On the right sleeve of the shirt was Katie’s name. There was also the symbol of a cross within a heart. Beneath the symbol were the words, “In Our Hearts.”

Katie’s parents were among the fans wearing the shirts. So were her three older siblings, Sean, Daniel and Kerry. Their presence during the team’s tournament run touched the players and their families.

“They actually drove down to Jasper the week before for the semi-state championship,” says Kathy George, the mother of senior player Melanie Keyler. “I know this is so hard on them, but they keep giving their support because they know that’s how Katie would have wanted it. Their entire family has been such a witness to the power of faith and Christian community. It leaves many of us in awe.”

Roncalli’s 8-0 victory in the championship left their fans in complete joy.

After the pile-up on the pitcher’s mound and countless rounds of hugs, the team posed for a photo with the state championship trophy. Someone remembered to take down Katie’s jersey from the dugout and placed it near the championship trophy. That touch was noticed and appreciated by Katie’s family.

“She’s a special kid,” says Katie’s mother, Kathleen Lynch, about the youngest of her four children. “This was very emotional because those kids were playing their hearts out with her in mind. They felt that she was their angel, carrying them. They never forgot her. People’s lives go on, but they haven’t forgotten her. It’s so important to us that people don’t forget her and what she is about. That’s why these girls and their parents and their coaches are so special to us.”

Marty Lynch especially appreciated what Lauck told him following the game.

“When we stood there and talked, Dave said that the team changed after the unfortunate incident with Kaitlin,” her father recalls. “I was very thankful to know that even though she wasn’t able to be there, she was still providing an influence on her peers. It hurt, but it was a proud moment, too.”

After the celebration on the field, Lauck stressed one last point to his players about their championship run.

“I kept reflecting on the journey of our season,” Lauck says. “I told them the championship feeling will come and go, but the journey we made together will last.”

That journey has led to two important reminders for everyone who was a part of it:

The great moments in our lives stay in our memories.

The people who touch our lives remain in our hearts forever. †

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