‘The smile of this team’: Portage Central’s Sophie Varney wages spirited battle against DIPG

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Sophie Varney with parents Mark and Kim.

Kalamazoo – It was fitting that Tuesday was a beautiful spring day, with abundant sunshine and 70 degrees, as Portage Central freshman softball player Sophie Varney took the field for a doubleheader against Kalamazoo Loy Norrix.

Varney, 14, was diagnosed in December with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), an inoperable brain tumor and the same condition that took the life of Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr.

Varney endured 30 consecutive days of radiation treatment after her diagnosis and is currently taking an experimental drug. But Tuesday was a day for the Portage Central team to support Varney in her fight against DIPG and to celebrate her determination to get back on the softball field.

Varney had been the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter all season on the JV team. But Portage Central second-year varsity coach Lisa Kiino recently told Varney’s parents – Kim and Mark – that Sophie would be promoted to the varsity for the rest of the season and that she would get a start in Tuesday’s doubleheader at Western Michigan University’s Ebert Field.

“Our seniors wanted to put something together for her because of the type of kid she is,” Kiino said. “She’s been at every practice, been at school every day. She’s not missed one time, never has had a bad attitude, never complained about anything. We wanted to celebrate her 2019 season.”

Sophie Varney scores in the second inning of the second game.

And, celebrate they did. Between games – Portage Central won the opener 11-3 – Varney and her parents walked to the mound and her story was told by the PA announcer while she received gifts from teammates and coaches, and her mother received flowers. The Portage Central players wore uniforms that had “SOPHIE STRONG” on the back, above the numbers. The teams took a picture together at home plate prior to the game, then Kiino sent Varney to right field, telling her that she would be batting eighth in the order.

“All of our starters and seniors offered up their spots because they wanted her to start,” Kiino said.

In her first varsity at-bat, Varney slammed a pitch for an opposite-field single between first and second with one out in the second to start an eight-run uprising. She scored for a 2-0 lead, then reached on an error later in the same inning but didn’t score.

In the fourth, Varney walked and alertly scored from second when a pop up eluded the pitcher and catcher, and she noticed no one was covering home plate, giving Portage Central a 13-3 lead. Portage Central went on to score another run and won 14-4 in a five-inning mercy-rule game to improve to 15-11-1.

Varney took home the game ball.

Cherishing every day

Varney admitted she was nervous before the game.

“I didn’t expect any of this,” Sophie said. “I’m real happy all the girls are behind me, supporting me. They are really good people and friends. I’ll probably remember it forever. I thought it was amazing because it was my first varsity start.

Portage Central coach Lisa Kiino cheers on her team as Sophie Varney waits on deck.

“(Earlier this year) they said I shouldn’t play for a bit, and then when they allowed me to play right before the season started I was glad because I wasn’t trying to let it stop me from doing anything.”

As for getting a hit in her first varsity at-bat, Varney said, “I was pretty nervous, but it was right down the middle so I swung and I’m glad I hit it. I was really glad to be able to contribute to the score.”

Varney’s teammates were all smiles when they learned she would be starting Tuesday. Senior catcher/first baseman Rebecca Cottrell is impressed with Varney’s spirit and her love of softball.

“The seniors thought of this early in the season when we figured out what was going on with Sophie and we wanted to have a game to celebrate her and all that she’s gone through,” Cottrell said.

Sophie Varney is given the game ball after Portage Central's victory.

“She would come from a treatment right over to practice. We appreciate Sophie so much. She is the smile of this team. She’s always been so positive and we love having her around, so this was the best way to honor her.”

Kim Varney is thrilled that her daughter is feeling well enough to play the game she loves. She said their family is living in the moment, cherishing every day and hopeful of the future.

Kim says softball is a great motivator for Sophie.

“She was diagnosed on Dec. 20,” Kim said. “We were traveling back and forth to Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) every day for a 4 o’clock treatment, and then two hours back in time for dinner.

“She had to go to radiation every day for 30 days – started on Jan. 6 and finished a couple of weeks before tryouts. Then, she was cleared to play, which was amazing, and she’s playing really well. I guarantee you wouldn’t know that she has a brain tumor if you didn’t already know it. She feels great.”

Warning sign

Kim said she was told by Sophie’s Michigan Elite U-14 travel coach, Jim Meduna, that he believed something was wrong with her vision.

“He noticed with just a turn of the head really and pushed me to get her in, and that’s how we found the tumor,” Kim said. “She went to UM and they said that’s the smallest tumor they’ve seen for this diagnosis of DIPG, which carries a particularly grim prognosis, but she’s cleared to play and she’s on an experimental drug that we hope keeps the tumor at bay.

Sophie Varney and her mom Kim are pictured between games on Tuesday.

“For now she looks good and she feels good, which means DIPG stable is a win, and right now as long as she feels well that means the tumor is stable. It shrunk 18 percent at the first MRI, and we expect to see another improvement just because her vision has improved and she feels good.”

The drug Sophie is taking is ONC201.

“She’s the sixth patient nationwide to be on the drug and in radiation concurrently,” Kim said. “As long as she feels good we’re going to keep living. We’re packing in the vacations this summer and just trying to enjoy her and make the most of it.”

Meduna said he first noticed a problem with Varney’s vision last summer as the travel season was getting underway.

“Once we got the team organized everything was going great, but I noticed a couple of things where her head was twisting a little bit or where she was overcompensating for one eye more than the other, so I told her mom, ‘You might want to get something looked at, because I think one eye is becoming more dominant than the other,’ Meduna said. “She had her eyes checked and everything came out fine, so we let it go for a bit longer.

“Well, as the fall went on it got progressively worse. She got it checked and we found out she had cancer, so things changed quite a bit from there.”

Meduna looked on with pride Tuesday as Varney took the field for Portage Central.

“She is one of those kids who wants to make everyone laugh, make everyone smile,” Meduna said. “She’s doing very well right now and we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”