Season of Hope: Butterfield and Hoffmann families bonded by Dickinson softball, breast cancer battles
Certain events happen in life that put everything else in the backseat.
Such events happened in the lives of two Dickinson High softball coaches.
Bill Butterfield, the Midgets' head coach, and Darla Hoffmann, the team's assistant coach, have spent many hours on the softball diamond together.
Yet, two similar events has brought their bond closer together, not to mention the bond between their daughters -- juniors Haley Butterfield and Mackee Hoffmann, the team's starting pitcher and catcher, respectively.
"Mackee and I are like best friends," Haley said. "It's hard, but then it's easier because we have to the same thing happening."
In late June, Bill Butterfield's wife, Jean, received a call that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Jean's first thought is that had to be an error.
"I was like, I need to go back into the doctor's office because I think they made a mistake, because you never think it's going to happen to you," Jean said.
Less than a month later, Darla Hoffmann got the same phone call. She too was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It really put things in perspective," Darla said. "In terms that I often look at years down the line, I started looking at tomorrow. What is tomorrow going to be about?
"There are some days where you want to do the pity party, then there are other days where it's a good day."
For Bill, softball instantly became an afterthought. He wanted to make sure his wife and his long-time assistant were OK.
"It's unbelievable to have it touched that close to me all within a month," Bill said. "It was a big shock. I'm the outsider looking in. This isn't about me at all. It's about them and being supportive, whether it's being with my wife or coaching. They are ones dealing with it. I'm just trying to help where I can."
After Darla was diagnosed, she was worried that she might not be able to coach.
She sat down Bill and Dickinson High athletic director Guy Fridley to talk about the upcoming season. She received the OK to continue on as the Midgets' assistant and only missed one game during the regular season. That was to attend the graduation of her oldest daughter, Kelsey, from the University of North Dakota.
"I wanted to coach. This is my passion," Darla said. "Then this is my last year too, because this is my retirement year from teaching and coaching. There was no way I wanted to take this year off."
The Butterfield and Hoffmann family bonds have grown closer together as Darla and Jean continue to fight breast cancer.
"I think Haley and I have always leaned on each other," Mackee said. "Whether it would have been in softball or not, we've always been pretty close. I don't want to say it's nice that it happened to the both of us, but it's nice that it happened to the both of us at the same time. We've been leaning on each other a lot through this process."
Darla's support group
Once Darla was diagnosed, one of the first people she turned to was Jean.
Jean had experienced everything Darla was about to go through.
"Jean has been my mentor," Darla said. "Even though our treatments were completely different -- I still have radiation to go here in a month -- we still experienced the same kinds of highs and lows. It has been nice to have someone to talk me through."
As for Darla's personal life, she had no plans of taking time off of teaching or as part of the Midgets' coaching staff.
However, some days were tougher than others. She said what kept her motivated was to have a group of more than 150 students look up to her. Darla was teaching nearly 120 kids and has another 40 softball players.
"You are talking about 150 students that have gone through this road with me," Darla said. "The teaching and the softball was my 'Calgon, take me away' moments. Going in and being with the kids both on the diamond and in the school system made me smile."
For her commitment to teaching, while battling cancer, she was named the Dickinson winner of the Barnes & Noble My Favorite Teacher Contest. She said the award wouldn't have been possible without her great students.
"The kids at school did 'Hugs for Hoffmann t-shirts,'" Darla said. "The money it raised, it helped us out. There have been so many times that I've fallen to my knees and said, 'Wow, this is too amazing.'"
Dealing with the news
As Jean and Darla each broke the news to their daughters, each handled the situations a little bit different.
The news took a couple days to process for Haley. Jean's sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer two years prior.
"My aunt just had breast cancer, so it was kind of like a freak thing, because there isn't really a history of it in my family," Haley said. "It was shocking when my mom sat us down and told us. It's always there in my mind, but it's not overtaking my life. I still focus on my school work, sports and life, but it's always there.
"My mom has been a strong life figure for me, but this proves even more that when life gives you something tough to handle, you just show life how tough you can be."
For Mackee, the news of her mother being diagnosed with breast cancer was more difficult to process. In fact, she blocked it out of her mind and didn't want to talk about it the entire volleyball season.
"I don't know if I actually did think," Mackee said. "I tried to not think about it all. I tried to seclude myself more and repress the thought. I tried to pretend like it wasn't there."
But Mackee recalled one event, which broke the shell she'd be hiding in. Darla just arrived home from a chemotherapy treatment.
"She was shaking, because she was cold and warm," Mackee said. "It scared me. I asked her, 'Are you OK?' She said, 'Yes I'm fine.' Then I asked again, 'Are you really though?' She said, 'I'm fine right now.' That was a breaking-through moment."
Softball as a safe haven
Throughout all the worrisome days and nights, the beginning of the softball season was right around the corner for the Butterfields and Hoffmanns.
The Midgets honored breast cancer awareness has Haley threw out the opening pitch to Mackee against Bismarck Century on April 4 with both teams wearing pink.
Darla and Jean each said it was a touching moment as their daughters handed each of them a game ball.
"There was nothing more special than 'Pink in the Park,'" Darla said. "They both threw out that pink ball."
Jean added: "It was really cool because Haley and Mackee have grown up in this program together and they've been really close. It was really neat that they got to throw a pitch and Darla and I get got a ball."
In fact, the Midgets were in store for their best regular season in program history.
Dickinson finished the regular season with a 17-4 record, which was a far cry from five years ago when the team went 0-24. The Midgets travel to the West Region Tournament with the No. 2 seed and play Turtle Mountain at noon in Jamestown.
"It has been a really fun season," Bill said. "The girls were hungry and they are still hungry. When it comes to motivation, I don't need to give them much motivation. They are a motivated bunch of girls."
Haley and Mackee have been two key pieces to the Midgets' success.
In the pitching circle, Haley went 10-1 with her lone loss of the season coming against Minot Ryan, the No. 1 seed in the West Region. The junior has a 1.20 earned-run average with 73 strikeouts over 70 innings.
"I'm really excited for WDA and state, but at the same time I'm trying to not get so overwhelmed," Haley said. "You want to make sure you are doing what you've been doing all season long."
For Mackee, the beginning of the season was one of unknowns.
She was unsure about season's wear and tear after returning from an ACL injury, which occurred in the 2011-12 basketball season and forced her to miss the entire 2012 softball season.
The junior catcher hasn't skipped a beat in her return.
She leads the team with a .429 batting average and has 12 doubles, two home runs, one triple and 23 RBIs. In the field, Mackee has committed just one error behind the plate in 80 chances.
"There has been pain and challenges along the way, but she is pretty close to being back," Darla said.
However, the Midgets don't want their season to end at the West Region Tournament. Dickinson is searching for its first back-to-back state tournament appearance in program history.
"It's amazing to take a look at these kids practice and see how far we've come," Darla said. "They are just so strong all the way through. It's neat to see the program all the way through."