A spot on Farmington senior pitcher Maddie Muelken’s collarbone was lingering. It was Presidents’ Day, a day off from school for her, so Muelken decided to have it checked out.
She never expected what she heard.
“The doctor felt swollen lymph nodes and my white blood cell count was slightly elevated,” Muelken recalled.
More tests, chest X-rays and CT scans revealed stunning news.
“The doctor said she was 95 percent sure it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Muelken said. “I sat there, shocked. At first, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. My first thought was ‘Will I still be able to play softball?’ ”
There is nothing good or easy about cancer. It’s a battle every day — having something consistent to hold on to is vital. For Muelken, softball provided that sense of normalcy in a very abnormal situation.
“My doctor said that, if I was going to get cancer, this was the best kind to get for a person my age,” she said. “I realized I could still continue to have a normal lifestyle, keep playing softball. That made every day better.”
She missed four games at the start of the season after surgeries to have a biopsy and to install a port to administer chemotherapy.
“And I missed one game because of my first chemo when I didn’t know what to expect,” she said.
Since that time, however, Muelken had been a steady presence on the rubber for the Tigers, posting a 14-3 record and pitching them to the Class 4A state tournament. She couldn’t have done it withouth the outpouring of support she received from family, friends and even foes.
“I didn’t realize how big of a support network I had,” she said. “My family and my team and the other sports [at Farmington]. And from others teams, too, like Rosemount, Eagan, Eastview, Apple Valley. It’s been crazy.”
So far, the treatments have been remarkably positive. After the first round of chemo, she was told she was “95-percent cancer free.”
“ But there was a little bit left between the first and second rounds,” she said. “Overall, I’m going to have four rounds, just to make sure.”
Not surprisingly, her bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma has given Muelken a new perspective on her life.
“With softball, I’ve always been a big competitor. Now, I’ve stepped back a little bit,” she said. “It’s not as important. It’s just a game and I just want to have fun.”
She couldn’t resist a softball metaphor when talking about her approach to cancer, however.
“This isn’t getting me down. I’m kicking cancer to the curb,” she said. “I’m striking cancer out.”
Defending champion Chanhassen (23-1) has been considered the favorite all season. The Storm feature a potent offense and three Division I pitchers in seniors Taylor Manno (Rutgers) and Marybeth Olson (Connecticut), and junior Maddie Schwartz (Wisconsin).
No. 2-seeded Anoka, with Amber Elliott, and No. 3-seeded Woodbury, with Ashley Mickschl, have the pitching needed to make a significant run while both Farmington and Buffalo have the balance to make a push for the title.
Is a rematch of the 2016 championship game looming? Defending champ and No. 1-seeded Mankato West lost all-state pitcher Lexi Schoper to graduation but has a fine replacement in junior Briggs Carlson and a clutch bat in Hannah Hastings, who set a school record with 49 RBI.
No. 3-seeded Winona, which lost to Mankato West 4-3 in the final in 2016, has an enviable core of seniors in pitcher Ashton Hoeppner, catcher Justine Schultz, second-baseman Rhiannon Reinardy and shortstop Katie Block.
No. 2-seeded Totino-Grace has a 16-game winning streak behind pitcher Erin Poepping (17-2, 1.00 ERA).
Maple Lake (24-0) has been rolling all season and has shown no signs of slowing down. The No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Irish average nearly 11 runs per game, with just two of their victories decided by fewer than five runs.
Defending champion Zumbrota-Mazeppa earned the No. 2 seed and, in the Section 1 playoffs showed the resolve needed to repeat. It defeated Rochester Lourdes twice in the finals, avenging two earlier losses to the Eagles.
Defending champion Edgerton/Southwest Christian is making its fourth consecutive tournament appearance. The Flying Dutchmen put up eye-popping numbers in the 2016 tournament (35 runs, .457 team batting average) and appear to be nearly as good offensively this year, averaging more than nine runs per game. No. 2-seeded New York Mills looks just as dangerous, scoring 272 runs in 24 games and striking out just 61 times collectively over that span.