Willow Canyon, Surprise softball community stays strong for Brooke Windahl

After their game March 11, Willow Canyon and Valley Vista softball players and coaches gather for a photo. The game was dedicated to 2018 Willow Canyon graduate Brooke Windahl, who was diagnosed with leukemia Nov. 11, 2018 and will undergo one more round of chemotherapy in Omaha before returning home. [Elliott Glick/For West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Recent tests showed Brooke Windahl is cancer free and has one more round of chemotherapy in an Omaha, Nebraska hospital.

Then, in about a month, she and her immediate family are heading home to Surprise and a group of people that has supported her since her leukemia diagnosis. If Brooke’s  grandmother, Karen Bellar, has her way, they’ll never leave again.

”“I’m grateful to (Willow Canyon softball and the Arizona softball community). They’re the reason why they’re coming back,” Bellar said. “They’re never moving again. I won’t let them. I can’t wait.”

She said that March 11 after the end of the latest benefit event for the family organized by Willow Canyon softball coach Donnie Tizzano.

With her treatment successful, Monday night’s game between Valley Vista and Willow Canyon took on a celebratory air. A donation box was set up at the Willow Canyon gate.

Both teams wore special shirts featuring the color orange – a designation of leukemia awareness. Valley Vista’s black and orange design featured the words “Brooke’s Army” while Willow Canyon’s orange and black jerseys stated “Windahl’s Warriors.”

“I don’t think there’s enough words to explain. It’s overwhelming,” said Katie Bellar-Montagna, Brooke’s aunt.

Brooke Windahl graduated from Willow Canyon in May 2018 and had received a scholarship to play at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska.

Her parents and siblings moved with her. Older sister Myranda began a role as a student assistant for the Hawks softball team.

Brooke played Northeast’s fall schedule. Then she fell unusually ill.

“She had a cold for a few weeks. Brooke was never sick so her mom thought she’d better get checked,” Bellar said. “She went to the emergency room Saturday morning and by Sunday they were heading to Omaha.”

She was diagnosed on Nov. 11, 2018. Tizzano learned of it a day or two later through social media.

“I found out from Facebook. Her and her younger sister were posting back and forth, ‘I miss you,’ and such. And I started to think something was wrong,” Tizzano said. “It touches this school in particular, it hits a nerve. The best part of that is, they’ll always be here because they’re such a good family. They’re always supportive. We jumped at the opportunity to help out.”

More than most, Tizzano knew what the Windahls were up against.

Two orange ribbons and the phrase “Abby Strong” adorn the outfield wall at the Wildcats’ softball diamond. They’re in remembrance of his niece, Abby Tizzano, who died at age 8 in 2014.

“It’s good to give back because so many people in the softball community were very, very giving for my family,” Tizzano said. “We know exactly what they’re going through.”

Brooke Windahl
An aerial photo shows an orange ribbon painted on the Willow Canyon softball field in Surprise. The ribbon is in honor of 2018 Willow Canyon graduate Brooke Windahl, who is finishing treatment for leukemia in Nebraska. [Courtesy Ryan C. McGinley and Dysart Unified School District/For West Valley Preps]
He led efforts to put together several Windahl Warriors Wreck Cancer 12 and under friendly tournaments.

The first, on Jan. 12, brought the tight-knit softball community out to Surprise.

“The best part about club softball is, when you hear the word cancer in a child, people just come running. People donated things out the yin-yang. We had older girls helping us with field work. We raised $10,000 for her in that one weekend,” Tizzano said. “Her club coach and so many other people were donating things. Hotshots-Georges (coach) Brian Georges is a great guy. He came out here and his girls were out here working. They donated some piece of technology and that sold for a lot of money.”

These events are continuing, with a 14 and under Windahl’s Warriors tournament at 8 a.m. March 23 at Willow Canyon.

Tizzano also hoped to raise funds and celebrate Brooke during a high school game. Having gotten to know new Valley Vista coach Julie Medrano on the club scene in the last couple years, this matchup looked ideal.

“Donnie is a great guy. He’s been on a mission and he’s not going to stop until he’s successful and does everything possible to help the family. When he wanted us to get on board, we were game,” Medrano said.

Tizzano said the Medrano family are wonderful people and more accommodating than most would be in the situation.

“Pregame we’re out there taking a bunch of pictures to send to her. Not many other coaches would do that. They’re here for a rivalry game. For her to be willing to take pregame time for that say’s a lot. She’s a great person,” Tizzano said.

Oddly enough, the people in attendance with the least connection to the Windahl family may have been about half the players on the field. Willow Canyon’s lineup featured six freshmen, while Valley Vista started four.

Still, this night, and the 10-0 Willow Canyon win, meant a little more to Wildcats seniors Mashayla Beltran and Draya Rhinehart.

“It was in honor of her. She was a really good teammate last year and we all balled out for her,” Rhinehart said.

While the freshmen may not have known Windahl well, they sparked the home team following two scoreless innings. Isabella Serratos led off the bottom of the third with a double, then scored on a throwing error after classmate Samantha Farnsworth’s bunt.

Then in the fourth, freshman Jaeden Murphy’s single dropped just in front of a diving outfielder. Murphy stole second with two outs and reached third after a fielding error on Gabby Sublasky’s grounder. Serratos drove her in with a single to right.

“They’ve grown together since the time they were 10. Nothing is too big for them, which is impressive for freshmen. Tonight was Bella, and they all have that kind of power. The ball jumps off their bat and sounds different. She’s the one that decided to put together the at-bat we were talking about — short to the ball and use the whole field. In the first inning they were changeup heavy because we were out on our front foot swinging away,” Tizzano said.

The potent Wildcats detonated in a seven-run fifth inning. Beltran smashed an RBI triple, and Rhinehart and Murphy added RBI doubles.

Serratos and senior Madison Russell capped the explosion with a pair of two-run hits. Sophomore Hanna Bowers got into the act in the sixth, as her RBI ended the game an inning early.

“It showed us how close everyone is in the community, and how everyone is supportive of each other,” Beltran said.

Yet, both teams and the greater Surprise and Valley softball community had reason to celebrate.

Their message surely resonated with the Windahls thousands of miles away – for now.

“These people are her family,” Bellar said.

To donate to the Windahl family, visit gofundme.com/brookiestrong

Willow Canyon’s Brooke Windahl hits a two-run double against Marana on Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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