WEST SALEM — Zoe Coder stood in front of her wheelchair with a parent on each side.
Ralph Coder held his daughter’s right hand, and Jamie Coder helped Zoe extend her left arm and make that hand available for West Salem High School softball teammates to slap as they heard their names announced over the public address system.
It was emotional, and the tears — happy ones — and smiles both on the field and off told the larger story as player after player joined the Coders on the third-base line.
Everyone in attendance was at this field behind the Panther Den to watch the Panthers play Viroqua, but Zoe was the featured attraction after traveling a long road that led her back to a very familiar place.
An automobile accident in October resulted in a traumatic brain injury, and there may have been people wondering if something like this would ever happen. Since it could, West Salem coach Brian Babiash wanted to make it special.
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Zoe only recently returned from months of rehabilitation with specialists in Colorado, but the progress was visible because she seemed to be having the time of her life by spending time with a larger group of people she loved.
Her importance within the community — both that of the school district and village — has been demonstrated by financial help through fundraising and unwavering support since the accident, which took place when Zoe was driving to a scheduled practice with a private coach.
“She’s one of those kids who everyone likes,” Babiash said. “She’s unassuming, she’s always been willing to do whatever she needs to do, and she’s always had a great attitude.”
Babiash made his program part of the effort by scheduling a softball clinic at the elementary school in February. He invited several prominent coaches from the Coulee Region and players from the UW-La Crosse team to help instruct, and the event raised $6,500 for the Coder family.
That was officially presented before the Panthers squared off with the Blackhawks on Thursday, but it was just one of several special moments she shared with family and friends on a beautiful day.
She joined Babiash and teammates Kaitlyn Knutson and Signe Roesler at home plate to exchange lineups with Viroqua before taking part in the player introductions. And before anyone sat down, they heard a recording of Zoe singing the national anthem.
“When we got the PA system kind of going last year, she said, ‘Coach, I’d like to sing the national anthem,’” Babiash said. “So she did. We didn’t know anybody had a recording of it, but we wanted to use it (Thursday) when we found out someone had it.”
Having Zoe back on the field — she had also attended a game the previous week — was an obvious lift to the team, but returned a sense of comfort for Babiash on the bench.
Zoe, also a manager for the West Salem/Bangor wrestling co-op, used to be Babiash’s starting catcher, and that meant plenty of communication between the two throughout every game. Before games and probably after them, too.
“Originally, we didn’t know when she was coming home for sure, but we wanted her jersey in our dugout,” Babiash said. “Her mom asked where we were gonna put it, and I said right next to my bag.
“She asked why, and I said if there’s one thing I know from the last two years, it’s that Zoe was always right under my feet. Wherever my bag was, her bag was. She was like a sponge trying to soak up all she could about the game because she loved it so much.”
Zoe’s time in the dugout this season has been spent with Babiash so she can keep track of what is going on with pitch calls.
“I have a pitch sheet, and both the pitcher and catcher have one, so they know what’s going on,” Babiash said. “When she was here last week, she kept looking to try and figure out what we were doing.
“She got her own sheet (on Thursday) to look at what I was calling. She wanted to know exactly what I was doing.”
Perhaps being around the game with an interest level this high could help Zoe’s overall development as much as her mere presence seems to inspire the Panthers.
Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX