Wednesday, Oct 13 at 8:45 AM
SAN ANTONIO -- Former Edison High School softball coach Mary Ann Villarreal, whose indomitable spirit inspired a community and shone through even in the final days of her battle against cancer, died Tuesday morning.
Villarreal, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2007, was 50.
Her cancer had gotten progressively worse in the past year, spreading to her lungs, spine and brain.
Villarreal died at 7:20 a.m. Tuesday at Vitas Hospice Morningside Manor, where she was taken Friday after she slipped into a coma.
She had been under hospice care at her mother’s home since last month, when doctors told her there was nothing more they could do for her.
Her husband, Larry, and a niece, Anna Castillo, were at Villarreal’s side when she died.
"She fought the good fight and ran the good race," Larry Villarreal said. "We're sad and we'll miss her, but we're at ease and at peace because we know her salvation is with Jesus. The Lord has given us peace of mind. We were hoping for a miracle, but God had another plan. He needed a coach up there."
Mary Ann Villarreal was given only hours to live when she was transported to Morningside Manor, but she surprised the hospice staff by lingering through the weekend.
“It would have been tough on the family if she had died Friday, but she hung on and gave us a chance to say our goodbyes,” niece Marisa Castillo said. “That was just like Mary Ann. She was always thinking of everybody else.”
Edison volleyball coach Denise Cardenas, one of Villarreal’s closest friends since their college days at Southwest Texas State, gathered members of the softball team Tuesday morning to break the sad news.
“Most of them pretty much knew already,” Cardenas said. “It was tough. Mary Ann touched so many lives. She really made a difference. It was always about everybody else with her. Even when she told me that the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do, it was her consoling me.
“I wanted to console her, but I couldn’t talk because of the big lump in my throat. She just said, ‘God has a plan.’ She chose to live life. This is a moment of sadness, but it’s also a relief because I know how much she had been suffering.”
Poignant tribute to 'Coach V'
Grief counselors were on the Edison campus early Tuesday to talk with students, school principal Charles Munoz said.
Villarreal's players shared their grief by having a picnic on the softball field and recalling their coach while sitting in the dugout.
"They decided to have a picnic because Mary Ann always used to yell at them on the field and say, 'This is no picnic,'" Munoz said. "It was good for the girls. They laughed and they cried."
They also ate chalupas, one of Villarreal's favorite pregame meals.
The Edison and Brackenridge volleyball teams paid tribute to Villarreal, known affectionately as "Coach V," before their match Tuesday night at the Alamo Convocation Center. With players and many in the crowd wearing "Dig for the Cure" T-shirts, Munoz praised Villarreal as a teacher and coach at the start of the pregame ceremony.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to Mary Ann's family," Munoz said. "We thank you for sharing her life with us, and we are grateful for the legacy she leaves with our athletes, our student body and, really, the whole city."
Edison volleyball players Celia Gonzalez, Regina Morales and Lisa Vazquez, who also are members of the softball team, said they felt their coach's presence during Tuesday night's match. Fittingly, the Golden Bears won.
"She was here," Vazquez said. "We dedicated this match to her."
Villarreal, a 1978 Edgewood High School graduate, was Edison’s softball coach for nine seasons before her illness forced her to resign shortly after the start of the current school year.
Villarreal helped guide the Golden Bears to their best season ever last spring despite being on an extended leave of absence. She shared coaching duties with Amy Dockery and was virtually at every game in a 25-9 season that ended in the third round of the Class 4A playoffs.
“We couldn’t keep her away,” Munoz said. “It was a real boost to our school and the community when she was out there. She never complained. She was always cheerful. She never gave in. She was just a very strong person.
“She was the best role model for our students and our faculty. I will always remember her persistence and her faith in God. I always thought she was going to come back. Like her husband said, ‘We’re still waiting or a miracle.’”
Munoz, in his 18th year as Edison’s principal, shared a poignant anecdote about his last conversation with Villarreal about three weeks ago.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Munoz said. “But she was great. She said, ‘I’m all right.’
Munoz hesitated to regain his composure before continuing.
“Then she said, ‘I just want to thank you for giving me a chance,’” Munoz said. “That’s powerful. Here she is, in her final days, and she was thanking me. But that was the way she was.”
'Never felt sorry for herself'
Gil Garza, athletic director of the San Antonio Independent School District, described Villarreal as "an excellent role model for kids" who dedicated herself to her profession and "epitomized courage" while battling her illness.
"She never felt sorry for herself," Garza said. "It's a heartwarming story. She came to the SAISD with a purpose and she dedicated herself to helping kids."
Villarreal was a teacher and coach at Escobar and Garcia middle schools in the Edgewood ISD before going on to stints at
Edgewood and Memorial.
When Edison had an opening for a softball coach, Cardenas knew who to call.
“I thought of Mary Ann right away,” Cardenas said. “It was a joyous reunion when she joined our staff.”
Marisa Castillo and Cardenas said Villarreal had a knack for connecting with troubled kids.
“Her favorite and best students were the ones who were hardest to crack,” Castillo said. “She was tough on them, but they knew she cared about them.”
Said Cardenas: “She never gave up on anybody. She wanted to help these kids.”
Besides her husband, Villarreal is survived by a daughter, Amanda, 19; and two sons, Derek, 17, and Dylan, 13; her mother, Cuca Perez; two brothers, Rudy Perez and David Perez; and one sister, Velia Castillo.
The viewing is scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Cornerstone Christian Church, with a worship service to follow. Friday's service at Cornerstone starts at 10 a.m., and burial will be at San Fernando Cemetery No. 3.