By EDWARD MARLOWE

More often than not, a high school girl becomes a young woman on her own terms.

Maybe she gets her first job - trying to scrounge up anything to buy that first car, prom dress or both.

Maybe she goes out on her first date - to a sit-down dinner, of course, not one of those fast-food joints where all the kids hang on the regular.

Or maybe on the day she's mailing off more college applications, she opens the mailbox only to find her top school has mailed an acceptance letter.

But what happens when a team of high school softball players has to come to grips with the cruel, harsh reality of cancer and the sudden, unfair death of a team parent?

Just ask the Lyon County Lady Lyons, who - since the April 3 burial of Kendra Brynn Gray Craft, 36, of Lamasco - have chosen to wrap themselves around her twin daughters and teammates, Kerstin and Kyra, as well as Kendra's husband and the twins' father, Jason.

"I knew Kendra before, and me and the twins hung out a lot," noted Lady Lyons sophomore ace Kaelyn Conger. "I loved (Kendra) like my own. And so, I knew that ... as a team ... I knew we would need to step up and be like a family. Not saying that we weren't before, but we had to be even more as a family to them.

"We all had to grow up a little bit faster than we normally would to be able to be there for them."

• • •

Kendra's diagnosis - aggressive pancreatic and liver cancer - came after the New Year, and was as much stunning as it was frustrating.

"It's very rare for her age," Jason lamented. "(Doctors) told us that you usually don't even find it until it's too late. Some minor symptoms, but mostly the symptoms were things most people brush off. Severe depression was one of them."

One place Kendra could find comfort, however, was watching her daughters - and their teammates - play softball.

Three weeks after her first chemotherapy treatment, she and Jason made the trip to Lee S. Jones Park in Eddyville for "Meet the Lyons," a simple scrimmage between the boys and the girls diamond squads.

Anyone else in her condition may have stayed parked at home.

But she wasn't missing it. And besides, she was comfortable in Jason's 2010 four-door Silverado, parked on the hill with a comfortable three-quarter view of the field.

"Basically once the season started, she was in the truck the whole time," Jason said. "I remember going to 'Meet the Lyons' in early March, and whenever the girls scrimmaged the boys ... we set up on the hill at Lee S. Jones and watched the scrimmage game.

"She never felt good or nothing like that. But she wasn't going to miss a game. She wasn't missing a game. No matter what. She didn't know how many she was going to get, and she was going to be there for every one. Even before she got sick, I can count on one hand the games she missed since (they were) 4 years old."

Even a weekend trip to Buchanon Park in Bowling Green for the Lady Cat Classic (March 22-23) wasn't enough to keep her from following along, and she took in those two Friday games - losses to Franklin-Simpson and South Warren.

Saturday, she hadn't the strength to leave her hotel.

"The only games she did not see were when we were in Bowling Green," Jason remembered. "We stayed in a hotel that night, and she just felt terrible, terrible, terrible. She went up to the game on Friday night and watched from the stands, freezing to death.

"Saturday, we got up and she said 'I just feel terrible, I can't go up to the games.' So she sat out in the car and watched the games on Facebook. Told me to go up to the games and watch. I came back after the first game to check on her and suggested we go home.

"I tried arguing with her, and it never worked."

Kendra's last game was March 25 - a critical 17-9 win over Fifth District foe Crittenden County.

On March 31, Kendra wouldn't argue anymore.

She was gone.

• • •

In the days between March 31 and April 3, Jason and his family had a lot to think about. Pray about. Talk about.

And they still do.

But in those unforgettable 96 hours, a decision had to be made regarding Kendra's memory. How best to preserve it. Honor it. Cherish it.

"When was she happiest? What would be unique and special?" Jason noted. "And it was when she was watching her girls play softball."

The Crafts quietly asked the Lady Lyons - all of them - to be Kendra's pallbearers.

Jason Collins, Lyon County's head softball coach, remembers it vividly ... and even wrote about it, so he wouldn't forget.

"When the Crafts asked the softball team to be pallbearers, I have to admit I thought it was unusual," he said in an April 4 public Facebook post. "But thought at the least it would provide support for the girls."

On April 3 at 11 a.m., all of the Lady Lyons filed in to Morgan's Funeral Home in Princeton -- dressed in their purple and gold jersey tops -- sat down, and cried.

"I remember us sitting there, and we were all crying," Conger said. "It was very sad. I took a lot out of it, because we got picked as a team. And that's probably where we all started playing more as a family, because we had to be a family there."

Wrote Collins: "I have had many proud moments as a softball coach, but none more humbling than this. I was so humbled when those girls marched into that funeral home.

They were like an army there to protect and support their teammates. It was a powerful statement and show of support. Instantly in the time it took for them to cross the room, my mind raced through my history with this (Craft) family."

• • •

Just 24 hours after Kendra's burial, it rained and rained all across the First and Second regions.

Nary a softball or baseball game was played that Thursday evening on April 4, save for one: Lyon County vs. then No. 3 Christian County in Eddyville.

Not only were all gate proceeds - as well as a large collection from Christian County - headed to the Craft family, but it was a quality matchup between two top Second Region teams.

"The rain went just above and below," Collins said. "Most visiting teams would have canceled, but Christian County tries as hard to play as we do."

And so, they played. And boy, was it a humdinger.

"Me being from Christian County, we lived there for awhile," Craft said. "And every time we'd play them, they'd just beat our socks off. Kendra would always say, 'Man, I would love to get that game ... just one time. I'd love to beat them one time.'"

In what turned out to be an absolute slugfest, the Lady Lyons got 'em: 16-11. Christian County head coach Johnny Blane didn't throw his top ace, Hannah Sumner, but that hardly mattered.

Lyon County would grab a 10-6 lead after three innings, mostly behind a two-run homer from Calista Collins in the bottom of the first inning and a three-run homer from Conger in the bottom of the second inning.

By the top of the sixth inning, the Lady Colonels were back on top 11-10, and looked poised to come away with the road win.

Not so fast.

In the bottom of the sixth, Collins walked. Conger doubled. Hadlie Butler walked. Allye Culp hit a lead-grabbing RBI single.

And then came the floodgates.

Kyra Craft hit a sac fly for a 13-11 lead. Two more walks. Tori Schenk gets an RBI single. Collins again - two-RBI single.

It was happening.

It happened.

"You always hear that they give you a sign when they're up in heaven," Craft said. "That felt like it was some kind of sign.

"The night we beat Christian County, Kendra got her wish."

Moments after the game, the Lady Lyons lined up and hugged the Craft family. They knew what this was about.

"There was a lot of emotion there," Conger said. "That game, we all just stepped up as a family. And we played for each other. Not just as ourselves."

• • •

Since that April 4 win, the Lady Lyons have gone a blistering 20-6, winning the Second Region All "A" title and the Fifth District title along the way. On Monday, they face Caldwell County in the opening round of the Second Region Tournament.

With this success, though, comes perspective.

"The perspective is, 'Anything can happen at any time,' so we have to stay with each other the whole time," Conger said. "And just continuing throughout the season, we have to be there for each other the whole time. We can't let up 'being there.'

"There's a lot of negatives that come through this whole thing, but you have to stay with the positives."

The Craft family is certainly working through those positives, and particularly through softball -- which Jason notes has been a great conduit for he and his family to focus on through these tough times.

The twins will again play for the U16 Talons out of Mayfield during the summer, and the travel this past spring has done nothing but help heal the loss of a loved one.

"We still really don't know how we're going to respond, because we're staying so busy with this and that," Jason said. "Nothing has slowed down, yet. Probably be nice to get a little bit of relaxing in. We actually talked the other night, and I said, 'It's just us three now, and we have to depend on each other. I know there are things that you would've rather talked to mom about than me, but you're going to have to talk to me now.'

"I told them I didn't know how we were going to deal with it or how we were going to handle it, but we'll just do today. Then tomorrow. And then we'll work on the next day. And eventually, we can work on making plans for other things. One day at a time."

Yes, one day at a time.

And the Lady Lyons will be there.

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