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They say bad things happen in 3′s, but I’m not sure there is much evidence to support that. Unfortunately, for this volleyball team it seemed all too real. Just as they had done before, the team chose to rally together to show their strength, courage and support. Sometimes life is bigger than the game. Read on to see this humbling story.
Volleyball team shares inspiring story
When Kiski Area girls’ volleyball coach Ellen Toy called a mandatory team meeting in February for players and parents, the girls knew something was wrong.
They had been beckoned to two similar meetings the year before.
At the first, they were told assistant coach Jaime Vick Moran would succumb at 28 to the leukemia she had been battling for more than a decade.
A few months later, they gathered in the high school gymnasium to reflect on the loss of teammate Jenna Prusia. The Apollo teenager died in December as a result of injuries she suffered in a sledding accident.
Now, Toy was divulging to the group that she had been re-diagnosed with the gastric cancer that had been in remission for three years.
“The volleyball team is like family to me,” she said. “They’ve already been through so much and suffered so much. I wanted them to hear it directly from me and not through any other channels.”
Since Toy’s rediagnosis, the volleyball team has rallied around her and her family.
Kiski Area senior-to-be Gracie McDermott in March started a Twitter account and blog titled “Ellen on Ellen.” The volleyball player is using social media as a platform to get Toy on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
McDermott said she was inspired to spark the movement because she wanted to share Toy’s positive message and give back to the coach and educator who has touched her and hundreds of others’ lives.
“After everything we’ve been through, Coach Ellen has gotten us through all of it with a smile and words of encouragement,” she said. “The world needs to know how inspirational she’s been.”
“She has always been there for us, and now we have to be here for her as she goes through a tough time.”
Toy, 52, initially was diagnosed with gastric cancer in October 2009. Shortly after, the Kiski Area head coach underwent surgery that removed 65 percent of her stomach.
In January 2010, she began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation treatment until the cancer went into remission in June of that year.
Since her February recurrence, Toy has been given a gastrectomy, which is the complete removal of the stomach. Last Thursday marked the second of her biweekly chemotherapy sessions, which will run through December.
Despite the challenging road ahead, the volleyball coach said she intends to return to the court and spending time with her “second family.”
“If I’m physically able to do it, I’ll be out there,” she said. “I don’t want to hold them back if I’m too slow, either. We’ll know by July if I can go, but as of now, I’m still the head coach.”
Toy was able to coach the 2010 season during her treatment, in part because of the support she received from the players and their families, she said.
The team that year organized the “Take a Meal” program, which put their families on a rotating schedule to deliver three meals each day to the Toy household. The girls designed and sold T-shirts to raise awareness and money for Toy’s treatment.
“My support group — from my husband, Tim, and my daughters to the volleyball team — has been absolutely incredible,” the mother of two said. “It definitely eases the daily challenges and takes your mind off a lot.”
One of the paramount components of that support group, Toy said, was Jamie Moran.
Formerly Jamie Vick, Moran was first diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) when she was a freshman and standout athlete at Kiski Area High School.
After receiving a bone marrow transplant from her sister, Moran remained cancer-free for six years. She suffered a relapse in 2006 while studying and playing basketball at St. Vincent College.
Again, she had beaten her latest bout of ALL, and, shortly after graduating, she returned to her high school alma mater to teach and coach volleyball alongside Toy.
The St. Vincent College graduate formed strong bonds with Toy and the volleyball girls, but her leukemia returned in 2010. In August 2012, Moran died from complications of a bone marrow transplant.
“Jamie was planted in my life for a purpose, and now I know why,” Toy said. “She was so strong and such an inspiration to all of us. She was a better friend and mentor than anyone could have asked for. She helped me every step of the way through my own fight.”
Toy first discovered she had cancer on the team bus en route to a late-season match when she fielded a call from her doctor. Moran was sitting in the seat across from her and offered immediate support.
“At first, it feels like the wind is just knocked out of you and your head is spinning,” Toy said, “but then I looked over and saw someone who had been through it all and who was going to guide me through the process.”
Moran adopted legendary college basketball coach Jim Valvano’s famous mantra, “never give up,” throughout both of the coaches’ ailments. Toy said the assistant coach meant more to the team than words could describe and that her passing brought the unit closer together and has made them stronger people.
“Very few people in this world have left the kind of impact that Jamie did,” she said. “The girls saw how selfless she was and how she was able to touch so many lives, and that’s left a huge impression.”
The Kiski Area School District started an annual scholarship this year to honor Moran’s legacy. The scholarship in her name will be given each year to female student-athletes who embody what the volleyball coach represented.
Later this year, hundreds of area residents will pile into the Kiski Area High School gymnasium to watch the volleyball team play an exhibition match in the fourth annual “Jam the Gym” charity event. The charity was conceived in 2010 to help mitigate Moran’s hospital bills.
This year, proceeds from “Jam the Gym” will go toward Moran’s scholarship fund, Children’s Hospital and the Fluorescent Angels Fund.
Toy said the event is a testament to Moran’s character and the team’s spirit.
“When life presents you with great adversity, you can either rise to the occasion or crumble under it,” she said. “These girls have continually shown great faith and power and overcame everything that’s been thrown their way.”
“They really are an amazing group of people.”
Braden Ashe is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or email@example.com.
A real-life comeback story underlies an inspiring volleyball season
by Sean Hurd | Contributing Sports Editor
Natalie Leger hated “the look.”
After four months of chemotherapy regimens during her junior year of high school – requiring a dozen different drugs and causing her hair to fall out – the glances of pity from friends and family were more bitter reminders that she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“They don’t know that they’re giving it to you, but it’s like a look of feeling sorry for you,” Leger, now a freshman, said. “That’s honestly one of the worst things. It’s a look of helplessness, almost because they can’t do anything about it.”
When players and fans look at Leger in the Smith Center now, they see a defensive specialist trying to capture enough service aces and receptions to help a women’s volleyball team transform into an Atlantic 10 upstart this season.
Leger, typically coming off the bench in her first year, has served as a real-life comeback story that has underpinned GW’s own inspiring season. The Colonials have won nine out of their last 11 games, marching toward a top spot in the A-10 tournament later this month.
During the preseason, in front of her new teammates and coaches, Leger used a team-building exercise as a platform to disclose the full history of her battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a rare form of cancer found mostly in young teenagers and older adults.
“I told them the complete story,” Leger said. “They were shocked, but they understood at that point why I work so hard day in and day out, and how I’m never going to be a person that’s going to give up on them, and am always going to be there to support everyone, because that’s what people gave me when I was at my lowest point.”
A jarring diagnosis
Leger learned of her diagnosis in January 2012 while competing on a club volleyball team in Pennsylvania. After several weeks of shaking off chest pains, thinking they were signs of fatigue, she felt a pang in her chest that prompted her to seek medical attention.
In a span of three days, Leger’s diagnosis progressed from a potential stress fracture, to an odd blur on the X-ray, until finally, it became clear in an MRI.
Follow-up tests revealed “a large mass of a bunch of small tumors,” in places including Leger’s chest and spleen. Hodgkin’s saw only 9,290 new cases in the United States in 2013, according to the American Cancer Society.
Still, Hodgkin’s is one of the more curable types of cancer, and as Leger said, “if you’re going to get cancer, that’s kind of the one you want to get,”
Over the next four months, Leger would go through an intense chemotherapy regimen that was split into four cycles, each cycle lasting three weeks. Leger remembers her first cycle being the worst, as her body was not used to the six-to-12-hour-long sessions the regimen entailed.
More distressing than the worried looks from her peers, though, was Leger’s inability to play the game she fell in love with in eighth grade. She had just come off of a career season at her high school in Long Island, where she led her team in almost every statistical category.
“Volleyball was always an outlet for me to release any type of emotion,” Leger said. “When that was taken away from me during a time when you would want to release the most amount of emotion, that was probably the most difficult thing about the entire process.”
From cancer patient to recruit
Within the first two months of her treatment, the strict regimen had paid off – Leger was cancer free. The mass was completely gone, and, according to doctors, unlikely to return.
The day after her last chemo session, Leger was back on the court playing in a volleyball summer league. She struggled initially, as the treatment severely weakened her body.
“That was kind of the start of realizing how slow the process was going to be for getting back and trying not to get frustrated with everything,” Leger said.
Being sidelined after the diagnosis and recovery, Leger lost out on key time to showcase her abilities to college coaches. Despite her team-leading numbers on a county level in the often-ignored Long Island volleyball scene, Leger struggled to capture the attention of college programs at a national level, and had yet to commit to a school.
For her second-to-last tournament before the end of the season, GW women’s volleyball assistant coach Brian Gerwig traveled to see Leger play. After discussions with head coach Amanda Ault and talks with Leger, Ault offered her a chance to walk on to the team.
“She went from being somebody that was good on the floor, to someone that was just all over the place and had this attitude and this presence about her that I hadn’t seen all day,” Gerwig said. “And I called [Ault] and I said, ‘Hey, this is a kid, I don’t know what she’s got, I can’t put a finger on it, but she’s got it. She’s a really special kid.’”
Leger said she was “completely overjoyed” by the offer, and even brought to tears.
As a Division I athlete, Leger sees herself as an advocate and role model who wants to show those in her situation that they can beat the disease – a message Leger feels she missed during her experience.
“I think that she has a story to tell,” Ault said. “She wants [Hodgkin’s] to be better for that next person. She’s gone through it and she knows how it affects not only herself, but her family, the people around her. I think she wants to be a part of change for that.”