GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There is a lot about this weekend that looks and feels familiar to Oregon softball coach Mike White.
The Gator logo. The orange and blue everywhere. The man in the opposing dugout.
White has a connection to them all despite having never stepped foot on UF’s campus until earlier this week.
White can thank his daughter Sidney for that. He is thankful for her everyday. Sidney is also in town, arriving late Thursday night with her mom and two older sisters. They are here to watch the Ducks play in the Gainesville Super Regional against the Gators with a berth in the College World Series at stake.
“She’s kind of looking forward to it,’’ White said Thursday. “I don’t know if she can wear a Florida Gator shirt this weekend.’’
Unlike her father, Sidney has been here before. She even has been to a Florida softball game as the guest of Gators coach Tim Walton in the spring of 2009. Sidney and her mom, Lisa, stopped by for a visit and Walton gave Sidney a behind-the-scenes tour, introducing her to the players, giving her a Gators T-shirt, poster and other items that she showed off to her dad when she got back home.
But the circumstances were much more solemn. In the fall of 2008, Sidney began to experience serious medical issues. She was 11 and had just started sixth grade.
Doctors eventually made an alarming discovery.
“She had an MRI and there was a spot on her brain,’’ White said.
The spot was located in the basal ganglia area of Sidney’s brain, which is associated with a variety of functions, including voluntary motor control, eye movements and cognitive emotional functions.
“That was the physical side of it, and she also had some other issues to take care of,’’ White said. “We found out that the best hospital and therapy place she could go was here at the University of Florida.’’
So Lisa and Sidney packed their bags and headed for Gainesville, where they would spend much of the next two weeks at Shands Hospital as Sidney underwent testing and treatment. They stayed with Lisa’s niece, Angela, who happened to be a UF student at the time.
Meanwhile, back home Mike received regular updates and took care of the family’s other two daughters, Nyree and Kenzie. Sidney’s illness tested the family’s resolve but thanks to Walton and others in the softball community, the Whites made the best of a life-altering situation.
White and Walton didn’t know each other at the time, but a common acquaintance called Walton to tell him of the situation, asking if there was anything he could do to help. Walton and White eventually talked and a bond was formed.
“It was just really more showing a nice gesture to a nice kid from a softball family that was going through a little bit of a rough spot,’’ Walton said. “It was an opportunity to give back to somebody who has given a lot. He’s a good guy and has deep roots in the softball community.’’
In his second stint at Oregon – he served as an assistant in 2003 and 2004 – White has quickly established the program as an up-and-coming one in the already powerful Pac-10. A year ago he led the Ducks to their first Super Regional appearance and they are back again.
The Ducks advanced to Gainesville after knocking off Albany, Fordham and host Penn State last weekend in the University Park (Pa.) Regional. But long before he took over as head coach at Oregon – taking the job in the summer of 2009 shortly after Sidney’s visit to Gainesville – White’s name in softball circles was well-known.
A native of New Zealand, he spent more than 30 years as a prominent pitcher in fast-pitch leagues. He traveled the world, playing games in places such as Guatemala, Venezuela, Australia, South Africa and the Dominican Republic.
He was good enough to be inducted into two softball hall of fames. He moved to the U.S. to attend college in Iowa and later settled in Sioux City, opening a Play It Again Sports shop that he ran for 13 years while playing and coaching on the side.
A conversation with Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly in the mid-1990s during a Team USA event led White into coaching full-time. The family moved to Oregon, which reminds White of his native New Zealand and the place he wanted to raise his young family.
During his first stint with the Ducks, concerns about having enough time with Lisa and the kids led him back into private business for a few years until the girls were old enough to fend for themselves more.
The Oregon job came open after the 2009 season and White went for it. He’s enjoyed every day since.
“Coaching is more of a lifestyle than it is a job,’’ he said. “It was just a great fit and I’m loving it.’’
The best part of White’s story is that Sidney, now 14 and a star pitcher preparing to start high school next year, is healthy. White’s oldest daughter, Nyree, is also a star pitcher and has signed to play at Stanford next season.
Life is good. Sidney will be draped in Oregon’s green and gold today when the Gators and Ducks play Game 1, but she also plans to give Walton a hug.
“She is having a fun time right now,’’ White said. “She still has to go through yearly MRIs on the area to make sure nothing is growing of concern. All the tests back have been positive.
“It just reminds you of where softball fits in the whole scheme of things. There are a lot of other things more important.’’
Walton has kids of his own, so he understands White’s fear that day two years ago when Sidney and Lisa left Eugene for Gainesville and an uncertain future.
The two coaches are opponents for now, but they will remain long-distance friends afterward.
“I was just glad to help in any little way I could,’’ Walton said.