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HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — Finally, McKenzie Woods broke into a smile.

After spending the first 13 minutes of her signing day ceremony inside James Madison’s Memorial Hall with her eyes firmly locked on Dukes interim softball coach Loren LaPorte and her mouth closed straight across her face, the 8-year-old from Churchville flashed a wide grin. Her eyes lit up when JMU sophomore outfielder Michala Pellegrino walked to the table.

“She’s like another little sister,” Pellegrino said.

McKenzie never had an option.

“I didn’t give her a choice,” the sophomore out of Leesburg said. “She had to be my sister.”

Diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 29, McKenzie was welcomed to the James Madison softball team on Jan. 22, signing a National Letter of Intent through Team IMPACT, a Boston-based nonprofit group that connects children with serious illnesses to college teams.

The organization’s goal is for the children to form lifelong bonds with team members.

With Pellegrino taking the lead, that bond is solidifying after it quickly formed during McKenzie’s first meeting with the team just before Christmas break. It evolved from there when she got a cell phone, and her mother, Heather, gave the number to members of the softball team.

“She loves all 22 of them,” said Heather Woods. “But her and Michala have a special bond.”

It was a bond formed on Snapchat, the popular social media app over which the pair communicate almost every day, Pellegrino said. McKenzie, too shy to talk to the media after she put pen to a now-framed letter of intent, dubbed Pellegrino “old man,” thanks to the outfielder turning herself into one using Snapchat photo filters.

Pellegrino regaled the JMU softball team with her online exploits as the newest member of the Dukes, McKenzie, flanked by her father, Clint, and mother, kept smiling and laughing.

“It just shows you there’s more to life than softball,” Pellegrino said. “I always wanted to do something more than just softball.”

That’s exactly what LaPorte was hoping for when the Dukes took McKenzie in as one of their own. Stuck in the razor-focused world of classes, practices and weight room sessions, LaPorte said she hoped that welcoming McKenzie with open arms would not only help her get through the next three years of treatments, but also give her team a worthy divergence from the doldrums of juggling classes and athletics.

“For our girls, it puts life in perspective a little bit,” she said. “Sometimes they just forget about the important things in life. Life’s a lot bigger than our game.”

Which is why LaPorte’s voice cracked as she introduced McKenzie, who sat in front of the whole team in a No. 22 JMU softball jersey big enough for her to swim in.

“To see how strong and brave she’s been in the past few months,” LaPorte said. “I can tell you, she is one strong little girl.”

It hasn’t been easy since she was diagnosed, Heather said. But the tight-knit Churchville community has rallied around her daughter with “Kenzie Strong” T-shirts and rubber orange wristbands with the same words printed in black.

The family got McKenzie to cut her hair short, since it was traumatizing for her to wake up with most of it on her pillow once chemotherapy started, Heather said, taking a quick glance into the room where her daughter sat eating a slice of cheesecake surrounded by the team.

“She’s so strong,” Heather said. “Very strong. Her faith in God is very strong. She prays every night before she goes to bed, not only for herself, but all the kids she sees at the hospital.”

Assistant coach Jennifer Herzig helped McKenzie put on her jersey, and the team presented her with a bracelet that looked too big for her to wear right now. It’s something she’ll have to grow into.

“About three times a week I wake up to a Snapchat that says ‘What’s going on, Old Man?'” Pellegrino said.

The whole room laughed.

McKenzie’s smile grew wider.


Information from: Daily News-Record,