Sherry (Wachholtz) Rolsma threw a great opening pitch on Monday night (June 3) before the first game of the championship series at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
The ball flew dead center over home plate. Rolsma would say it was the most important pitch of her life. Not because it was perfect, but because it was for Kena, the sister she lost on April 13 to glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer.
Sisters Sherry and Kena Wachholtz grew up playing softball together in southern California, first in Placentia and then in Norco.
The sisters bonded on the softball field, developing a deep level of trust and making a thousand cherished memories playing together with Sherry pitching and older sister Kena catching.
“We were a good team, that’s for sure,” Rolsma said.
Sports was a huge part of family life. In fact, their younger brother Kyle Wachholtz attended USC on a football scholarship and went on to win a Super Bowl ring in 1997 as a member of the Green Bay Packers.
Kena moved to Bentonville 19 years ago, working for Sam’s Club, Walmart and then J.B. Hunt.
Sherry came three years later and is the director of WalStreet and major investor engagement at the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Softball continued to be a passion for the sisters in Northwest Arkansas where they coached a youth league team together and Kena was a board member of the Bentonville Girls Softball League.
For the past 10 years when the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City rolled around, Sherry and Kena would talk about going, but life was busy with jobs and kids and they never managed to make it happen.
On Jan. 24 this year, the unthinkable happened. Kena was diagnosed with the same kind of brain cancer that killed Sen. John McCain. The median survival rate is approximately a year. But after brain surgery came some good news — Kena had the gene that made her very responsive to chemotherapy. The family was hopeful that her life expectancy might be as much as four years.
With this news, the sisters began to plan their bucket list, and at the very top was attending the 2019 Women’s College World Series. They were going to finally make the dream happen and they would do it together.
Kena began chemotherapy and the duo began to plan their trip. Rolsma went online to buy tickets for the game and found that the opening night of the series was “Strike Out For Cancer Night.” Intrigued, she emailed Lesa Foster, the American Cancer Society’s executive director of the south region, to see if Kena could be a part of that evening.
Immediately, Foster began planning for Sherry and Kena to throw out the opening pitch together to begin the best-of-three series between the championship contenders.
Unfortunately, cancer is unpredictable. After 20 treatments Kena’s “bone marrow bottomed out,” Rolsma said. She never recovered and passed away peacefully at Circle of Life Hospice, a short three months after diagnosis. On April 20, the family laid their sister and daughter to rest, at 57 years of age.
“We were so close and we loved being together,” Rolsma said. “Kena loved life and she was always willing to leap in to help anyone. She was selfless.”
Two days later Rolsma received an email from Foster with details on registration for the game and asking “How is Kena?” Sherry held her breath as she typed the words, “Kena passed away.”
Foster was heartbroken for Rolsma and knew she still wanted her to throw out the first pitch in memory of Kena. “It was a way honor this dynamic duo as we strive to defeat cancer, our biggest rival,” Foster said.
So, on Monday night at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, right before the first game of the series between UCLA and Oklahoma, Sherry walked across home plate and up onto the pitcher’s mound. She stood a moment, ball in hand, taking in the crowd and the photos of Kena scrolling on the jumbotron. As the announcer finished telling Kena’s story, the crowd of 8,000 spontaneously rose to its feet to give Kena a standing ovation.
“I almost lost it,” Rolsma said. “That’s why I was there, so people could hear her story and know about the love that we had for softball and for each other and how many good times we had on the field and how we really wanted to come to this game together.”
Overwhelmed, but determined to honor Kena, Rolsma let the ball fly, straight over home plate.
“It wasn’t about the strike,” Rolsma said. “It was about honoring Kena and telling her story, and I did that.”
Rolsma also personally raised more than $1,000 to be donated to the American Cancer Society in memory of Kena.