Flagler women’s soccer welcomes St. Augustine’s Savannah Lahtinen
Goals change games. Savannah Lahtinen will not score a goal for the Flagler College women’s soccer team. Her impact will be bigger. She will change lives.
Savannah became the newest member of Flagler’s women’s soccer team prior to Saturday night’s game against UNC Pembroke. The 7-year-old St. Augustine resident was diagnosed with Metastatic Ewing Sarcoma 11 months ago.
Saturday, she signed a letter of intent to join the Saints.
The pregame ceremony made official a pairing that has been in place for months. As Savannah carefully signed her name with her left hand, her mother, Sarah, stood behind her wiping tears from her eyes.
“Her primary tumor is in her right foot. That obviously limited mobility a lot with her treatments and stuff,” Sarah Lahtinen said. “Knowing she would get to be a part of a sports team, when she otherwise wouldn’t be able to be a part of a sports team was a big thing for us.”
Savannah was awarded the No. 29 jersey and embraced by her teammates.
Saints co-captains Myiah Russack-Cradeur and Annie Breen presented Savannah with a black and white Adidas soccer ball signed by everyone of her new teammates. The two seniors also handed Savannah a bouquet of flowers.
Saturday’s referee, Albert Escovar, presented Savannah with a lanyard that came from CONCACAF, soccer’s governing body for North America and the Caribbean.
Savannah was matched with the Saints through Team IMPACT, a Boston-based non-profit that works to improve the life of children facing serious and chronic illnesses by pairing them with college athletic programs.
More than 1,600 children have been matched up since the organization was founded in 2011. One of those was Dwayne Lewis, a Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind student who was partnered with the Flagler College men’s soccer team in 2013.
Flagler women’s head coach, Ashley Martin, was an assistant with the men at that time and promised himself he would work with Team IMPACT when he had an opportunity to become a head coach.
Joele Zeger, a case manager with Team IMPACT, said there are more than 1,200 college programs across the country waiting to be paired with a child facing serious health challenges.
“A relationship or match with a child with a serious or chronic illness, it gives athletes a perspective they will not learn on the field or in the court,” Zeger said. “It gives them something to rally round as a team. It could be something wonderful as a team.”
That has certainly been the case for the Saints. Savannah was paired with Flagler in May. The Saints met her over the summer and made her a part of the program long before Saturday’s signing ceremony.
Pairing a soccer-loving St. Augustine resident with the Saints has left an impact on both.
Before she was diagnosed, Savannah played soccer. It is her favorite sport “because you mostly use your foot, which I’m really good at,” she said.
Savannah is left-handed but uses both feet when she plays soccer. Her mother, Sarah, said Savannah scored with both feet when she played in the spring 2017 season.
“Soccer, you have to have good feet and be really strong,” Savannah said during halftime Saturday.
More than a game
While Martin and the coaching staff go over tactics in the grass behind the dugout at Saints Field, Savannah can be found rearranging dirt in front of the dugout for one of her sand castles.
Saturday's match was scoreless at halftime. After speaking with the Saints and before play resumed, Savannah spent a few moments with Martin discussing that night’s sand castle and whether Savannah’s doll was having as much fun at the match as she was.
Flagler pulled out a 1-0 win to improve to 6-2 on the season.
“Today was going to be a special day for Savannah,” Martin said. “We wanted to make sure we put the cherry on top with a victory.”
Flagler turned in one of its better performances of the season against the reigning Peach Belt Conference Tournament champion. Pembroke had a chance in the eighth minute, but Saints goalie Sara-Lisa Duebel was equal to the shot. Later, Flagler scored the game’s only goal when Charlene Nowotny curled a free kick from 19 yards into the side netting in the 63rd minute.
As Martin spoke about how proud he was of the Saints for beating an obstinate Pembroke team, three little girls and a few boys kicked a soccer ball in the goal mouth behind him. Two of the girls were Martin’s daughters. The third was Savannah.
“During her last chemo (session), I took not only some of the players on the team but my family and my children to see what she is going through,” Martin said. “No 7-year-old should have to deal with what she has dealt with. When you talk to her and play with her, you never know.”
Todd and Sarah Lahtinen are the parents of five. Savannah is their oldest daughter.
Todd quipped five is a prime number. When it was brought to their attention Savannah’s jersey No. 29 is also a prime number, the Lahtinens smiled. Saturday’s attendance, 281, is also a prime number.
“This is amazing. The turnout is a lot larger than we expected,” Sarah said. “There are a lot people here who love and care about her. It really means a lot to have people support her, and the team has been such a great support. To have all these people show up in the stands is amazing.”
What no parent wants to hear
Less than 24 hours after Flagler won its first Peach Belt Conference tournament last Halloween, the Lahtinens received word Savannah had cancer.
The diagnosis was the conclusion of six weeks of questions, inconclusive answers, tests and more tests.
Sarah noticed Savannah had a bump and swelling on her foot in September 2017. She monitored the foot for nearly a month, taking action when her daughter mentioned it began giving her pain.
The Lahtinens visited an urgent care facility believing it may be a stress fracture. The physician there, Sarah said, told the family Savannah’s shoes did not fit properly and she should consider wearing flip flops.
The pain continued. The Lahtinens took Savannah to a podiatrist who suspected a stress fracture. In an X-Ray her bone appeared crushed. Within an hour the podiatrist told the Lahtinens an MRI was needed.
“There was a tumor,” Sarah said. “A nice-sized tumor that had eaten through her bone and was in the soft tissue space. They referred us to Nemours. We went up there two days later and got admitted the next week for a week-long diagnostic stay.”
There were more tests.
“Then they diagnosed her.”
Within six weeks of finding the tumor, the Metastatic Ewing Sarcoma spread to Savannah's lungs.
But Savannah is doing much better now and is a full-time student at the St. Augustine Public Montessori.
“Her scans are clean,” Sarah said. “Her tumor in her foot is technically still there, but it is dead. They do a PET scan and cancer cells light up. Hers are no longer lighting up. It’s going to take her body a while to absorb it … Her scans are clean. Her lungs are clear. Her foot is clear.”
Kicking it with the Saints
Savannah is once again kicking a soccer ball. She does not run with the reckless abandon that is apparent when any gaggle of 7-year-olds play soccer — at least not yet — but, she is a part of a team whose love for her may surpass her admiration of them.
Savannah loves all the Saints. But, her favorite player is junior midfielder M.C. Bell.
“It’s definitely heartwarming to be someone’s light when they are going through something so dark,” Bell said after Saturday’s game.
Savannah has watched training sessions, participated in the Saints photo day and been a fixture on the touchline during matches. Any time a ball comes within five yards of Savannah and her sand castles, two Saints step between her and the potential danger to make sure the youngest member of the 2018 Flagler College women’s soccer team is not harmed.
“Her experience with being so little and so young, she has experienced things, hopefully, none of us will have to deal with,” Bell said. “It’s humbled us as a team. It’s made us think ‘Am, I treating my teammates as I should?’ … It’s about lifting people up and not putting them down.”
That is one thing Savannah has done since she joined the Saints: Lifted their spirits, their on-field energy and appreciation for the smaller things many take for granted.
A painting by Savannah is currently on display in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville. It is part of the museum’s Art with a Heart in Healthcare exhibit. As part of her submission, Savannah was asked to describe herself.
She wrote: “I am a powerful girl who is beating cancer.”