June 26, 2018 10:41:14 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
When Mississippi State softball coach Vann Stuedeman sat down in January to preview her upcoming season, the interview ran the gauntlet of emotions.
There was optimism about a team that would go on to make a NCAA tournament regional for the sixth time in seven seasons. There was sadness when discussing incoming freshman Alex Wilcox.
Wilcox was diagnosed with ovarian cancer prior to her junior season at Brantley High School in Brantley, Alabama. She died Monday night at the age of 18 after one year as a student-athlete at Mississippi State.
As her condition worsened, Wilcox remained in school and continued her dream of playing college softball. Her fight began a personal one. Yet, it became a national one.
Like most cancer patients, the bad days outnumbered the good ones. Still, she attended school and played softball her freshman year at MSU, despite rigorous round of chemotherapy and numerous hospital stays.
In the preseason interview, Stuedeman lamented the loss of two members of the freshman signing class who would miss the 2018 season with season-ending injuries. She discussed the future and the rehabilitation of those players.
Then the talk moved to Wilcox.
"We will play her this season. We will play her as much as we can," Stuedeman said. "There is no tomorrow guaranteed."
Wilcox appeared in eight games and drew three starts. She had three hits, including her final one in a victory against Samford on March 13.
When she rounded first base, her smile was wide. Softball provided her escape from a cruel world.
"There was no way that your day couldn't be better after being around her," MSU assistant coach Tyler Bratton said. "She was an inspiration to us all. Her fight. Her spirit. She could lift anyone's spirit."
At Brantley, Wilcox played for coach Cindy Hawthorne. This season, Wilcox was in attendance when Brantley won the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 1A State championship on May 17 in Montgomery, Alabama.
"Cancer didn't win this battle," Hawthorne told the Montgomery Advertiser on Monday night. "God needed her with Him. She's a fighter until the end, as I knew she would be."
On Feb. 13, MSU launched the "No One Fights Alone" campaign during its mid-week games. The program honored those battling cancer. The team wore special teal uniforms to bring awareness to the disease.
Fans also were encouraged to wear teal to bring attention to ovarian cancer. A "No One Fights Along" teal flag also flew beyond the outfield wall at Nusz Park.
The movement quickly gained a national following. Several Southeastern Conference rivals wore a combination of teal-based uniforms at various times throughout the season with the inscription "No One Fights Alone."
Stuedeman was moved to tears when Central Arkansas showed up wearing matching cancer-awareness uniforms for a nationally televised game March 22.
"It was our way to let Alex know we were fighting with her," MSU junior outfielder Kat Moore said after the game against UCA. "Her laughter, her spirit. It's just our way of saying we love you and we will always be there with you."
Softball players tweeted out pictures with Wilcox in the hospital prior to their trip to regional tournament play in Tucson, Arizona.
MSU placed second in that regional and finished the season 38-23.
Multiple players tweeted out emotional messages Monday night, trying to come to terms with a lost teammate and taking solace she is no longer in pain.
It wasn't the first time the players opened their hearts.
During the Southeastern Conference tournament, ESPN showed multiple video messages of players wishing Alex the best during her fight. They talked about her enthusiasm, her spirit and the need to have her back in the dugout as soon as possible.
"Alex Wilcox will always be remembered by her smile," Stuedeman said. "The bravest, most courageous young lady I have ever known went through the toughest battle with a smile on her face every day. The grace and beauty that she put forward while suffering this horrific disease was truly remarkable and nothing short of heroic. Our hearts are broken for her family and all of those that loved her so dearly. The Mississippi State softball family will strive to humbly honor her warrior mentality and faith-filled heart. She will be forever missed."
Wilcox will be missed. She touched so many in such a short amount of time. If only the rest of us could make such an impact.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter