FINLEY -- Since mid-March, the River View High School varsity softball team has taken the field for the first pitch of every game with no one at second base.
By now, most of River View's opponents know why the hole is there, so leadoff hitters usually don't swing at the pitch. But if an unknowing batter hits the ball, the Panthers are prepared to play it.
They will forge ahead, no matter the risk, because one of their teammates is staring down a much greater challenge.
Abi Hamlin, the person who would have filled that hole at second base, is in Seattle undergoing treatment for leukemia.
Hamlin always had been an active, healthy girl. The 16-year-old junior is active in FFA and plays volleyball, basketball and softball at the Finley school. But earlier this year, she started getting big bruises that wouldn't go away.
Days before River View's season-opening doubleheader against Goldendale, Hamlin's father, Ty, took her to the doctor for chest and back pain.
"They said: 'Oh, you just pulled a muscle in your back. Just take Advil,' " Hamlin said.
Hamlin also said she didn't feel like eating and was exhausted.
"I woke up (March 12), and I didn't want to swing. I didn't want to do anything. I was trying to hide it from everyone."
Hamlin mustered enough strength that day to go 4-for-7 against Goldendale, but she struggled to get through the games.
"My triple hit the fence, and I ran so frickin' hard I was dying," she said. "Your adrenaline's going so hard, you can't feel it. By the time I reached the dugout, I was hurting so bad."
Recalled teammate Kim Gier: "In the last inning, we were about to start, and we were in the infield. She said: 'Would you please strike these three people out? I'm really hurting.' "
River View coach Andy Clayton told Hamlin she didn't have to run laps after the doubleheader, but she said she would finish with her teammates. Clayton told Hamlin's mother, Diane, a medical technician at Kadlec Regional Medical Center, that he was concerned.
The next day, Abi was wearing shorts, and Diane saw the bruises on her legs, as well as tiny red dots.
Abi insisted she was fine, but Diane decided to take her to Kadlec that day. There, the doctors said her lab results showed she might have leukemia. Seeing the worry on her mother's face, Abi resolved to be strong.
"Yeah, I could just burst into tears, but I'm not going to do that," she said. "My mom would look at me to see how I reacted, but I don't like to see her cry. I didn't want her to be sad."
Hamlin and her mother were flown to Seattle Children's Hospital. Nearly 48 hours after helping her team beat Goldendale, Hamlin got the official diagnosis: acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, a form of cancer in which the bone marrow starts producing too many immature white blood cells, resulting in not enough production of red blood cells.
But ever the competitor, she was ready to fight the disease: "I was like, 'Whatever, let's do it, what are you waiting for?' "
At River View, Hamlin's teammates got called out of class and were told she was in the hospital. Gier, a junior shortstop/second baseman, and two of her friends decided to leave school early so they could accompany Clayton to Seattle.
"We wanted her to know we love her, and she would do the same thing for us. ... The first time I saw her was really hard because we just found out that day, but she was the one comforting us because we were all crying," Gier said.
Hamlin started chemotherapy later that week, and her teammates tried to move on without her in the lineup. Hamlin had just begun her second season as the Panthers' full-time starting second baseman.
The team's first doubleheader without Hamlin -- March 19 against Zillah -- "was very emotional, just our pretalk and everything, just knowing she wasn't going to be there the rest of the season," Gier said.
Close at heart
Even though Hamlin isn't with her teammates, she is never far from their minds and vice versa.
"All of the girls are like my family; they're like my sisters. I talk to them every day," Hamlin said. "I'm always texting, always calling them. I don't know what I would do without my phone."
She also has a calendar by her bed with all of her team's games written on it. After the Panthers play, Hamlin expects a call from her coach to hear how they did.
Hamlin's teammates and coaches have dubbed themselves "Team Abi."
In pregame warmups, they wear shirts that say "No One Fights Alone."
Before each home doubleheader, they run onto the field with a banner that has her number (13) on it. They hang it on a gate in center field -- that way, Clayton said, "No. 13 is always looking over us."
Several of her teammates wear orange ribbons and headbands in support of leukemia awareness. And the Panthers play without a second baseman on their first pitch to honor their missing teammate before sophomore Shelby Salter runs onto the diamond. Clayton said they might continue the tribute during the playoffs -- the Panthers, at 8-2, sit in second in the SCAC East.
Since Hamlin's diagnosis, there has been no such thing as hostile territory at a River View game. When the Panthers visited Liberty Christian on April 12, the teams participated in a pregame prayer. The River View players then received bracelets in red and black -- the school colors -- with Hamlin's name on them.
Four days later, Kiona-Benton came to Finley with a blanket for Hamlin. Stitched into the blanket -- red on one side for River View and blue on the other for Ki-Be -- were the words "Bears got your back."
"We have had a grandma go through cancer, so it hits home a little bit, so we thought it was the right thing to do," said Ki-Be sophomore Alex Shuster, who with her younger sister, Dyoni, came up with the idea for the blanket.
Hamlin has been surprised by the outpouring of support from opponents.
"It was really neat, but other teams we don't really get along with ... did an orange day," she said.
The community of Finley has gotten involved with Hamlin's cause, putting on several fundraisers for her family.
"When they first started doing it, I didn't know what to think," she said. "When people say, 'Here's money,' I say thank you, but I feel like it's not enough."
Clayton said Hamlin has displayed incredible maturity that underscores who she is -- generous, caring and a friend to anyone.
"She said something yesterday, believe it or not -- 'As rough as this is, it's kind of a blessing.' I said, 'Why do you say that?' 'It's kind of connecting people. It's bringing a lot of people together.' "
Road to recovery
Hamlin has finished two of five rounds of chemo, and the prognosis is good. If all goes according to plan, she should be home in September, though she would like to see her older brother, Tucker, and cousin Hattie Johnson graduate from River View next month. Playing volleyball this fall doesn't seem likely, but Hamlin plans on playing basketball and softball later in her senior year.
"I can't imagine not playing sports and not having my old life back," she said. "I'm really positive I'll be able to do that."
Upcoming fundraisers for Abi
* Friday, bake sale, Kennewick Walmart
* Saturday, Longbranch Bar & Grill pig feed, Finley
* June 11, rummage sale, location TBD
* June 17, Golf Fore Abi Tournament, Canyon Lakes Golf Course, Kennewick
* For more information, contact Joe Lusignan at jlusignan@ frontier.com or Mindy McCoy at email@example.com.
Also, donations may be made at Gesa Credit Union in the name of Abi or Ty Hamlin.