Amber Koonce speaks about how softball helped her fight Lou Gehrig’s Disease at the Jennie Finch Softball Camp in 2008. (American Press Archives)
Last Modified: Thursday, November 07, 2013 9:52 PM
Amber Koonce rose to the challenge in 2001 as a sophomore pitcher for the Sulphur High softball team, stepping into the pitcher’s circle and leading the Tors to a state championship.
In recent years, Koonce has faced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal neuromuscular disease, displaying the same toughness that made her a champion on the softball diamond.
Koonce will have her No. 10 jersey retired tonight before the Sulphur football game against Comeaux. A host of former Lady Tors are returning home to take part in the ceremony. Koonce will be joined by husband Eddie Myers and 4-year-old son Owen.
Sulphur softball coach Julie Mancuso said Koonce always had the proper attitude to succeed on and off the field.
“She was an easy kid to coach; she had leadership qualities, as well as being a good athlete,” Mancuso said. “She had the respect of others, and at this point in her life she still does. She still displays those same qualities as far as fighting and being a true competitor. She has been an inspiration to so many and has really touched a lot of people.”
As a player, Koonce took over in the circle after the Tors lost their starting pitcher to injury. Sulphur beat Comeaux 2-1 in the championship game, which was held in Sulphur for the first time that year.
“We had split with Comeaux that season. It was kind of ironic that we played them,” Mancuso said.
“We weren’t even supposed to be there the way we started the season. It was one of those Cinderella seasons. It was unbelievable the way we were able to win it in Sulphur. The biggest challenge was getting the tournament there, I would have never dreamed that we would be able to win it, too. It was a very special season. Before the tournament one of our pitchers broke a finger and couldn’t pitch, so we moved her to third base and Amber was our only pitcher. She handled it and was a true leader for us.
“She was one that was very mentally tough and strong in her faith. I really think that those qualities have inspired a lot of people. She was a friend of many. People liked her and still do. She helped others, led by example as far as hard work and determination and fight. If I had to pick an example of a player I would want my kids to pattern themselves after, it would be her.”
After graduating in 2003, Koonce remained involved in the program.
“She would come back and talk to the current players at the time, try to give them a pep talk,” Mancuso said. “We remained close after the diagnosis. I visit her from time to time.”
Koonce received the ALS diagnosis in 2008, when she was 23. Mancuso said the Sulphur softball family and the community have rallied around her.
“The response has been tremendous; it shows the community support here,” she said.
“Sulphur is a great place to be, as far as people rallying around each other — when things are good like when you are winning and even when things are tough like going through this. I talked with several former players from every class to help me do this, and the response has been overwhelming. They will be on the field with me. They made some shirts with No. 10 on the back. We have players coming back from as far as 1969-70. People have called and said they played in 1980 and asked if they can be a part of the ceremony. It is an example of the community in Sulphur and the pride from being a Lady Tor and the family connection there. We have a player from the 1994 championship team that is coming in from Colorado. It is going to be a neat thing, and I am glad Amber and her family is going to be able to experience this with us.”
The ceremony will be at 6:50 p.m., 10 minutes before kickoff.
“We will recognize her and there is a classmate of hers, Lauren Bowman, who happens to be a representative of Team Gleason (an organization that works to raise awareness of ALS founded by former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason),” Mancuso said.
“She will be speaking on behalf of Team Gleason and helped get Amber in touch with Gleason.”
Mancuso said she has learned a lot from her relationship with Koonce.
“It puts things in perspective,” she said.
“Of course we teach the kids about the sport we coach, but even more so about life thereafter and how there is a carryover from the skills that you have to have as an athlete. She has done that. She displays a strong sense of faith, and you feel that when you are around her. She accomplished her life goals. She was married and had a son and earned a degree — all after she was diagnosed. That says something about her.”
Posted By: charlotte doty On: 11/8/2013
I lost my mom to ALS 2 years ago.stay strong and keep up the fight.
Posted By: Carol Lyons-Smith On: 11/8/2013
I was a lady tor in 1972 and 1974. We didn't have a team in 73...no coach. i will be at the game cheering.
Posted By: Eligha G On: 11/8/2013
God bless you Mrs. Koonce. Your skill, tenacity, and perseverance is an inspiration to many. With my experience with Parkinson disease, I have seen many people living with similar symptoms as you with ALS. Keep fighting, keep striving, and KEEP LIVING! God bless!