Digging for a cure

EVERETT — When inspecting a box of new uniforms, a coach usually wants simply to make sure the colors are correct and that there are enough for all the athletes.

It doesn’t seem like a task that would make a coach cry. But a little more than a year ago, that’s exactly what happened to Wendy Close.

Close, head coach of the Cascade High School volleyball team, was checking last-minute details as her squad prepared for the 2006 season when she opened a container of Bruins game shirts.

Besides what she expected to see, Close saw something that brought tears to her eyes.

On the front of each uniform was a printed pink ribbon. Requested secretly by Cascade’s players, the small decorations were included to honor Close, who was in the midst of a fight with breast cancer.

Not one to gush about her emotions, Close admitted that seeing those uniforms made her cry. “Pretty cool,” she said of the gesture.

If Close thought that was cool, wait until she sees what happens this week in Cascade’s Reg Scodeller gym. In honor of Close, who is healthy after beating the cancer she was diagnosed with in March 2006, Cascade and Everett are holding a Dig for the Cure volleyball match at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The Western Conference North Division contest will serve as a breast cancer awareness benefit, with proceeds going to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure network, which supports breast cancer research.

The cross-town rivalry will prominently feature the color pink, which the Komen foundation uses to bring attention to its cause. The teams plan to use pink-and-white volleyballs, wear pink uniforms and sell pink T-shirts for $10. For each shirt sold, $7 goes to the Komen Foundation.

Organizers expect a massive turnout.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s really snowballed and gotten really big,” said Close, a 1968 Cascade High graduate who never had a serious health issue before being diagnosed with cancer. She endured chemotherapy last year, from March through October, as well as 38 radiation treatments. In February she was told the cancer was gone.

Cascade senior Kristin Villanueva, a team co-captain, came up with the idea to put pink ribbons on the Bruins’ jerseys last year. She’s also one of the driving forces behind organizing the Dig for the Cure match.

“We wanted to do something more for her,” said Villanueva, who originally planned to coordinate the benefit event for her senior project. Villanueva later learned that it didn’t meet project requirements because it was a pre-scheduled competition, but the setter/defensive specialist has still been actively involved in planning, along with team co-captain Olivia Condotta, Close and Everett coach Heather Burglund.

Close’s ability to keep coaching — she also leads Cascade’s softball program — and teaching throughout her cancer scare is inspiring, Villanueva said: “She’s a strong girl.”

“She never acted sick. She had the same energy. She’s very tough,” added Condotta, a senior outside hitter.

Close was actually a late replacement to take over the Cascade volleyball team last year. She carefully weighed the decision of taking on a new challenge amid her then-ongoing cancer treatment and teaching duties.

“I really thought about it: ‘Well, do I really want to take this added responsibility on?’ It was for the kids, because there was nobody there,” said Close, who had coached Cascade’s junior-varsity team for 20 years.

Cascade players are glad Close stuck with them. Last season the Bruins made a surprising run to the Class 4A district tournament, and despite an 0-6 start this season, the girls enjoy working with Close.

“Last year we grew as a team, and this year I think we have a chance to be even better,” Villanueva said.

Close truly gets to know her players, and “that’s what helped our team get so close last year,” Condotta said.

Burglund, Everett’s coach, was coached by Close in middle school and on Cascade’s JV team. Burglund expects lots of Everett fans to show up Thursday and said many of Close’s former players plan to attend.

“It’s cool how this whole thing is catching on. (Close is) such an amazing person and has stood strong through all of this,” Burglund said. “To continue to be able to fight (cancer) and be such a role model for the kids is amazing.”

The event’s message extends beyond the volleyball court. Many Everett High cheerleaders have family members who have been affected by cancer, Burglund said, and the combined interest in the Dig for the Cure match has brought Everett High students and staff together.

Said Burglund, “I think it’s going to be a really emotional night — something that everyone who is there will never forget.”

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