As the fourth set of the volleyball match between East Lansing and Grand Ledge on Tuesday evening inched to a close, it started to become clear that the Trojans would fall short.
The Comets entered the fourth set of the best-of-five match leading, 2-sets-to-1. After running out to a large lead in the fourth set and fending off a late Trojan run, Grand Ledge ultimately finished out the match, winning 3-1 (set scores: 25-12, 25-23, 23-25, 25-16).
A loss is never enjoyable, but Tuesday evening helped remind those in attendance — right down to the players on the court — that playing in a high school volleyball game is not the most important thing anyone will do in their lives. It wasn’t even really the most important thing happening on Tuesday night.
Tuesday evening was the latest edition of an annual fundraiser game that the East Lansing High School volleyball program puts on each October to benefit breast cancer research. It’s something Head Coach Heather Stanley started shortly after being hired to lead the program in 2017, and since then, it’s become a yearly event. Moreover, after partnering with Kelly Garcia, an ELHS alumna, former volleyball player, and recent breast cancer survivor, this fundraiser has become a piece of the program’s legacy.
“That reminder is there and they definitely know that that night, and even this whole month and this wearing pink goes deeper than just — just to do it,” Stanley said.
Throughout the evening, along with sporting pink jerseys, freshmen through varsity players took turns selling raffle tickets and pink facemasks (a new Covid-era addition). The prize for each of the raffles was a gift card to Harrison Roadhouse, donated by that restaurant.
All told, according to Stanley, around $300 dollars was raised this year, which tracks with what has been raised in years past. Those funds are being donated to the American Cancer Society via Garcia’s own fundraiser. Money raised aside, Stanley knows there’s value in sharing Garcia’s story with her players and program.
A message, printed on pink paper, was available to fans arriving at the game along with the various teams rosters. And on this sheet was a message from Garcia, who played volleyball at ELHS before graduating in the Class of 2009.
It outlined how Garcia was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 28 and how she prevailed through radiation, immunotherapy, and two types of chemotherapy. It detailed how Garcia lost her hair and dealt with a bevy of related injuries and ailments while undergoing treatment. Now, Garcia is 30-years-old and cancer free, but she must still deal with longer-term side effects of the disease and treatment.
“However,” the note reads, “I gained a new perspective about life and learned how much strength I truly had inside me.”
It continues: “The past two years were pretty rough but the support that I received gave me the strength, fight and spirit for me to continue to stay standing and positive.”
In the past, players have gotten to meet Garcia, and Stanley has seen first hand the impact that has had on them. This showed through on Tuesday. Before the game during player introductions, each player and coach held a miniature, pink volleyball. As various players had their name called, they scoped out a portion of the stands and tossed it up to a cluster of fans in the bleachers.
When it was the turn of East Lansing’s Gracin Emerson to be introduced, she went a step further. Emerson bounded up to the top of the bleachers and made a specific point to hand the miniature pink volleyball to her grandmother.
“I think it’s easy for them to remember what that night is about because they just have that personal tie as well,” Stanley said.
While the ensuing match did not pan out as the Trojans would have hoped — a glorious conference win at home on a special night was not in the cards — the real point of Tuesday night was not really a game.
What mattered on Tuesday, and continues to matter above all else, is the impact being made by the players, the program, and this fundraiser.
“They all understand the appreciation that the community, the survivors and those that are going through this have,” Stanley said. “They have a lot of appreciation for our program and express that, and the girls know that, and I think they definitely understand what it’s about.”