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Players lend strength to Shaler softball coach

Chris Harlan
| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
Shaler seniors (from left) Sydney Smyers,  Jess Vannucci and  Jamie Roth wear ribbons with the initials 'JP' in their hair during a game against Vincentian Thursday May 10, 2012.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Shaler seniors (from left) Sydney Smyers, Jess Vannucci and Jamie Roth wear ribbons with the initials 'JP' in their hair during a game against Vincentian Thursday May 10, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Shaler softball coach Skip Palmer in 2012.
Christopher Horner
Shaler softball coach Skip Palmer in 2012.

When his players suggested changing their hair ribbons to something other than Shaler colors, softball coach Skip Palmer didn't much like the idea.

“Ladies, you know I'm old school,” began Palmer's lecture, explaining that they'd always worn red, white and blue and that he saw no reason to break tradition. But this idea left him speechless.

His players had made ribbons they wanted to wear to support his wife, Judy, hospitalized for weeks with multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacked her blood cells. They'd researched the color that would represent her type of cancer, and each ribbon had her initials. They'd even made one for her.

How could Palmer say no?

“I was thinking, ‘Holy mackerel!' I had tears in my eyes, and it was tough to swallow,” he recalled. “I didn't know what to say?”

He said yes. And thank you.

The ribbons debuted in late April, and the players plan to wear them throughout the playoffs.

“I still get teary-eyed when I see them,” Palmer said.

But it's not just the ribbons that made the retired school teacher emotional. The softball field has provided comfort and joy in recent months, and the teenagers he coaches have lifted the spirits of Palmer and his family.

“They've been my stone, my strength while going through these tough times with my family,” he said. “They're great kids, just for them to think so much about my wife and I.”

They know that Palmer has taken refuge in waiting rooms at UPMC Passavant, where his wife of 39 years spent seven weeks after her March diagnosis. He and Judy, once a school nurse in Wilkinsburg, have two children and five grandchildren.

She was rushed to the hospital March 16, housed in intensive care and hooked up to a ventilator while doctors diagnosed her illness. Those first days were the scariest, Palmer said, but now they see hope.

She's begun chemotherapy, and once the cancer is beaten into remission, stem cell treatments involving bone marrow could be a possibility, he said.

“The doctors tell us all the time, it's a marathon, not a sprint,” Palmer said. “She's had her good days and bad days, but we think that we're going to be able to get through this.”

With his wife's support, Palmer kept coaching softball, which he's done at Shaler for almost two decades. Many days he'll visit the hospital, leave for softball and then hurry back.

“The team really has helped my dad deal with everything,” said son Scott, a K-9 officer in Indiana Township. “It's his family away from home. If he wasn't coaching, I think this would have been a whole lot harder.”

In his eighth season as Shaler's coach, the Titans are 18-2, section champions and seeded first in the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs that begin Tuesday. His team won the WPIAL title in 2005, and it has been close every season since, including runner-up finishes in 2006, '08, '09 and '10. The Titans enter these playoffs on a 14-game winning streak, and they want to see their coach smiling for a few more weeks.

“That gives us one more reason to win,” senior first baseman Jamie Roth said.

“This is definitely the year we're going to go all the way,” senior catcher Lauren Hackett said.

With 10 seniors, including five who have played varsity since freshman year, Palmer expected this year's roster would be a special group. Faced with real-life adversity, he's seen just how special.

“They've been a savior for us,” said Palmer, who's thankful for the cards, food and well-wishes sent his family's way. “There are times I'm really down, but when I go to practice they get me smiling.”

Coaching has been part of his life for decades, including years spent with Hampton baseball. He also coached football at several schools before taking over Shaler softball. He's missed only one practice this spring — a few days ago when his wife returned to the hospital. His players are understanding.

“He always has his phone on, just in case,” senior pitcher Sydney Smyers said. “He'll get a call, and we'll all look. Everyone kind of holds their breath for a second. I'm sure he thinks about it all the time, but he never lets it show.”

For a while, he kept his wife's illness from them, but eventually word spread. They wanted a way to show support for the Palmers, said senior infielder Jess Vannucci, and they decided on ribbons.

“We know he really cares about us, so we wanted to do anything we can,” said Smyers, who helped Vannucci and Maddie Mulig handcraft the ribbons with backing from teammates. “We wanted him to know we feel for him and know they're in our prayers.”

There's no doubt he knows.

“It's been a tough time,” Palmer said. “But these kids really have made it easier.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-380-5666.

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