The Wheeler and Boone Grove rivalry has long been as fierce as any in the Region.
The two schools, separated by just 7 miles, came together to start the Porter County Conference in 1933 and the rivalry didn’t dissipate when the Bearcats left for the now-defunct Lake Athletic Conference in 2003. Wheeler is now in the Greater South Shore Conference and were joined by the Wolves for football in 2014.
I’ve had a front row seat for many of the seminal moments in the rivalry over the last two decades. From regular-season meetings spreading across a variety of sports to postseason battles to actual physical battles that ended with technical fouls and ejections. When the Bearcats or Wolves showed up on the schedule, the student sections were packed and bragging rights were on the line.
There’s something else on the line now and Wheeler and Boone Grove are once again showing up, not to battle against each other, but to lift each other up. The two programs share a bond that goes beyond a rivalry and beyond athletics.
Wheeler junior softball player Dalaney Rootkie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphona last year after doctors struggled for months to find out what was wrong. A lengthy stay at Rush Hospital followed by weekly trips for chemotherapy and infusion treatments have proven costly.
Prior to Wednesday’s softball game against Boone Grove, Wheeler director of athletics Randy Stelter presented a check to the Rootkie family. The Bearcats have been selling “Dalaney Strong” shirts throughout the season and numerous other individuals have come forward with generosity. Boone Grove donated nearly $500 while umpires Michelle LaFreniere and Greg Ramos are donating their game checks to the family.
“This is what we in education-based athletics are all about,” Stelter said. “We love having rivalries on the field, but I can’t tell you in my 21 years at Wheeler how many times I’ve seen our athletes reach out to Boone’s or their athletes reach out to ours. We’ve always been close.”
It’s not a coincidence that Wheeler chose Wednesday’s game against the Wolves to lift up Dalaney and her family. It was a year ago when Boone Grove held a cancer benefit game for Jean Mayer, the mother of softball player Jessica and baseball player Justin. The opponent? Wheeler. The game was ultimately rained out, but the two teams held a ceremony in the Boone Grove cafeteria.
“Wheeler was there for us last year with Jessica’s mom and now for us to be able to have the chance to reciprocate, it means a lot,” Boone Grove coach Ron Saunders said.
Jean passed away in November, the latest in a long line of tragedies to strike the Boone Grove softball program. Steven Hawrot, the father of former players Amanda and Emily, passed away suddenly in August, 2015. Thomas Wilkening, the father of then-senior shortstop Rachel, passed away after a tragic accident the week of sectionals last year. Watching his program go through those tragedies underscored how important it was for the Wolves to be there for the Bearcats this week.
“To go through something like this, it’s a tragic reason that we’re doing this,” Saunders said. “It does bring back memories of Rachel and Amanda and their dads and that part is numbing, but at the same time, the softball community, the support that everyone gives to each other is so amazing.”
That support will continue in the years to come as Saunders and Wheeler softball coach Mark Becker have agreed that each year the two programs will come together for a cancer benefit game.
“We have agreed that it would be great to use each of our games every year to maintain the communities awareness of cancer and what they can do to make a difference,” Becker said in an email. “Hopefully we will not have to deal with members of our teams battling cancer every year, but, perhaps we can develop other means to help in this battle.”
Two programs, linked by geography, pushed by their rivalry, brought together by tragedy, have come together for their most important biggest battle yet.