Volleyball Team Rallies against both Coaches' Cancers

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

By Braden Ashe

Published: Sunday, June 30, 2013 12:01 a.m.

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 bashe@tribweb.com.