Danni Kemp's beacon of light shines on

The Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance held its 76th annual Gold Key Dinner at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.

Normally, it's an afternoon affair filled with celebration as the Alliance gives out its Gold Keys; presents other athletic accomplishment awards along with recognizing members of the sports community with John Wentworth Good Sports awards. The yearly winner of the Bo Kolinsky Journalism Scholarship is also announced.

One of the emotional highlights of the dinner is the presentation of the Bob Casey Memorial Courage Awards. Male and female recipients are selected each year. Their speeches are always stirring, ones filled with how they overcame adversity and fought on.

This year, a place was left open at the head table for Milford's Danni Kemp, who, a little over a month before (March 10), had lost her battle with cancer.

Kemp was what can be described as a "five-tool player," who starred for four years at Foran High School, first as a catcher and then as a shortstop. She played a year at Stony Brook University on Long Island and had started a season last June with the Stratford Brakettes, the best women's amateur softball team in the country.

But, in July after being hit in the head with a pitch, she underwent an MRI. It was then that a tumor was discovered in the pons region of her brain. It was inoperable.

In September, at the Alliance's monthly meeting, she was selected to receive the Bob Casey Award.

"We gave a lot of thought in how we would proceed in honoring Danni," Master of Ceremonies John Holt said at the dinner. "We didn't take this lightly. There continues to be undeniable sadness among our members over Danni's loss. But we've gained much in strength from her courage and how hard she fought."

Danni's parents, Cliff and Melanie, attended the dinner along with Danni's sister, Alyssa and her boyfriend, Josh DeBarber.

Kemp's softball coach at Foran, Jeff Bevino, accepted the award on behalf of her family.

"This is an emotional time for me," Bevino said. "Because I want to tell you about Danni. She was the most beautiful 19-year old person that you'll ever meet. They refer to me as her coach; I like to think of myself as Danni's biggest fan.

"She was born in 1997 and died in 2017 and you know on a gravestone there's a dash between those two years. Well, Danni Kemp filled up that dash. She did so much in those 19 years, touched so many lives, made so many young players smile. I know if I live to be 90, I'll never be able to fill up that dash as well as Danni did.

“My daughter (Fallon) and Danni were best friends. Fallon is lost without Danni. They played softball together since they were seven. They shared so much.

"Cliff and Melanie along with Alyssa and Josh have joined us tonight. They are four of the most courageous people that I've ever met."

The co-recipient of the Courage Award, Fairfield Warde's Giacomo Brancato, spoke prior to Bevino. "I'm deeply honored to receive this award," said Brancato, who'll pursue a college degree this fall at Fairfield University where he'll also play baseball. "Tonight, I also want to honor Danni. I really wished I could've met her in person. Although she isn't with us tonight, I feel her presence in this room. You were and will continue to be an inspiration to me and many others."

Danni's uncle, Brian Taylor, set up a Go-Fund-Me account right after he heard about Danni's condition. Monies have been coming in. Taylor said the support the Danni Strong Foundation has received from not only around the country but around the world has, "restored my faith in humanity."

Danni's parents continue to work tirelessly to make the Foundation last.

"My wife and I want to keep this going," Cliff said. "It's our way of remembering our daughter and helping others who are battling cancer."

A memorial bench is planned to be placed near the softball field at Stony Brook. This year's Southern Connecticut Conference Softball MVP Award, which was given to Cheshire's Abby Abramson, has been named in Danni's memory.

As the dinner neared its completion and many had left, Gold Key winner Dwight Freeney, a member of this year's Super Bowl Atlanta Falcons, was still talking to people and signing autographs.

As others filed out, they passed by the chair that Danni Kemp would've been sitting in.

It was a reflective moment to think about a young athlete who, myself included, will be inspired to remember for many years.

(Peter Vander Veer is the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance's Financial Secretary; a long-time member, and the organization's 2012 recipient of the Art McGinley Award for meritorious service. He's is his 48th year as a sports writer.