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Northwestern coaches celebrate life, strength

6/1/2006

Tears, both of joy and sorrow, will be shed almost as profusely as sweat under the sweltering sun at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City over the next seven days.

Beginning with Thursday's opener between Arizona and Oregon State, eight teams will take the field focused on the task at hand, but secretly imagining what it might feel like to grasp the trophy and crowd-surf teammates in the championship pileup on the tournament's final night.

Only one group of players will live out the dream, but probably every one of the approximately 150 individuals wearing cleats would tell you they'd give anything to win the championship.

And that's as it should be for kids who have not only spent long hours running miles, lifting weights and swinging bats, but who have transformed that raw effort into a better finished product than all but seven other softball teams.

For them, the center of the solar system for the next few days has a lot more to do with the yellow orb spinning toward the plate than the yellow orb hovering in the sky above Oklahoma City.

Northwestern coach Kate Drohan and her twin sister Caryl who serves as the team's top assistant coach, and de facto co-coach, know the feeling as they lead the Wildcats to the Women's College World Series in just the fourth year at the helm of a program that hasn't advanced to this stage since 1986.

"We met this morning, and we talked a lot about the things we need to take care of off the field," Kate said on Monday after her team's final full practice on campus. "And in the middle of the meeting, Sheila McCorkle, my senior, interrupted me and she said, 'We're going down here to win. This is going to be fun, but we're going down here to win it all.'"


McCorkle's commitment is evidence of the same drive John Drohan helped nurture in his twin daughters as they went from Danbury, Conn., to the pinnacle of college softball.

But whether or not the Wildcats live out their dream of winning it all, Kate and Caryl, 32, ought to serve as a visible reminder to all eight teams that a willingness to give everything you have, no matter the outcome, is a skill that will outlast the ability to hit a cut-off or drop down a bunt.

Because perhaps the biggest victory of all this weekend is that as a two-time organ-transplant recipient -- including a kidney donated by Kate in 2004 -- John Drohan will be able to tune in and watch his daughters.

A retired arson investigator with the Yonkers, N.Y. Fire Department, John presided over what in many ways sounds like a typical family in the Northeast.

"There are four kids in the family, two older brothers," Kate said. "They basically beat us up as children, as older brothers do. They started throwing things at us, and that's how we learned to catch things, you know? Either you're going to get hit by it, or you're going to catch it."

But sports were about more than just learning survival traits in the Drohan household; they were a unifying force, no matter the season.

"We watched a lot of baseball on TV; we were huge Mets fans growing up. We went down to Shea Stadium all the time. … We just watched the Giants religiously on Sunday."

And the father was right in the middle of things when his children stepped on the field.

"Our father coached us in basketball and in softball," Kate said. "He tried to be supportive during field hockey, but he never understood that. … He taught us how to play [baseball and softball], and we learned the game by watching baseball with him as often as we could."

Idyllic as it sound, the Drohans were little different from countless other families who banded together over baseball diamonds and soccer fields. Their family includes one of the longest surviving heart-transplant recipients in the country.

Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease affecting heart muscle, John became a candidate for a heart transplant when his daughters were just 10 years old.

"At that point, heart transplants were somewhat science fiction," Kate recalled. "He had the procedure done at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. His was the first one that was ever publicized from that hospital."

Though now the fourth most common transplant, according to the National Institute of Health, heart transplants remained exceedingly rare for well over a decade following the first human heart transplant in 1967 in South Africa. According to the Columbia University Medical Center Web site, the first heart transplant there was in 1977.

Drohan recalls that the hospital included her father, a fireman married to a nurse, as the center of a campaign to promote organ donation and that the family took part in several speaking engagements to promote education about the process.

But for a kid, the whole thing was still a little baffling.

"I was only 10 years old, and I didn't really understand what was happening and the risks involved, particularly because this was a relatively new idea," Drohan said. "But we were just happy … this was our best option."

The initial outlook was still rather grim, but John beat the odds in a big way. As Drohan recalled, "They gave him about a 50 percent chance of living for four years, and 22 years later, here he is."

But not without an assist from Kate in the fall of 2004.

"His kidneys were full of tumors, so they weren't functioning really at all," Kate said of a problem that developed as a long-term complication from his heart medicine. "He was on dialysis for the better part of a year, and then they decided he would be an excellent candidate for a transplant."

With a long waiting list, tests were done to see whether there was a possible donor in the family. Not that there was any shortage of volunteers.

"At that point, all four kids, we were basically fighting over who could do it," Kate said.

John's younger brother, Brian, was initially targeted as a good match, which turned out to be a remarkable stroke of good luck, although not for the reasons John might have initially thought.

"Dad was a little hesitant to let one of his kids do it … you know," and here Kate paused, searched for words, and continued on with the mixture of love, admiration and frustration that sons and daughters used to a stubbornness that transcends nationality can empathize with in saying, "He's a proud Irishman. And at first that was absolutely out of the question."

But as the screening process continued, doctors discovered Brian had prostate cancer, a discovery that likely saved his life.

After testing the kids, Kate and Caryl turned up as the only matches, setting off the kind of battle of stubborn wills that surely brought a secret smile to their dad's face.

"It's interesting, because Caryl and I, we've really mastered the concept of compromise being twins growing up, but neither of us were going to give in on this one," Kate said. "It was very, very difficult. We knew we were really the only option he had, and both of us wanted so desperately to do it."

In the end, a phone call from mom, whom Kate credits with being the glue that kept the family together through John's heart transplant, brought a unique resolution.

"It was a Monday morning and we were sitting in our office, and mom called and she said, "All right, we have got to get moving on this. We need to decide.' So we called the assistant volleyball coach into our office and we said, 'Can you flip this coin for us?"

Caryl called, and Kate won, ending the debate.

"I really think my role in all of this was easier," Kate said of donating the kidney. "I wouldn't have wanted to be the one waiting in the waiting room. [Caryl] provided our whole family with an incredible amount of support through the time. We knew we would both be incredibly instrumental in helping our father through this, but we were just played different roles."

Different paths to the same goal is something the twins have been practicing all their lives.

"We're best friends, she's awesome," Kate said of Caryl. "When we were growing up, mom and dad really celebrated our differences. We're definitely two very different people as far as our personalities and our strengths and weaknesses. But obviously we have similar interests, similar hobbies and similar careers."

Careers which brought them from the East Coast, where they starred on the diamond at Providence College, to Evanston, Ill., where at just 27, they inherited a program from longtime Northwestern coach Sharon Drysdale (for whom the current field is named).

And while the administration might have had some reservations about their new coach essentially sharing the reins with her twin sister -- Kate said the powers that be gave them just a one-year trial for the unique arrangement -- the result has been nothing short of spectacular. With the Drohans' first recruiting class just now preparing for graduation, the program is headed to Oklahoma City as the fourth overall seed, facing Alabama in the opener on Thursday night.

Kate said her dad's health doesn't permit him to follow the team in person, but that hasn't stopped him from keeping tabs on the Wildcats, just as the family used to follow the Mets.

"All year, I've traveled our radio guys to as many games as we can do," Kate said. "And we did live video streaming online, just so he can watch it. It's funny, when I talk to my brothers and they go visit him this time of year, they're like, 'There are box scores all over the house.' He's already scouting Alabama."

Like the players and coaches in Oklahoma City, Kate and Caryl's dad is focused on the games. Every effort will be made, every ounce of energy expended, in the pursuit of winning.

And when it's prematurely over for seven teams, those involved might feel like all of those hours and all those sacrifices went for naught.

But the hours John spent teaching the game to his daughters, throwing with them after a long day at a dangerous job or coaching them with what free hours he had, were about preparing them to win more than one game in one season.

And whether or not it takes the form of something as dramatic as an organ donation, every player on the field this weekend might one day find that same determination and will to win far more useful than any trophy.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.