While some area teams are still competing for spots in the spring state championship tournaments, arguably the area's best example of the grit and determination that makes high school sports so compelling had her athletic career end on a dusty softball field this past Tuesday.
It was just before Christmas that Boyd-Buchanan senior Alexa Hickman completed an agonizing four months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for a rare form of cancer. Six surgeries and seven rounds of three-day-a-week chemotherapy followed by more than 50 rounds of radiation treatments, which often sent her back to the emergency room with severe nausea, had left a once energetic pitcher and leadoff batter too weak to climb steps and weighing nearly 20 pounds less than before she began the ordeal.
"You coach these kids long enough and they become like one of your own, so it hit me hard when we found out," said Boyd-Buchanan softball coach Brittany Carbonell. "It just didn't seem fair to me for a 17-year-old girl to have to go through this."
For two years Hickman had visited doctors in Chattanooga, Nashville and Atlanta with pain in her right leg. Eventually a growth, originally believed to be benign, was discovered and removed at Vanderbilt Medical Center. However tests revealed it to be synovial sarcoma, a rare malignancy that occurs near the joints of the arms or legs and is typically found in young adults.
"I was in denial at first," Hickman said. "You hear about other people having cancer, but you never think you'll have to go through it."
She spent the first half of the school year living in a hospital room in Nashville, far from friends and feeling more depressed with each passing day.
"It was such a sad place to be," Hickman said. "Even visitors would leave sad, so mentally the worst part was just being away from home for so long. Physically it never ended. I would get nauseas; I had mouth sores; chemo made me lose all my hair, even my eyelashes. It was something different and horrible every day.
"But right when I would get to a breaking point, I would get a package of get-well cards from Boyd-Buchanan, and that would remind me to keep fighting to get back home. That's when I told myself that cancer had taken away my hair, my friends, my senior year, which was supposed to be the best memories you have, but it wasn't going to take away softball. I had played since I was 5, and even though the doctors told me not to get my hopes up, I knew I would get back out there."
Carbonell told Hickman she didn't have to show up for tryouts because she was assured a spot on the team. But just to prove how determined she was to belong, Hickman showed up for tryouts anyway and began competing to earn a spot back on the field.
No longer able to pitch, she moved to second base. And with her speed now limited, she also dropped a few spots in the batting order, but when the Lady Bucs opened the season, Hickman was there taking ground balls, stepping into the batter's box and even sliding hard into the bases against her coach's wishes.
"I felt a real sense of accomplishment just getting back out there for that first game," Hickman said. "I used to complain about coming to school or having to practice, but now I'm thankful for the things that I used to take for granted. It's given me a new perspective on everything.
"I accepted I wouldn't be a star player, but there were ways I could set an example for others to push through when they felt like they were having a tough time. I can't look back because I'm never going to be what I was as a player again. I've just got to find something good, no matter how hard I have to look."
She learned through video chat last fall that she had been elected homecoming queen, and when she returned to school, students had decorated an entire room with "welcome home" signs. She also was able to attend the prom and will walk the graduation stage with her classmates next week.
But the best news of late is that her first post-treatment tests showed no signs of cancer. She will have to continue checkups every three months for two years before gradually making those visits yearly for the next 10 years before she can be considered cancer-free.
"There wasn't a day since she came back that she didn't have a positive attitude or didn't give every bit of effort she could," Carbonell said. "To show that much determination, just to be back out there and be a part of something she loves, she's one of the most inspirational I know."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...