At the kickoff for the 2018 United States Specialty Sports Association’s Eastern National Championship, teams from across the nation had a chance to introduce themselves to the public.
Hundreds of softball players paraded around Arthur W. Perdue Stadium on Wednesday night, sporting their uniforms, handing out free merchandise and gearing up for one of the biggest youth tournaments in the country.
As they walked along the field that normally showcases the Delmarva Shorebirds, an announcer read off where the team was from, their age and a fun fact about that particular squad.
But one comment that stood out came from a softball team from Worcester County.
The writing was for one of the Titans’ teammates — a player who couldn’t be present because of a long battle with cancer.
Brianna Merritt — a Berlin resident and softball enthusiast — was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in November 2016 when she was 8. AML is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the spongy tissues inside bones where blood cells are made, according to the Mayo Clinic.
It is caused by damage to the DNA of developing in bone marrow, resulting in the production of immature cells that develop into leukemic white blood cells.
In the early stages, doctors expected the now 10-year-old Merritt to respond well to standard chemotherapy, but the disease remained present the next several years.
Following three months of treatment, she was in remission and received her first bone marrow transplant from her mother, Brandy Terrell.
However, 10 months later, Merritt relapsed, and 98 percent of her bone marrow was full of leukemia, according to her mother. The former softball player received a second transplant and is currently in remission.
Terrell said after 60 days post-transplant, her daughter is having minimal complications and working back to a semi-normal life.
Her mother said the hardest thing for Merritt is not living a normal lifestyle. But the support she’s received from friends had kept her smiling and optimistic that she’ll one day rejoin her teammates on the field.
“The coolest part for me is to see those girls caring,” Terrell said. “You don’t see a lot of kids that really understand the seriousness of Brianna’s disease. They’re praying for her and learning, and that’s the best part. They’re all learning from her experiences and are so compassionate.”
Had she not relapsed, Titans’ head coach Tony Montross said Merritt would be on the 10U team playing in the USSSA softball tournament. The competition is a three-week long, fastpitch tournament that matches up youth softball players throughout the United States.
Although she’s not there physically, Montross said the Titans are carrying Merritt with them wherever they may go.
“She’s always stayed positive with everything she’s going through,” Montross said. “She never let it affect what she did. To have that strength and never let this hold her back; it’s incredible.”
Montross coached Merritt in Virginia before she moved to Berlin. When he heard about her diagnosis, the softball coach went to the head man in the league’s organization and asked if they could find a way to show support.
With the new attire, the organization began selling T-shirts with all proceeds going to help Merritt and her family. The Titans even had permission to wear them in tournament games, giving them a way to get Merritt back on the field.
“Her story has touched so many people, and the girls all wanted to honor her the right way,” Montross said. “We put her out there in the field with us. From the second she (was diagnosed), she was going to come back and play, but then it came back again.”
Terrell said Merritt was extremely excited when she heard what her friends were doing, smiling ear-to-ear as she watched a video from the opening ceremonies.
The Titans invited Merritt to their first game Thursday, but due to her weak immune system, the 10-year-old girl sits at home the majority of the time.
“Our family encourages the positivity because there’s no goodness that comes out of being negative,” Terrell said. “All these kids are looking up to her and praying. She has all these people saying we love you, you’re beautiful, we support you, and that’s huge for her.”
Bailey Wallace is hoping to help East Coast win the entire tournament and prove the best 12U squad is from the Eastern Shore.
But the athlete said win or lose, everything they do on the field is for Merritt.
“It’s all for her, and we’re just trying to help her,” Wallace said. “We don’t just play for us to win — we play for something more.”
Titans’ pitcher Harley McNure echoed Wallace’s statement but believes playing for Merritt will help the team in more ways than one.
Merritt’s condition has brought the Titans closer together, creating stronger bonds among the players. To McNure, rallying around one cause has helped the team become better softball players and friends.
“It builds your confidence with your team and the friendships we all have,” McNure said.
Over the next week, the Titans are set to take on teams from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with hopes of winning games and enhancing their softball skills.
But while other squads put nine players on the field, the Titans will have their 10th man after every position, giving them an extra boost of momentum and determination.
More than 5,500 athletes are expected to compete in this year’s USSSA competition, but in the eyes of the Titans, they’ve got the best softball player in the tournament backing them up.
Regardless of the outcome, the Titans plan to honor Merritt in every way possible.
“We decided to do this as a team,” Montross said. “We know the admiration she has for us and for everything she does. She’s just a great kid who’s beat this thing once already. She’s going through some rough times, so we wanted to do something for her.
“We’re doing anything we can to help. It’s the least any of us can do.”