She calls the shots: Leon's Hopkins cherishes final games

She calls the shots: Leon's Hopkins cherishes final games

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She calls the shots: Leon's Hopkins cherishes final games

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As the starting catcher for Leon High’s varsity softball team, Abbey Hopkins is used to being in charge.

She’s the one who receives pitching and defensive signals from the Lions’ coaches and relays them to her teammates. She’s the one who communicates most frequently with the home-plate umpire. She’s the one who settles down Leon’s pitchers during difficult situations.

“Abbey takes her position to heart,” assistant coach Lindsey Revell said. “The catcher is the leader of the team, and she plays her role well.”

That is nothing new, of course. Hopkins has been setting her own course for as long as anyone can remember.

At the age of 5, not long after her parents, Shane and Lisa Hopkins, started her out in tee-ball, Abbey took ill.

“She was having some pains in her stomach, and we took her to the emergency room,” Lisa recalled. “They sent us home because they thought she had a urinary tract infection.”

It was far more serious than that.

“We went back the next day and said, ‘Something’s not right,'” Lisa remembered. “She was doubled over. She was in real pain. And her blood pressure was dropping. So they did a CT scan, and we were rushed to Shands in Gainesville.”

What the doctors there found was a cancerous tumor — called a Wilms tumor — in Abbey’s left kidney.

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 500 cases of Wilms tumors are diagnosed in the United States each year.

“They don’t know what causes it,” Shane said. “We had zero history of cancer in our family.”

Not only did Abbey have one of the rare tumors, but it had actually ruptured, requiring emergency surgery to remove the entire kidney. And to make sure the cancer didn’t spread, the 5-year-old had to endure 18 weeks of chemotherapy.

Abbey lost her hair. She had to be home-schooled for five months. But all the while, her parents marveled at her positive attitude and bubbly personality.

“Even when she was sick,” Lisa said. “When she had chemo and lost her hair, she would pick out all these cute little hats and things like that.”

“I didn’t really know what was going on,” Abbey said with a smile last Thursday, after helping Leon cruise to a victory at Rickards. “But I knew I was missing a lot of school. And I wasn’t like everyone else, because I didn’t have hair.”

At the time, Shane and Lisa didn’t know if their daughter would be able to live a healthy, productive life. Could she play sports? Would she be as active as the other children her age?

It didn’t take long to find out.

Within a year, Abbey’s hair had grown back — albeit thick and curly instead of straight and thin as it had been before.

And by the time she was 8, Abbey was playing fast-pitch softball for a travel team.

“People couldn’t believe what she was doing,” Shane said. “I think she showed people what you can do if you pick up your feet and keep on moving.”

Over the next seven or eight years, softball would play a central role in the Hopkins family’s lives. Shane is a Tallahassee firefighter and Lisa works at a local public school, but Abbey’s softball was at the heart of everything.

“They were at every tournament, every game,” Abbey said.

“It was just a great group of folks,” Shane said of his daughter’s travel-ball team, which he helped coach for awhile. “The kids all got along. The parents all got along. We just had a great time together. We didn’t win every time, and we probably lost some games we should have won. But we always had a good time.”

Some of the players from those youth teams still suit up with Abbey at Leon High. A few others attend Chiles. But the memories remain strong.

And Shane and Lisa, both 46, said they have seen their daughter mature through the life lessons she has learned on the field.

That’s partly why these last few weeks have been so difficult.

Sticking firm with a decision she came to last year, Abbey Hopkins soon will play her final competitive softball game. That day could come today, when the Lions play at Middleburg in the district tournament. It could come later this week, or maybe a few days after that.

But it will come soon.

Although Abbey has the talent to pursue softball at the college level — she is solid defensively and one of the Lions’ top hitters — the girl who inspired others by playing sports so soon after a serious illness now wants to experience more from life.

She plans to attend Tallahassee Community College for the next two years and work part-time in the after-school program at her mother’s school. After that, she hopes to attend either Florida State or Flagler College and become an elementary school teacher.

“I’ve always loved kids,” she said. “They’re just so much fun to be around.”

But this chapter is coming to an end.

“I want to be able to pick up a ball when I want, and not be forced to,” Abbey said. “I love the game. I absolutely love it. But it’s just time for me to move on.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

When Leon played its final home game last Friday and honored its senior class, Abbey’s parents could tell she was having a difficult time.

“We’re a very close team,” Abbey said of the Lions. “We always have each other’s back. We’re like a family. That’s what a team is all about.”

But after 10 years of competitive softball, she insists she is ready to move on.

For Shane and Lisa, who already have watched 24-year-old son Jordan leave the house, the transition might not be so easy at first.

On the one hand, they look forward to not having to juggle work schedules to make sure they can attend every game. But on the other, those games have been at the center of their family’s activities since Abbey regained her health more than a decade ago.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Lisa said. “I don’t know what we’ll be doing this time next year. But it’s good. She’s enjoyed it, and we’ve enjoyed it.”

“We wonder if we started her too early,” Shane said. “If I could do it all over again, we wouldn’t have gotten super competitive with it until she was 12, 13 or 14 years old. Who knows? It might have turned out different.

“But it’s about what she wants that counts.”

And what she wants right now is to savor these last few moments.

Slipping on her gear and her dusty, black Mizuno catcher’s mitt. Cheering with her teammates. Joking with the umpires.

Abbey hopes to help Leon win districts this week and maybe make a run at state. But if it ends today, she says she’ll be ready.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” she said. “But I’m ready to move on. I just want to end on a good note.”

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