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A courageous women’s coach teaches about softball and life

scottteaser-215x160There are good days and there are bad days as Bari Mance soldiers through her chemotherapy. This happens to be one of the bad days.

“I did my laundry before practice,’’ Mance explains from the bleachers of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Athletic Center on the St. John Fisher College campus. “Big mistake. I’m whipped.”

Mance grins. Out on the gym floor, her Fisher softball players are playing an intra-squad scrimmage. Had her energy not been sapped by her latest treatment for breast cancer, she would have been out there, too, bouncing around, glove or bat in hand, offering encouragement and advice to the young women she has coached to NCAA Division III championship games the past two springs. Instead, Mance sits in the stands, keeping score, occasionally exhorting a batter to keep her back shoulder up or praising a fielder for a nice catch and throw.

“I try not to spend much time reflecting on what I’m going through,’’ she was saying earlier from a claustrophobic office cluttered with trophies, plaques, team photographs, and good luck charms, like the leprechaun bear residing near her keyboard. “Right now, it’s really more about pushing through. This may sound cocky, but I know this isn’t going to beat me, so I just try to do stuff and keep my life as normal as possible.’’

That means showing up on days when the 37-year-old Spencerport native is dog-tired and her joints and muscles are screaming at her each times she moves.

“I had a port put in my shoulder and I think I popped a stitch hitting fly balls the other day,’’ Mance says, chuckling. “It’s frustrating because I can only do so much right now. After five minutes of hitting grounders or doing soft toss, I’m sweating and my hands start to blister. That’s when I admit defeat and turn it over to my assistants.”

But even on the difficult days, the benefits outweigh the negatives. As she recently posted on her Facebook page: “Do not confuse my bad days as a sign of weakness … those are actually the days I am trying my hardest.”

Being around her players, coaches and the game she loves energizes her soul, provides a beacon to focus on as she navigates the choppy waters. Mance’s latest rounds of chemo won’t be done until late March. The good news is that the treatments, along with the surgery she underwent last fall, are expected to give her an excellent chance of living a long and full life.

Her determination is not lost on the impressionable women hitting, catching, throwing and running the bases out there on the gym floor.

“It shows how committed she is to us, and we’re so appreciative that she’s willing to be here for us, even when she’s having a tough day,’’ says Lindsey Thayer, an All-American pitcher who won 31 games and led the nation in strikeouts last season. “There’s a feeling that if Coach can put in the work in spite of what she’s going through, then there’s no excuse for us not to be giving our all, too.’’

Each season, Mance comes up with a different motto for the team. This year’s slogan: “Be inspired; be inspiring.” Her players clearly don’t have to look far to find inspiration. And neither does she.

Late last September, she got off the team bus in suburban Syracuse, and while she was talking to an opposing coach, her players changed from their maroon jerseys into pink T-shirts bearing the words, “Team Mance” and “No one stands alone.”

“I wasn’t paying attention until they got off the bus and one of my assistants nudged me and told me to turn around,’’ Mance says. “I had no idea they had those shirts made up. I teared up a bit.”

A week later, during alumni weekend, there were more tears when several players she had played with or coached walked onto the field wearing bandannas reading, #BariStrong. Since going public with her cancer diagnosis last August, she has received hundreds of letters, cards and encouraging Facebook posts.

“There’s little good about cancer, but the way people have rallied around me has been overwhelming and so uplifting,’’ Mance says, removing her Fisher softball cap, and rubbing her right hand across a scalp rendered bald by chemo. “I’ve heard from people I haven’t heard from in years. I’ve heard from people throughout the softball community, including many of my coaching peers. I’ve heard from total strangers. And I’ve heard from cancer survivors. It’s been amazing.”

There are moments when it still seems surreal, moments when she wants to cry in disbelief that someone her age could be dealing with breast cancer. But those moments are fleeting. Mance has always been determined and tough-minded. And having a purpose, a reason to push forward with others toward a shared goal is therapeutic.

The former Fisher catcher and long-time assistant has taken a highly successful program she inherited from legendary head coach Len Maiorani in July 2013 and made it even better. The Cardinals won a school-record 44 games last season, and reached the title game for the second straight year. With a good mix of returning veterans and promising newcomers, Fisher has a roster capable of taking care of unfinished business and winning it all this spring.

Coming up just short should make them hungry, but they have additional motivation because of what Mance is going through.

“I think we’ve always been a close-knit team, but this has made us even closer,’’ Thayer says. “To be able to win this for Coach under these circumstances would make it extra special.”

Fisher, which is ranked second in the national polls, opens its season with an eight-day, 12-game road trip to Arizona next week. Mance plans to be there, showing these young woman how to be both inspired and inspiring.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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