The UF softball team will have more than luck on its side when it takes the field in Oklahoma City.
The Gators play their first game in the Women’s College World Series against Oklahoma State Thursday. While all eight teams are vying for college softball immortality and a chance to write their name into history, Florida is fueled by something much more powerful:
The source of the unicorn vibes is 9-year-old Hartley Georges from Jacksonville.
Hartley has been on a journey few girls her age ever have to deal with. She was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer, in August.
Hartley is a competitive gymnast. She was practicing at Starlight Gymnastics on a Wednesday in August when something didn’t seem quite right.
“She couldn't run in a straight line,” said Michelle Georges, Hartley’s mother. “I would kind of give it the analogy of a deer running for the first time. She wasn't in gymnast form.”
Issues with Hartley’s balance continued. She couldn’t wear wedge heels to church on Sunday. She had to switch to flats.
Hartley didn’t have an appetite either, and she vomited randomly.
Michelle took her daughter to their ear, nose and throat doctor on Monday, but all tests came back negative. The only thing left was a CAT scan.
So that night, Michelle and her husband, Matt Georges, drove Hartley downtown to Wolfson Children’s Hospital for the scan. Two hours after the test, Hartley was admitted with a brain tumor.
Two days later, Hartley spent eight hours in surgery having the tumor removed. A biopsy came back saying it was malignant, and Hartley was diagnosed with medulloblastoma.
It was October in Gainesville, and the Florida softball team was in the middle of its fall season.
First baseman/left fielder Amanda Lorenz had an idea for adding a new teammate.
From 2009-14, Heather Braswell was an irreplaceable part of the Gators’ dugout. Heather was diagnosed with cancer when she was 12 and was adopted by the team through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.
Lorenz never had the privilege of knowing Heather. She passed away before Lorenz’ freshman season in 2016.
However, Lorenz knew the legacy Heather left behind. She dressed in a Florida locker room where a locker was dedicated Heather. And every Saturday, Lorenz and her teammates wear Heather’s favorite flower in their hair: a sunflower.
Lorenz, now a senior, wanted a relationship built from the same foundations as Heather’s with the UF program. The Florida women’s lacrosse and gymnastics teams had also adopted kids through the Friends of Jaclyn.
She approached her coach, Tim Walton, about adopting a new teammate.
Walton approved, so Lorenz prepared and sent an application to the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. Less than a week later, she received a response. There was a 9-year-old girl from Jacksonville named Hartley, and she needed a team.
“It was cool that it was on my heart for a long time,” Lorenz said. “I just felt like God was speaking to me to do something bigger than softball.”
The UF softball team ended practice on Nov. 14 with cause for celebration. It was signing day for its newest member.
Hartley joined her teammates on the practice fields at UF’s Southwest Recreation Center. She and her 7-year-old brother, Carter, got to meet the team for the first time.
Hartley and Lorenz instantly connected.
“She probably thought I was psycho the first day because I was just so excited to give her a big hug. Like, there was no handshake,” Lorenz said. “I was just so excited to welcome her into our program.”
Lorenz and Hartley FaceTime, call or text every day. Hartley has her own Florida softball jersey with the No. 18, matching Lorenz.
“She gives me the biggest high fives and fist bumps whether I struck out or hit a home run,” Lorenz said. “She still greets me with the same smile.”
Hartley and Carter have become mainstays in the Florida dugout. They’ve developed relationships with many players on the team. Amanda Beane, a Jacksonville native, wears No. 81 to be Hartley’s reverse twin, and Sophia Reynoso developed a unicorn handshake with Hartley that they exclusively share.
“It's just awesome to see their smiles and they support us no matter what,” Lorenz said. “So it's really cool to have their love around us all the time.”
Michelle and Matt bring their children to Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium for a game whenever they can. During the Gainesville Super Regional when Florida faced Tennessee, Michelle and Hartley watched all three games from her fourth-floor hospital room at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Hartley had stem cells harvested from her body in January, and on May 20 some were reinjected. She’s eating well and she’s in good spirits, Michelle said. However, she must stay confined in her hospital room while her immune system is weak.
The first thing Lorenz did after the Gators qualified for the WCWS was FaceTime Hartley from the field.
“She's convinced that she's their good luck charm,” Michelle said. “So they have a running joke that she sends unicorn vibes.”
In addition to the team and Hartley’s family, Denis Murphy was also present at Hartley’s signing day in November.
The Murphy Family founded the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation in 2005.
Denis had worn the shoes of Michelle and Matt Georges. His journey and the journey of his daughter, Jaclyn, began in 2004.
Like Hartley, Jaclyn Murphy was a budding athlete at 9.
She played soccer and lacrosse, but when her family noticed she was having difficulty with her gait and balance they rushed her to the local hospital in Dutchess County, New York.
Jaclyn received a CAT scan that revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in brain. She was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, just like Hartley, and given a 30-percent chance to live.
Jaclyn’s lacrosse coach had connections with Kelly Amonte Hiller, head coach of the women’s lacrosse team at Northwestern. She received a care package from the team in the mail. The package included a media guide with a schedule on the back cover. The closest game to Jaclyn was at Johns Hopkins.
Jaclyn and Denis drove five hours down to Baltimore to watch the Wildcats play. During the ride, Jaclyn lay in the back seat and asked her dad if she could meet the team.
Denis contacted then-Northwestern assistant coach Alexis Venechanos (now head coach of Ohio State). Venechanos invited Jaclyn to come meet the team during its pregame meal at the Marriott Hotel.
“I just thought we're gonna go in and say hi, and then go to the game,” Denis said. “But she gets in there and speaks openly about her experience. And there's no oxygen left in the room.”
Jaclyn rode to the game on the team bus. Then, Northwestern claimed an upset victory over then-No. 4 Johns Hopkins.
Jaclyn left Baltimore with a team full of friends. The Wildcats kept in contact with her, sending her texts, talking on the phone and sending her mail.
One day while Jaclyn was receiving treatment on the ninth floor of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, she was texting her friends from Northwestern.
“To me, that's where Heaven and Hell meet,” Denis said about the pediatric center at Memorial Sloan Kettering. “(Jaclyn’s) sitting in hell, but she's oblivious because she's text messaging these girls in Chicago.”
A girl in the next bed, who was battling colon cancer, asked Jaclyn who she was texting. Jaclyn told the girl about her lacrosse-playing friends from Chicago. Then, she turned to her father.
“Dad, we gotta get her a team,” Jaclyn said before returning to texting.
That’s when Denis had the idea.
“Every kid that’s sitting in hell there needs a team,” he said.
Jaclyn’s first season with the Northwestern lacrosse team blossomed into a journey several years long. The 2005 season ended with an improbable NCAA Championship for the Wildcats, the first in program history. Then, Northwestern repeated its on-the-field success four more times.
The Wildcats won five consecutive national titles from 2005-09, each with Jaclyn as the good luck charm.
After Jaclyn’s first season with Northwestern, the Murphy Family started the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. Today, Jaclyn is healthy and cancer free.
The foundation had 150 child-team pairings in 2009 when HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel shared Jaclyn’s story. In 2013, Real Sports did a follow-up for the foundation’s 500th adoption.
The Friends of Jaclyn has paired over 800 children with sports teams in 47 states as well as Canada. There are 1,200 teams with applications submitted waiting to adopt a child.
The Friends of Jaclyn includes teams as small as the high school ranks and as large as the New York Yankees. The foundation is also expanding into arts and music for children who don’t like sports.
Children have been paired with the Yale men’s acapella group, the West Point parachute team and the Los Angeles Opera.
The foundation also has a Guardian Angel Program that connects children who have relapsed or are on hospice with people from all over the country.
Anyone can sign up for the Guardian Angel Program. Once a member, you’ll receive a text alert that a child is in need of a lift in spirits. Then, it’s as easy as responding to alert with a message of encouragement the child will receive.
“I'm about what can we do for these kids today. Not tomorrow, or week or year, five years from now,” Denis said. “I always say there's no chemotherapy, there's no radiation treatment, and there's no clinical trial drug more powerful than love, support and friendship.”
Ending note: To learn more about the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and how you can support it, you can visit its website at https://www.friendsofjaclyn.org/. You can also learn how to support Hartley and the Georges family by visiting their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/OurheartswithHart/.
Mark Stine is the editor-in-chief at The Alligator. You can follow him on Twitter @mstinejr or contact him at [email protected].
Correction: Amanda Lorenz' freshman season was changed from 2015 to 2016.