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Teams had a front row seat to the power of 'Play 4 The Cure'

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published April 27. 2013 4:00AM

Waterford

Your eyes saw pink, pink everywhere Friday, pink uniforms and pink ribbons, pink balloons and even pink icing for the postgame cupcakes.

You see pink a lot now, the delicate, compassionate hue with the megawatt power, a symbol in the fight against cancer, honoring the survivors, remembering the victims.

But the best story of them all came from another sensory perception. The ears. The joyful noise of this little voice over the public address system, whose preciousness belied its power.

This is a voice that cancer can't silence.

This was the fourth inning at Veterans Field, the real estate off bustling Route 1 in Waterford, site of the latest, best rendition of "Play 4 The Cure," the high school softball game in its fourth year now between Waterford and Stonington.

And over the public address system came the words of Marissa Walker, the 13-year-old niece of Waterford coach Liz Sutman, a cancer survivor. Marissa, now a swimmer and softball player, introduced the hitters and even made a few other announcements, Bob Sheppard only cuter.

"I didn't think anyone could do this better than I could," normal announcer (and Waterford boys' basketball coach) Greg Gwudz cracked.

It was Gwudz's idea to relinquish his job for a day in honor of the toughest, strongest girl of them all.

"Her little voice," Sutman said. "Hearing it was great."

Here is Marissa's story:

She is the daughter of Kari and Pete Walker, Pete the pitching coach now for the Toronto Blue Jays.

She was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, in February, 2009. She was 9. After chemotherapy at Yale, as if chemotherapy isn't horrific enough, Kari and Pete were given a diagnosis: Doctors wanted to take her leg.

Not an option.

That's when Pete, a former major leaguer, began research. He discovered through St. Jude Hospital in Tennessee the possibility of an innovative surgery. It had been performed in New Jersey in late April of 2008. Essentially, doctors inserted an expandable prosthetic titanium rods in her leg that would lengthen as Marissa grows.

Marissa Walker underwent more surgery about a year ago at this time because a piece got loose and caused significant pain. The piece couldn't be replaced until the Food and Drug Administration approved it.

Marissa wrote the letter to the FDA herself.

The surgery was finally approved last May.

"She is a fighter," Liz Sutman said a year ago. "She has a long road of recovery ahead of her."

She has recovered. To the point where she was introduced before the game to the crowd with Sutman and her sister, Kazi, a pitcher for the Lancers.

"When Marissa got called out, I was looking at our kids with tears in their eyes," Stonington coach Ann-Marie Houle said. "Our seniors were really emotional because they remember her from four years ago, seeing her fight the bigger fight."

Kazi didn't pitch Friday. She didn't have to, not with Megan Spellman's three-hitter. It gave Kazi more of an opportunity to look around and appreciate the day.

"Before the game we had a little note from coach in our locker," Kazi Walker said. "It was about Marissa and our family and how lucky we are. This topic makes me think about things more. I'm a little bit more emotional about it compared to even Marissa. She doesn't show it as much. I'm the sensitive one.

"But everything I do, I think of her and I push myself that extra step," Kazi said. "I know she would kill to do it. I have a little bit more behind me when I play."

Everything she does, she pushes herself that extra step because of her sister.

Read that again.

And appreciate its power.

And then maybe the rest of us apply the same lesson to all of our lives. Because we all know somebody who fought this. We all know somebody who beat it. We all know somebody who didn't.

And what wouldn't we give to hear their voice just one more time, the way we heard Marissa's on Friday?

"Play 4 The Cure" was Houle's brainchild, originally to honor the memory of Lisa Wentz-Day, the Stonington grad who died of cancer 23 years ago this year. Cancer has touched the Stonington family. It has touched the Waterford family. It touched us all Friday.

"Ann Marie was the first one to say 'let's do something' when Marissa became ill," Sutman said. "Every year we raise money ($1,500 this year) and more awareness. It's a great rivalry. But it also lets our girls know there's something bigger out there."

Houle: "It gets better every year. I'm hoping maybe to expand it throughout the ECC next year. It's emotional at times. We've had some parents who have had some scares recently. (Assistant coach) Todd (Gwaltney) had a little scare last week. I know why this started. The Lisa Wentz-Day scholarship is important. We try to keep Lisa's memory alive."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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