T aylor Manno sat with her family in a plane on the tarmac at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a Friday afternoon last June, one of the few people hoping its takeoff would be delayed just a few minutes longer.

Three hours earlier, Manno was at Caswell Park in North Mankato, the starting pitcher for Chanhassen in the Class 4A softball state championship game. She got through four innings before the skies turned slate-gray, ushering in a deluge blown sideways by the wind.

When the storm finally subsided and play resumed, Manno was on the plane, bound for New Jersey to honor a commitment she simply could not change, even though it meant leaving her team in its biggest game of the year.

“I kept refreshing [my phone] for updates to see what was happening,” Manno said. “We got lucky because I found out we won just before they came around and told everyone to turn off their phones. I was so happy, but at the same time, I was sad because I wasn’t there with my team.”

“We both had a tear running down our faces, knowing they had won but Taylor not there with them,” recalled Christine Manno, Taylor’s mother.

Back in Mankato, however, in the jubilant melee after the victory, there were no hard feelings, no questioning of priorities. The talk centered on Taylor’s value to the team and the vital role she played in the championship.

It was a show of unconditional support and genuine affection for an absent team member who made a difficult decision. Little did Manno know how important that support would become.

Fateful phone call

Christine remembers the call she got from her husband, Mike, the morning of March 31, just a few days after his 50th birthday, as concerning but not particularly urgent.

“He was home, working out downstairs, and he felt a pinch between his shoulder blades. He called me. I was thinking I was going to be taking him to the emergency room for back spasms or something like that,” she said.

As she entered the house, she called for him. No response. She looked throughout, expecting to find him getting ready to leave.

“I went upstairs and that’s where I found him,” she said. “He’d had a massive heart attack, right next to our bed.”

Mike Manno had grown up on Long Island, N.Y., part of a family that loved the New York Mets and had a history of heart trouble. The latter was a genetic trait they hoped Mike had avoided. He was tested after having symptoms about five years ago in Arizona and results seemed to suggest good news.

“We walked away, thinking he’d gotten lucky, that he doesn’t have that in his genes,’’ Christine said. “And that’s what took him.”

At the time, Taylor was with teammates at the family cabin of Marybeth Olson near Backus, Minn. Olson’s mother, Marnie, received the call.

“My mom gave the phone to Taylor and her uncle told her,” Marybeth Olson said, her voice cracking. “It was … it was so hard watching her get that news.”

The girls closed ranks around Taylor, doing what they could to help, mostly with hugs.

“You can’t imagine what this poor girl is going through, and there is nothing you can say to make her feel better,” Marnie Olson said. “They just wanted to show that she had people around her who cared.”

A father’s influence

To Mike Manno, nothing mattered more than his daughters. It was Mike who recognized the softball talents in both Alyssa, the eldest by 2 ½ years and also a pitcher, and Taylor, who wavered between softball and basketball.

“He identified right away Taylor’s skill in softball,” Christine Manno said. “He said to her, ‘You may say that basketball is your favorite sport, but you’re a natural athlete when it comes to softball. You will go much further in softball.’ Then he backed off and let her make that decision.”

Like most teenager/parent relationships, the relationship had its ups and downs. “They were so much alike,” Christine said. “Taylor’s not a real cuddly type, never was. But they always knew the love was there.”

When Taylor’s abilities as a pitcher began to become evident, Mike dropped everything to catch for her. Christine said she helped coach her daughters in basketball and softball when they were younger but “I couldn’t catch Taylor. She was more accurate and threw a lot faster.”

At first, Taylor wasn’t sure she wanted to be a pitcher, but eventually she proved Mike’s assessment of her talent was spot-on.

“I’m not even sure how I became a pitcher. I had no interest in it,” she said last week. “What changed was when I realized I was really good. I was good at it, and I could throw it harder than most people my age.”

Slow recovery

In the aftermath of her father’s death, Taylor has had an up-and-down season as a pitcher. While she has impressed at times and her team has excelled, she’s missed a few games, too, dealing with the sudden loss. “We’ve told her to take whatever time she needs,” Christine said. “She’s come to me a couple of times and said, ‘Mom, I don’t think I can play today,’ and that’s fine.”

At first, Chanhassen coach Joe Coenen would ask Manno how she felt. He has stopped asking, worried it might put extra pressure on her.

“She’s going to have good days, and she’s going to have a lot of bad days,’’ he said. ‘‘Taylor will do what she needs to do, and my job is the rest of the team.”

Chanhassen is as deep and talented as any Minnesota high school team. Olson, a shortstop/pitcher, has signed with the University of Connecticut. Catcher Jessica Bren is headed to Minnesota Duluth. Junior pitcher Maddie Schwartz has verbally committed to Wisconsin. Manno’s trip to New Jersey resulted in a scholarship to play for Rutgers. This season, she is 4-1 with a 1.14 ERA. Good, but not up to previous standards. She’s been better at the plate, hitting .446 with a team-leading six home runs and 22 RBI.

The Storm has been ranked No. 1 in Class 4A all season and has an excellent chance at repeating as champions as section playoffs continue this week and next.

But it’s not the victories, awards and scholarships that will define Chanhassen this season. This season has become so much more.

Taylor doesn’t talk about her father. The closest she gets is acknowledging her season has “had a few bumps in the road.” Yet her voice perks up and her mood lightens when talk turns to softball.

“We are so close, and we have so much fun together,” she said. “We’re really close during the season. We have sleepovers where they camp out in someone’s backyard and hang out all day. We get fish together or we decorate the rock [Chanhassen has a designated boulder that teams are allowed to paint to show team spirit]. Doesn’t every school have a rock?”

The Storm recently honored her father on Senior Night, with the entire team wearing New York Mets T-shirts and hats in warmups as a tribute.

“That spoke volumes,” Christine Manno said. “We didn’t socialize a lot with the rest of the team, but that says a lot about the people with the team.”

Taylor’s loss has changed the way the Chanhassen players view softball. They still want to win another title, but pressure to repeat has eased.

“Our perspective has changed,” Marybeth Olson said. “At the end of the day, you don’t remember the wins and losses but the time we spend together. It’s just a game, but the most important thing is building lifetime friends and memories.”