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By Ryan Maurer
Wittenberg volleyball team members have twice the motivation every time they take the court this year. They are playing for two teammates who ache to be playing with them but have been sidelined by eerily similar circumstances.
Junior Hillary Hassink, from Tulsa, Okla., was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in July 2010. One year later – almost to the day – senior Hillary Monnin, from Russia, Ohio, was diagnosed with the same disease.
Needless to say, one of her first phone calls was placed to her teammate.
Hillary Hassink (pictured) and teammate Hillary Monnin were diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma one year apart. Photo courtesy of Kevin Finnigan.
“I was on a service trip in Lesotho (Africa), and when we got to the airport, one of my friends asked if I had checked my messages,” said Hassink, who was declared cancer-free in December 2010. “Hillary had left a message on my phone. I just fell on the floor crying. It didn’t make sense.
“I had to gather myself, and I called her back. She was extremely calm. I was the one bawling. I told her I would be there for her – no matter what.”
The Tigers, ranked third nationally, are 8-1 on the season after taking two of three matches (losing only to defending national champion Calvin) in the Great Lakes Regional Challenge at Wittenberg over the weekend. They obviously were without the services of Hassink, a libero who appeared in two matches in 2009, and Monnin, an outside hitter who ranked among the team leaders in kills for last year’s team that finished 32-3 and lost in the Division III tournament regional final to Calvin. Both remain close to the team, however, with Monnin still appearing on the roster and on the bench whenever possible in 2011.
Hassink spent the fall semester of the 2010-11 school year at home dealing with the disease and taking two online classes through Tulsa Community College. Despite the physical setback, Hassink returned to Wittenberg in January 2011 and remains on track to fulfill her professional aspiration of becoming a nurse practitioner. There has been one small tweak to her life’s plan, however.
“I hope to become a nurse practitioner who specializes in pediatric oncology,” said Hassink, who is majoring in biology at Wittenberg. “I’ve always wanted to be a pediatric nurse, but oncology definitely came after my experiences of the last year.”
Hassink credits her family and friends in Oklahoma for keeping her focused on recovery, but she says the way the Wittenberg community rallied around her was just as meaningful. Now president of the Class of 2013 and active in numerous student organizations, Hassink credits her advisor, Associate Professor of Biology Matt Collier, for keeping her on track academically. And of course, her volleyball teammates and head coach Paco Labrador have made her feel like an active contributor despite the miles of separation between Ohio and Oklahoma.
Monnin said her Wittenberg experience has been similar. She remembers the exact moment of her diagnosis and her tearful reaction. But her family, friends and fiancée have kept her spirits up at home, and the close-knit campus community has done the rest, making it possible for her to take a full course load to remain on track to graduate in May 2012 with a degree in business and a focus in accounting.
Monnin's family and the Wittenberg community have helped her fight the disease. Photo courtesy of Erin Pence.
“I have the best support group ever, with people who would do anything just to see me smile on one of my bad days,” Monnin said. “Many of my friends are always willing to type out their notes for me, get me movies I need to watch for class, and just talk about how I am doing to get my mind off what I am facing.
“I am blessed to have professors who are very understanding and willing to help me through this process. They told me not to worry about anything and that they would sit down and discuss how we were going to make this whole thing work. Within the first 10 minutes of talking with them, they made me feel secure that everything was going to be OK, and that if I ever had problems, they would fix them for me.”
Monnin cited Adjunct Assistant Professor of Business John Fenimore, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department Wendy Gradwohl, Director of Church Relations Bob White and Senior Associate Dean of Students Dawn White for their efforts.
“There is no greater feeling than having people behind you when certain circumstances like this happen to you,” Monnin said. “They didn’t need to do this for me, but they did. They did it because that is what Wittenberg is about. We are a community, and we do things to help others.”
Volleyball – in the active, on-court form that she has previously known – has taken a backseat, probably for the rest of her life. But the support she has gotten from her teammates has been nothing short of inspiring.
“The volleyball team has been great through this,” said Monnin, who faces at least six months of chemotherapy treatments, followed by radiation to remove two cancerous masses in her body. “It is hard not being on the floor with them, but I know that when they get out on the floor, they are playing for more than just a win. They wear those purple ribbons for a purpose, and in the big scheme they are playing to fight two battles: battle against their opponent, and the battle against cancer.
“Recently, many of us dyed a piece of our hair purple. I have never felt so appreciative in my life. That was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me, especially those who don't usually dye their hair. We are a family, and I know that these girls are my sisters for life.”
Hassink recently bought Monnin a hat, and she made her a card that had a message that she had found inspiring while going through treatments. She is pleased that they are both on campus most days, giving Monnin a sounding board as she deals with the treatment and recovery process.
“She’s asked me questions. I’m glad that she has been doing that because it’s different talking with someone who’s been through it as a patient as opposed to a doctor,” Hassink said. “Hillary is amazing. I really think she is Superwoman.”
Labrador is similarly inspired, so much so that cancer awareness was a theme for the Great Lakes Regional Challenge. Formerly known as the Border Battle, which pitted the top teams from Michigan and Ohio against one another, the seven-team field included four teams ranked in the top 12 nationally by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
The Border Battle had several philanthropic themes, including Hurricane Katrina relief, environmental awareness and fundraising for orphaned African children. In 2010, cancer awareness was adopted in honor of Hassink. The efforts continue in 2011 in honor of both teammates.
“If I had a full head of hair, I would have dyed it purple with the players,” said clean-shaven head coach Labrador. “Facing obstacles like this has allowed our team members to appreciate every moment that they have as students and athletes at Wittenberg.
“The work ethic both of these student-athletes exhibited during their playing careers has helped them fight their illnesses. We are so impressed by the way both of them have handled their illnesses, and I’m confident both will fully overcome them.”
Monnin sees her illness as merely “a bump in the road.” Like Hassink, she has found perspective in her struggles with cancer.
“Of course I would have loved to have played my senior year and experienced it the way every senior does, but sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you want it to,” Monnin said. “No matter what you are dealing with or what situation you are put into, you must have faith in yourself that you will overcome anything.”
Ryan Maurer is the sports information director at Wittenberg University.