The players are still filing in for a Wednesday evening practice at Levine-Fricke Field on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley. The tings of batting practice from some of the early arrivals ring in the cages. Once rounded up in the dugout of the tree-shaded diamond, the team hustles down to a lower turf field to begin warm-ups as preparation for their weekend postseason games.
The top-ranked softball team in the land is in mostly a chipper mood, with young women singing and cracking jokes, and why shouldn't they be? They just finished one of the finest regular seasons in program history with a 50-4 record, won the inaugural Pac-12 championship, and will host their first NCAA regional since 1993.
A member of the squad voices a ho-hum complaint.
"It's good to be alive, though," responds shortstop Cheyenne Cordes. "It's good to be alive."
In this case, the All-Pac-12 freshman means more than just the team prolonging the season with its 27th consecutive postseason appearance.
In 2010, the Golden Bears began taking part in the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, where local high school and college teams around the country adopt children with brain tumors as honorary members. Barbara "Bebe" Wiggs, a now 5-year-old with a rare form of brain cancer, has been with the team acting as its inspiration ever since.
"Having Bebe as a part of our team motivates us to be the best we can be," Cordes said in late April. "If she can battle through everything that she has been though, then we can play our hardest for her on the field. She always picks us up when we're down."
To say that Bebe has been through a lot would be a severe trivialization. In 2009 her parents Geoff and Nancy -- residents of nearby Half Moon Bay -- discovered an outgrowth near her left eye that ended up being a large tumor in her brain. Since then, she has undergone a substantial surgery to mostly clear the cancer, stints of radiation and other weighty drugs, as well as more than a year straight of chemotherapy.
To Bebe, just getting the chance to hang out with the team is something her father says has simply been amazing.
"It's hard to even describe," he says. "There's just so much emotional and physical support, and so much acceptance. They make her feel like she's a member of the team, which is quite a privilege for a 5-year-old kid. Every time she shows up, Bebe has 30 big sisters. The bonds with these older girls mean so much to her."
While Bebe has used her occasional trip spending time with the players at the ball field as a source of courage, the feeling is more than mutual.
"Bebe has taught me that everyday is a gift -- a gift that we should cherish and have faith in," says assistant coach Tammy Lohmann, who helped get the ball rolling in Cal's involvement with Friends of Jaclyn in 2009. "Her quiet strength and spirit that she gives to our team is far more than we could ever give back. Her spirit and love for life is such a great motivation for our team, and inspires each of us to give our all and never give up."
Junior Jolene Henderson, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, has been one of the closest to Bebe, stopping by the Wiggs' home on more than one occasion to deliver gifts, spend time with her and even go out for a movie.
"Being with her is such a gift to me," says Henderson (pictured at right with Bebe). "The effect she has on people with her laughter and excitement for life and people is awesome. I'm so lucky to have met her and been able to be around her."
Since doing her last round of radiation in April 2010, and last chemo in November of the same year, Bebe has continued to improve. Geoff notes that when the family attended their first game back in 2010, Bebe was not even strong enough to stay awake for the game, falling asleep on his shoulder shortly after it got underway. She's been able to gain back some weight and muscle tone, and is now able to take part in the first pitch at the annual game commemorating her attendance. During a Sunday game against UCLA this season (a 10-3 win) Geoff notes that she was even able to run the bases twice.
"It's a great experience to just see her improving and being a normal kid again," he says. "Her strength is coming back, we're some of the lucky ones. We made it through. But we're not out of the woods by any stretch."
Children with the form of cancer that Bebe has, known as ETANTR, or embryonal tumor with abundant neuropil and true rosettes, are given between a 5 percent and 15 percent chance of survival. "It's pretty dismal," Geoff says.
Bebe still has scheduled MRIs at the University of San Francisco Medical Center every three months, and check-ups every six at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. The Wiggs have experienced two years of stability, meaning no new growth, but there are still pieces of tumor in Bebe's brain, and a completely clean bill of health remains elusive.
As Cal attempts to add to its list of 14 Women's College World Series appearances, and the lone national championship in 2002, beginning with a game against Iona on Friday night, the team knows its biggest fan and largest source of inspiration -- Bebe Wiggs -- will be in the stands cheering them on. Appropriately, the May game falls within National Brain Tumor Awareness Month.
"We'll be all over it," says Geoff, planning to attend the weekend games where his wife Nancy was an undergraduate. "Go, Cal!"
As the players return to the diamond to start practice by working on their hitting and fielding on that cool Wednesday night, with unrestrained excitement, one shouts, "It's a great day to be alive!"
The Wiggs family shares the feeling.
-- For more information about the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, visit its website at FriendsOfJaclyn.net.
-- Photo Credits: CalBears.com
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