LONGMEADOW – So many times in life, moments slip away and we don’t pay them any mind.
We get busy, preoccupied, or just plain tired and we skip out on that lunch with a friend, choose against that walk through the park or don’t make it down to the ball field.
In those instances, so often the phrase it uttered – “Maybe next time.”
But what happens when the opportunity to experience those little moments is taken away?
For Longmeadow 9-10 Little League coach Joann Vallera, there was only one response – “Definitely next time.”
Vallera, a mother of triplets, two of which are on the Longmeadow team she coaches, credits that promise she made to her boys and the rest of the squad with helping pull her through an ongoing battle with cancer and make it back to the dugout where she has had the chance to witness a part of Longmeadow baseball history, but more importantly, an experience that she and the players will never forget.
After winning a best-of-three series with perennial power Holden in the Section 1 finals, Longmeadow is set to take part in the state finals tournament for the first time in the program’s history.
The pool play style tournament runs from July 17 to 20 at the Taunton West Little League Complex
, with the top two teams facing off for the championship.
“It’s unprecedented for any Longmeadow team to have gone this far, so it’s great for this special group of kids,” Vallera said. “To be able to be a part of this with them is pretty special. To go through it with your kids on the team is even more special.”
In January 2013, Vallera was diagnosed with advanced stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and in spite of aggressive treatment, the disease relapsed immediately thereafter.
She underwent a stem cell transplant at the Dana-Farber Cancer Treatment Center
, spending most of November and December 2013 holidays in the hospital.
As if experiencing the holidays from a hospital room wasn’t hard enough, as a result of the procedure, Vallera had virtually no immune system and had to be essentially quarantined for 100 days. It was during those days that Vallera really began to feel the cancer stealing moments away from her.
“I wasn’t allowed to go into the gyms or coach [my kids’] basketball games or even go to their schools,” she said. “Honestly, I thought of the springtime and baseball and I promised the kids last year I was going to do what I had to do and I’d be well enough to coach them in the spring. Having this goal in mind helped me get through a long and difficult winter.”
Her return to the field proved to be a triumphant one not only for her, but for the team as well as it won the District 2 crown for the first time in 28 years before topping Holden in a three-game set in the sectional final, winning the rubber game on July 13 11-7 to punch its ticket to the state finals.
“[Winning District 2] was an accomplishment in and of itself,” Vallera said. “Then in the Section 1 finals, we played a Holden team that regularly dials it in to the state finals and we really weren’t given a chance at all. It was a fantastic win.”
While participating in youth sports might seem trivial when faced with the grim reality of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, Vallera said the true priorities in life shine through.
“Strikingly, it’s not the huge things in life that you miss or the huge things in life that get you through,” she said. “It’s the everyday little things that you often take for granted and when they’re taken away from you, those are the things you really want back.”
Vallera still makes trips to Dana-Farber for treatment, but said having the opportunity to be on the field and surrounded by the team has continued to strengthen her resolve.
“Spring was just a special time because we could get outside and the kids were ready to go,” she said. “Even though I’m still undergoing treatment, I know in my heart I’m going to be OK.”
Vallera admitted that the success of this season might come as a bit of a surprise to some, but with the team’s experience, it shouldn’t be.
Having entered the 9-10 division last season with a very young team, Longmeadow finished with a respectable .500 record against bigger opponents and a lot of potential heading into the following year.
“We knew we could have a special group here if we stuck together,” Vallera said. “I think the hugest part about this team is that it’s truly a team. Teams from other towns or cities on paper are maybe better than us, but every kid on our team contributes and I honestly think that’s what took us to the next level.
“They are a true team. You can’t say there’s one superstar that carries the team like you’ll see from some of these other towns. All the way up and down the roster, everyone contributes,” she continued.
Vallera said that all-for-one mentality wasn’t exclusive to the diamond and while wins and trophies are exciting, love and support has been the lasting gift she has received from the players, as well as their parents.
“I think with this special group of people and what we’ve been through the past few years, we’ve become a family,” she said.
Longmeadow begins finals tournament play on July 17 against Braintree American at 4 pm.
Games at 7 p.m. against North Andover American on July 18 and Medford National on July 19 will follow.
The Taunton West Little League Complex is located at 300 Norton Ave., in Taunton.