MOUNT PLEASANT — John Pawlowski looked out over the baseball field at Patriots Point on Wednesday afternoon but his mind was 170 miles away.

The College of Charleston baseball coach has much more to think about these days than his pitching rotation.

Just west of here, in the small town of North Augusta, his 13-year-old daughter, Mary-Louise, is fighting the fight of her life. She was diagnosed with PNET (primitive neuroectodermal tumors), a rare malignancy seen in only two percent of children with cancer.

"The hardest thing I've ever done is tell my 13-year-old daughter she has cancer," Pawlowski said on a sunny afternoon as his players arrived for practice. "When we got the diagnosis right before Christmas, it just floored us.

"Like everybody else who receives a cancer diagnosis, I've had to become an instant expert on the disease. I've read everything there is to read. I've talked to everybody there is to talk to.

"It's frightening. Our whole family is devastated. But we are committed to getting through this and for Mary-Louise to get well."

Life's playbook

The only thing that could make a situation like this worse is distance.

Not only is Pawlowski's daughter 2 1/2 hours away, but there is also the matter of divorce. Mary-Louise is the middle of three daughters (Christine 15, Jenny 7). They live in North Augusta with their mother, Sarah, a nurse.

"There have been a lot of long, lonely, late-night and early-morning drives," Pawlowski said. "But her mother and I have put aside any differences we may have because now we all have a common goal."

It all started innocently enough.

Back in November, Mary-Louise came home from volleyball practice complaining of a pain in her side. She thought she had pulled a muscle, but she also developed a cough and cold.

X-rays showed a spot on her lung. They thought it might be pneumonia, but by mid-December the spot had doubled in size. Five days before Christmas, the doctors delivered the diagnosis.

"I just dropped to my knees," Pawlowski said. "Something like this is not scripted in life's playbook."

The color purple

Mary-Louise Pawlowski is a happy-go-lucky eighth grader with a positive outlook on life, even while enduring two rounds of chemotherapy. More chemo and radiation therapy will be necessary to shrink the tumor in her chest before she can have surgery to remove it.

And as hard as this is on her, there's nothing worse than the helplessness that envelops parents when their child is seriously ill.

"It's been like a rollercoaster," said Pawlowski, who opens his ninth season as the Cougars' baseball coach on Feb. 22. "I went through a period of denial at first. Then reality sets in and you wonder why, because this is something that happens to somebody else."

Very quickly, however, the Pawlowski family began seeking knowledge on the subject. They wanted to know everything there is to know about the disease they were fighting.

"I've talked to people at M.D. Anderson, St. Jude, Sloan-Kettering and Roper here in town," Pawlowski said of the hospitals he has contacted. "We want to know everything and do everything that's possible."

In an effort to express his love and hope, Pawlowski wears a plastic wrist-band that says, "We R Praying For MLP."

It's purple, Mary-Louise's favorite color.

"I handed them out to our players the first day of practice," Pawlowski said. "It's a small thing, but it's something we can do for her."

Since then he's had to order more wrist-bands as more and more people ask for them. The best way to get one is call the Cougars baseball office at (843) 953-5916.

Days like this

Now that school is back in session and practice has started, Pawlowski must spend more time with his team. He stays in touch with Mary-Louise by cell phone, text messaging and making that long drive as often as he can. Once the baseball season starts in late February, he hopes to set aside a home game in her honor.

Meanwhile, the baseball field is his only relief from this painful reality.

"When I put on the uniform and hat and walk out here in the sunshine, it's a relief for me," he said. "Inside those white lines, I can think about something else for a few hours.

"In fact, this is what it's all about. We're fighting so we all can enjoy days like this in our lives."

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 kburger@postandcourier.com.