Difficult year inspired Coaches vs. Cancer

LYNNWOOD — In one way or another, everyone has been affected by cancer. Some have suffered from it themselves, others know a family member or a friend who has suffered from it. Either way, it comes in many forms and can be devastating.

Meadowdale girls basketball coach Marcus Merrifield knows that better than most. Nearly six years ago he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After surgery and a short round of chemotherapy, Merrifield was deemed cancer-free and remains so to this day. But at that time he was just one of several members of his family dealing with one of the deadliest diseases in the world.

Merrifield’s father, Carl, passed away the year prior to his son’s diagnosis after a 17-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

A month before his testicular cancer diagnosis, Merrifield’s stepdad found out he had prostate cancer. A month after his father-in-law learned he had bladder cancer.

“It was just a hard year for the Merrifield household,” Merrifield said.

From that hard year came inspiration. Merrifield started Coaches vs. Cancer at Meadowdale High School and the fund-raising project, which is advised by Merrifield and run by students, is now in its fifth year. A pair of Mavericks basketball games this week are dedicated to raising awareness of the disease while also helping raise money for the American Cancer Society.

“I felt like I had to do something because I’m not a scientist and I’m not going to find a cure for cancer in my laboratory at home,” Merrifield said. “I’m not smart enough to do that, at least in science. But I can talk a little bit and I can get people aware of it.”

Meadowdale staff and students were provided a glimpse of what it’s like to battle cancer during the project’s first year. Ashley Aven, a Meadowdale softball player, was in the midst of a battle with leukemia and was asked to be the first-ever honorary coach for event. Since Aven was going through treatment at the time, it wasn’t guaranteed she would be able to attend the game.

“It just so happened it lined up with her treatment for her to come to the boys game,” Merrifield said. “She literally walked in the door right before tip-off. Our announcer was so good that he saw her come in and announced her name. Everybody in the stands just (stopped) and then started cheering.

“I never really cried a lot until I had kids and now I cry at movies and stuff, but that’s a moment that has always stuck with me,” Merrifield added.

Aven succumbed from her battle in August of 2010.

That year and each year since a Meadowdale student has taken on the challenge of organizing the event as a senior project. This year, with Merrifield’s guidance, two seniors are planning the event together. Jaclyn Barhoum, a three-year member of the girls basketball team, and Ashley Brooke, a softball player, have been working since December to raise money and secure a sponsor and honorary coach for both the boys and girls games.

The boys game is today at 7:15 p.m. against Shorewood and girls game is Friday at 7:15 p.m. against Glacier Peak. A year ago Meadowdale raised nearly $4,000 and Barhoum and Brooke have a goal of reaching $5,000 this year.

Michelle Van Tassell, an Edmonds real-estate agent, will serve as both the honorary coach and sponsor this year. As honorary coach, she will speak at halftime of both games about the event and her daughter’s battle with skin cancer. As sponsor, she donated money to help the boys and girls teams have T-shirts made that they will wear at school and during warm-ups the day of the game.

The year after Aven was an honorary coach, Brooke learned her grandfather had cancer on the first day of basketball tryouts as a freshman. Later that season he passed away. Brooke was asked to be the honorary coach at the Coaches vs. Cancer game that year, planting the seed for her role in the project this year.

“I kind of felt like I owed it just to myself and everything and the whole idea of it to run it this year,” Brooke said. “I always had it in the back of my head as a project I wanted to do.”

Barhoum and Brooke have already raised over $700 since they started taking collections in early January and that number should increase quite a bit after both games are played.

“The cool thing about this project is I’ve kind of learned to let each senior who takes it to kind of get their own direction to it,” Merrifield. “I started it because of my own personal connection, but it’s really about them sort of embracing something and carrying it on. I think there are a lot of really cool traditions at Meadowdale and I think this is one of them.”

Every penny the Meadowdale student-body raises will help, but like Merrifield, Brooke just wants to see the community stand up to the disease.

“I want to walk into the gym the night of my senior presentation and see everyone that’s been affected by it and everyone just kind of coming together for that one night,” Brooke said. “I think that’s something really special about Meadowdale and about tragedies, they kind of bring people together and want to make it better.”

More than five years since their initial diagnosis, Merrifield’s step dad and father-in-law are also cancer-free. Watching his father battle cancer for nearly 20 years has helped shape the person Merrifield is now.

“He was an amazing man because of his attitude of how he said, ‘I’m just going to live each day because I don’t know how many I’m going to get,’” Merrifield said. “That’s what really inspired me is how he lived his life through that.”

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