Softball championship inspiration visits Shoals

Gracie Billups visiting Leo III and Una Sept. 16 at George H. Carroll Lion Habitat. Billups met the UNA softball team last May in Denver during their national championship run. 

Gracie Billups, the nine-year-old who teamed up with UNA softball through the Make-A-Wish foundation, made a visit to Florence this weekend to tour the area.

Billups met the Lions softball team during their national championship tournament in Denver last May.

She was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in Oct. of 2015. This form of cancer is commonly diagnosed in childhood and there are over 6,000 new cases expected for 2016, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“She came to our first game out in (Denver) and threw out the first pitch,” said UNA Director of Athletics Mark Linder. “She was actually supposed to be neutral between us and Southern Arkansas, but she made an instant connection with our players.”

Billups only missed one UNA game during the tournament, the opening game in the championship series against Humboldt State.

“She missed one game that Friday because she had a treatment, and that is the only game that we lost,” said Athletics Buisness Manager Debbie Williams. “So we told her she had to come back the next day.”

The softball team would go on to win the national championship in the best-of-three series with Gracie by its side.

“She was such a huge factor for everything we did in Denver,” said Lions softball head coach Ashley Cozart. “There are so many distractions that you cannot control, and I think meeting her and going through what we all went through puts everything in perspective.”

Billups received celebrity treatment when she comes to the Shoals. She has make various visits around the Shoals and wil attend UNA’s football game against Valdosta State at Braly Stadium Saturday night, Linder said.

“I hope she takes away a personal connection,” Linder said. “I hope she sees that UNA and the rest of the community is full of genuine people that care about her and want to see her smile.”

Everyone in the department hopes she has a great experience during her visit and hopes this trip takes her mind off of this difficult time, said Williams.

“I want her to come here and be a kid,” Cozart said. “She has some hard days and a lot of doctor visits, and I am sure she has a long road ahead of her, but I want her to know she is an inspiration for a lot of people here.”

If you would like to help children like Gracie, donate to the childhood cancer charity of your choice.