'Shining light': TJ softball put Senior Day spotlight on Natalie McMaster, who has battled cancer for 6 years

·7 min read

Jun. 11—A hug from a friend she had just played against, selfies with teammates and a greeting from her proud, sobbing mother.

Surely, Thomas Johnson senior Natalie McMaster wasn't the first pitcher in softball history to experience those things after recording an out.

But usually, it's the final out of a game that triggers such a reaction, not the first out.

McMaster, whose battle with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia had prevented her from previously playing for the Patriots this season, got the nod from coach Paul Jennings to be TJ's starting pitcher during the team's Senior Night game against visiting Linganore on May 26.

A second baseman who was pitching competitively for the first time in about eight years, McMaster would face just one batter, Lancers leadoff hitter Gabby Krystofiak, who coincidentally happened to be one of her best friends.

Jennings was more-than-willing to risk the worst-case scenario — a Krystofiak homer — to give a precious moment in the spotlight to McMaster, who cheerfully attended games and practices all season long while recovering from a second bone marrow transplant in a fight against cancer that is in its sixth year.

But after getting an all-important first-pitch strike against Krystofiak, McMaster induced a fly out to the center fielder with her second and final pitch.

"I made an out," said McMaster, 18, who gave up pitching to play second base on her 10U team. "I was so excited."

The excitement was catchy.

"[Krystofiak] came over and we gave each other a hug," said McMaster, who befriended the Linganore senior years earlier when they both played for the Maryland Express travel softball team.

After Jennings called a timeout, McMaster posed for pictures with Krystofiak, Jennings and TJ's other seniors in the pitcher's circle.

"Then I walked off the field and went over to my parents, and Mom [Eileen] was sobbing," McMaster said. "She was like, 'Oh my gosh, you pitched a strike!'"

McMaster's day wasn't done. Using the designated player/flex spot, Jennings had McMaster lead off the bottom of the first before taking her out of the game for good. She fouled off some pitches and worked a full count before striking out.

"It was just so exciting to be back, even just a little bit of playing softball," McMaster said. "This whole season has been exciting and fun, but I definitely missed it, just watching everybody and stuff."

McMaster hadn't played for the Patriots since her sophomore season, when she got into one game — Jennings let her play three innings — after having chemotherapy that morning. With her junior season wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, McMaster's only full season at TJ came as a freshman, when her older sister, Abbey McMaster, was a senior player for the Patriots.

"Natalie's been a part of the program for four years, so I definitely wanted to do something special for her," Jennings said. "She's been going through cancer the past six years, so we were just looking to give her a chance to get a little bit of shining light since she hasn't been able to play [extensively] since her freshman year."

McMaster was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) as a 12-year-old in 2015, and the cancer returned when she was a sophomore. She was unable to play this season — save for Senior Night — because she got her second bone marrow transplant in March at the University of Maryland Medical Center after getting cancer for the third time.

"It really sucks that I got cancer three times in my life, but I had nothing to do with it, I can't control it," she said. "I think, why worry, why get anxious, upset, mad and everything? I just try to keep as positive as I can."

"She's obviously had her ups and downs," said Tony McMaster, who is Natalie's father. "Right now, her stamina is way down. She's still recovering."

While she's been feeling stronger every day since her transplant, her body can only take so much activity.

"It's definitely a struggle to do things for a long time," she said. "Just even warming up to pitch on Senior Night, I pitched maybe five pitches, and I was like, 'All right, I need to take a break before I actually do it or I'm going to wear myself out.'"

Brainstorming for a way to get McMaster on the field for Senior Night, Jennings considered putting her in the outfield. But remembering she had pitched years earlier, he asked if she wanted to start the game in the pitcher's circle.

"And like, immediately, her eyes lit up," Tony McMaster said.

Only thing was, McMaster had to dust off her pitching arm.

"She pitched during rec ball and a little bit in travel ball, but she was never really a pitcher," said Tony, who served as Natalie's catcher in their backyard, where she became reacquainted with pitching.

Jennings figured McMaster would only want to throw one or two pitches against Linganore. Turns out, she wanted to work the entire at-bat.

"I was like, 'All right, cool. We can go with that,'" he said.

Facing Krystofiak made McMaster's start all-the-more special.

"When I found out that my best friend was the leadoff hitter, I was like 'Oh my gosh, this is perfect," McMaster said. "We're both seniors, this is kind of it for us, and we had played together for so long, it was just really an exciting moment."

While this was McMaster's only appearance on the field as a player this season, she hasn't let cancer prevent her from being with the team and helping out any way she could. She even served as TJ's first base coach when Jennings missed a game against Frederick because of his job.

"She comes almost every day unless she's got some kind of treatment or she's not feeling well," Jennings said.

McMaster will take a gap year before attending Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, giving her more time to recover and allowing more time for COVID-19, which is all-the-more threatening to transplant patients, to dissipate.

A sign of progress has been a change in how often McMaster must get lab work done — she no longer has to have it every week.

"She's doing so well that they're going to do every two weeks, then she'll be every month," Tony said. "All her labs looked good, she's feeling really good."

Tony figured Natalie's battle with ALL has forced her to spend about 150 days in hospitals, including three months at the Seattle Children's Center.

By now, the McMaster family has become close with nurses at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and that's helped Natalie's sister, Abbey, a University of Maryland nursing student who now works at that very hospital.

"They're taking Abbey under their wing," Tony said.

While trying to stay positive, Natalie McMaster understandably has been frustrated by limitations imposed on her by cancer, and those limitations have been enhanced by the coronavirus pandemic.

"With COVID, it's definitely been difficult to do more normal things," she said. "With the vaccine, it's been helpful. I can't get it yet, but everybody around me has gotten it for my safety, which I appreciate."

McMaster's doctors advised her to hold off on getting the COVID vaccine because others who recently had transplants didn't have the best results after being vaccinated. She said doctors want to be 100 percent sure the vaccine won't do more harm than good for someone in her situation.

She takes precautions to guard against exposure but has still managed to partake in high school milestones. Aside from TJ's softball Senior Night, McMaster got to walk across the stage at her graduation ceremony on June 1.

"I feel like I haven't been in high school, I've just been in the hospital," she said. "It's definitely been a whirlwind."

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