WHEATFIELD | To call the Kankakee Valley softball team and the athletic community resilient is quite an understatement.
Over the last four years they’ve gone through more than any group deserves. But they’ve also rebounded from each bit of adversity stronger and more close-knit, and the softball team over the last three weeks illustrates that resiliency perfectly.
Back on April 10, K.V. softball’s ‘Team Mom’ Diane Cavinder died after a year-long fight with pancreatic cancer. But instead of sulking or hiding in a corner, the Kougars persevered and played on.
They played on the same day she passed away – losing to Hobart. They played the next two days, handing Wheeler its only loss of the season to this point and losing to Hanover Central.
On the following Monday and Tuesday, softball paused for Diane’s visitation and funeral. The days to reflect about another tragedy for the K.V. community and the Cavinder family seem to have rejuvenated the Kougars. The Kougars beat Andrean the day after the funeral, then won two more Northwest Crossroads Conference games that week against Munster and Highland, both with late rallies.
The Kougars are now tied for first in the NCC after a slow start, but it’s not necessarily about what happens on the field. For K.V., it’s all about perspective.
“These kind of things happen around us all the time – jets going missing, a child being abducted – but you don’t think about it until it happens to you,” K.V. softball coach Brian Flynn said. “It’s all a question of your perspective. An unhappy event in your life changes your perspective.”
Most people might think, “How can those kids choose to play? How can Diane’s daughter, Morgan, choose to play when her mom died?”
Flynn thought the same thing and had the same answer most of us would have.
“I really don’t know how they did it,” he said. “I don’t think I could have done it at their age. Heck, I don’t think I could do anything now if it happened.”
These K.V. softball players aren’t like most adults. Words like courage and bravery can’t help but be used to describe them, especially Morgan, who has lost her older sister and mother in the last four years.
“The day it happened I knew we still had to play,” Morgan said. “In the end (mom) couldn't attend my games because she was so sick and she never missed a game before that. And after her passing she now gets to see every game. I think of it as every time I step on the field. I have two angels in the outfield (Diane and sister Taylor) right there with me and cheering me on.”
That goes back to the day Diane died and a group text message that still leads to tears when players recall it.
“We told each other that Diane would finally get to see our games from the best seat in the house in Heaven,” sophomore infielder Bre Toppen said. “Morgan always told us how people would come up to her and say how sorry they were. She didn’t want us to be sorry, but to be normal and say it’s going to be okay.”
Simply put, it’s about support and togetherness, not sympathy or depression.
The team that plays together stays together, especially when it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It was really, really hard, but Diane would’ve yelled at us to go onto the field and play,” senior Megan Kinney said. “It wouldn’t have felt right if we didn’t play. Everything we do now is for her.”
Besides leading to an even closer-knit team, Diane’s death has led to players looking at Morgan in a different light.
Courage comes in all shapes and sizes, and when it comes to Kankakee Valley softball, it wears catching gear.
“Mo has handled it so well and so courageously,” said junior Mia Stevens said, who pitches to Morgan behind the plate. “I don’t think I could play a softball game on the day my mom passed away. She’s so inspirational to all of us.”
And Morgan notices the support of her teammates who look up to her even more now.
“I couldn't be on that field without my teammates,” Morgan said. “They have no idea how thankful I am for them and how they can keep it all together … including me. They are the reason I am able to do what I do everyday despite the tragedy.”
And it continues with a tangible show of support. ‘Angels in the outfield’ isn’t just a phrase or mantra. It’s become a way for the players to give back to Morgan and her dad, Dave, during a tough financial time.
Senior outfielder Lexi Eggert had the idea to make shirts with ‘angels in the outfield’ on them in honor of Diane and Taylor and sell them to help the Cavinders with the medical bills that have piled up.
“Morgan’s one of my really good friends and I went to her and told her we’re going to do this and they can use the money for whatever they need,” Eggert said. “Knowing that Diane can see us play now is a driving force for us to play to our fullest potential.”