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Courtney's Courage

by Erin Meyer

Courtney's Courage

Quietly crouched behind home plate, Courtney Schoolcraft ’23 finds comfort.

The players and pitches may, at times, be unpredictable. But since tugging on her first catcher’s mask at 7 years old, she’s learned to remain steady. Calm. In control. And always prepared to strike.

“I like throwing people out. That’s my favorite part,” said the respiratory therapy student from her home in Crest Hill, Illinois.

A year ago, she wasn’t sure she’d ever do it again.

After an impressive 15-4 start to the 2020 season, Schoolcraft and her USI Softball teammates were shocked when it abruptly ended without a single at-bat on their home field—their five-game winning streak held hostage by an adversary more ruthless than any they’d faced before.

As the world scrambled to keep up with COVID-19, Schoolcraft encountered yet another opponent—just as vicious, but much more familiar. “They saw that it spread,” she recalled.

The disease she’d beaten just a few months before—cancer—was ready for a rematch.

Schoolcraft’s battle began as her freshman year at USI ended in 2019. “My mom was helping me move out of my apartment at school and she noticed this big lump on my foot,” she said. Though prominent, the bump was painless. And it had been there … a while. Schoolcraft wasn’t worried, and, at first, her podiatrist wasn’t either. A cyst was the expected diagnosis—until a biopsy showed something more sinister. Clear cell sarcoma. 

“Sarcoma’s like 1% of cancers, and then my specific type of sarcoma is the 1% of the 1%,” said Schoolcraft.

A flurry of appointments and scans led to an intense 34-part radiation regimen. Unwilling to miss class—or softball—she elected to undergo treatment in Evansville. While radiation attacked the cancerous cells in her increasingly sore, scorched left foot, Schoolcraft attacked her sophomore year, showing up even when she couldn’t lace up. “One day my assistant walked into the dugout and she saw her [Schoolcraft] struggling … her foot was too fat and swollen to be put into her cleat,” recalled USI Softball Head Coach Sue Kunkle. “She put her little Croc on her one foot and the cleat on the other, she got out on the field and did some drills.”

Quitting was not an option. Neither was complaining.

Teammate Mary Bean ’22, exercise science, remembers sitting beside Schoolcraft during radiation appointments and watching her crawl around their apartment to avoid the pain of walking. But she never saw her friend break—or even bend. “Nothing ever changed. You would not know that she was going through what she was going through,” said Bean. “Always a smile on her face.”

After months of juggling school, softball and her sarcoma treatments, Schoolcraft celebrated a clear scan in December 2019, prompting a long-awaited, but short-lived, return to the starting lineup. “She was on fire. She hit well, she played well,” said Kunkle.

COVID-19 didn’t care. And neither did the cancer, which reemerged a few months later in her lymph nodes and lungs.

Fiercely competitive, Schoolcraft again vowed to remain undefeated, enduring weeks of chemotherapy that left her tired, weak and immuno-compromised—five hours from campus. As she worked with professors to not only remain enrolled during the Fall 2020 Semester, but carry a full course load, her teammates made sure Schoolcraft never felt forgotten—sending frequent messages, wearing yellow ribbons and bracelets, selling t-shirts and telling the softball world, and anyone else who would listen, about their brave friend. “We started a hashtag in the summer, #Courage4Court,” said roommate and teammate Mikaela Domico ’22, biology. “I think that helped us spread the word a little bit more and share her story with people at different schools and around the country.”

“Every team we played against knows who Courtney is,” added Bean.

Schoolcraft would rather it be solely because of her long bombs and laser arm, but she understands—and accepts—the opportunity presented. She was young, healthy and in the best shape of her life when cancer barreled into her like a wild pitch. Even as a skilled, seasoned catcher, she couldn’t stop it. And while she’s not big on “what ifs,” she wonders what might have happened if she’d worried about that strange lump on her left foot a little sooner.

Because of her courage and candor, maybe someone else will.

“[This will] hopefully prevent it from happening to someone else, because sarcomas are generally in younger populations. You can be so healthy and not feel a single symptom, like I did,” said Schoolcraft. “Just being aware of what’s going on with your body [is so important].”

Nearly two years after her initial diagnosis, Schoolcraft is relishing her return as she once again settles into her home behind the plate at USI. She is still steady. Calm. And in control.

But more than anything, she is grateful.

“Even if we lose,” she said, “I’ll appreciate that I get to be on the field.”

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