With one out in the second inning of a late-March matchup with East Carolina, USF softball’s Meredith Bissette stepped in to pinch hit for junior Kristen Wyckoff – a role Bissette was quite familiar with.
With sophomore Astin Donovan in a runner’s stance on second base, Bissette smacked a shot up the right side, scoring Donovan, to pick up her first career hit in front of friends and family and her hometown of Raleigh, N.C.
“Usually I’m one of those people that blocks out the background noise, but I remember the dugout just erupting,” Donovan said. “People are jumping up and down and it wasn’t until I got into the dugout that we realized she got her first hit.
“It was an experience to remember.”
Days later, that excitement and joy took a downward turn.
After getting an MRI done following complaints back pains and numbness in her leg, Bissette was diagnosed with Chordoma, a rare form of pelvic cancer.
“It’s funny we were working on her swing and it finally came through for her – she finally got that hit,” USF assistant Tommy Santiago said. “She’s on cloud nine and we’re ready to go as soon as we come back from the ECU trip and keep it rolling. And then this happens.”
According to chordomafoundation.org, there are an estimated 125,000 people currently living with Chordoma. There are only about 300 cases per year of the rare condition that typically affects people ages 50-80-years-old. Bissette is just 20.
But it’s nothing that will deter the vibrant spirits of Bissette, nicknamed “Mere Bear” by her teammates.
“She has a great personality,” said Donovan, Bissette’s roommate. “She’s definitely someone that’s always smiling and always positive. She’s always looking to lighten the mood so if you come home after a rough game, she’s always there with a hug.”
When it came time to break the tragic news to her team, with coach Ken Eriksen assisting by her side, Bissette did the best she could to maintain her bright outlook. The same couldn’t be said for her team.
“It took us by surprise 100 percent,” Santiago said. “I think she’s handled this better than all of us. She’s not really letting it get to her, I’ll tell you that much.”
Since learning of their teammate’s fight, the Bulls have won 11 of 13 games, by dominant fashion. Though her physical presence is missed, her positive spirit permeates the USF dugout both at home and on the road.
“She’s our teammate and even though she’s not here, she’s still with us and we still think about her and love her just the same,” Donovan said as she wiped tears from her face.
“I mean we obviously have our main focus in mind, but it’s just something to play for, even more than just winning a game.”
The team hangs Bissette’s #00 jersey in the rafters of the dugout during each game. In addition, the team has the double zeros written on each of their wrists underneath black bracelets that showcase the yellow Chordoma ribbon.
But the support stretched far beyond the fences of the USF softball stadium. Teams from across the country – from Maryland, to North Carolina to St. Johns – have reached out to show their support, not to mention nearly every USF athletic team.
Prior to a series with Memphis earlier this month, the Tigers had painted a yellow ribbon in front of each team’s dugout in support.
And to each and every person, team or group, Bissette has said thank you.
“Any person that’s said something to her, she’s said thank you and that says a lot about that kid,” Santigo said.
A GoFundMe.com account has also been set up for donations to help cover medical expenses. It has already raised nearly $10,000.
USF will also host a home run derby featuring USF athletes as well as a silent auction on May 8 at the USF baseball stadium following USF baseball’s game against Tulane.
“I'll tell you one thing, when Mere comes to the field, there's always that smile on her face, 100 percent,” Santiago said. “And she's handling this tremendously.
“Cancer has a fight on its hands, 'cause Mere's swingin'.”