Finder: Ultimate victory finally comes for Juniata team
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Her wheelchair rolled to the end line of the volleyball court. She sat beneath standing Juniata College teammates who, after a 24-year, 1,031-victory wait for their loveable uncle of a coach, had at long last won an NCAA championship.
Each player was handed a gold championship watch, including Erin Dodson, the one in the wheelchair with the floppy hat, the blue Juniata sweatsuit, the stuffed bear, the national-championship trophy and the grin on a face drawn from a battery of chemotherapy and five-days-a-week radiation treatments.
"I don't know," recalled the coach, Larry Bock, "if there were many dry eyes in the whole place."
That was four weeks ago. Maybe you noticed the short mention their Huntingdon school received in the sports pages Thanksgiving weekend for earning the Division III title that eluded it in five previous championship-match berths and 19 previous semifinal showings in Bock's 24 superb seasons. Maybe you caught a glimpse of the few minutes CBS gave yesterday to these remarkable Eagles and their cancer-stricken teammate, an Altoona freshman who began the season as a starting outside hitter and finished as a surprise guest courtside at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minn.
Yet for Juniata, for the 13 teammates whose season may well have turned on the terrifying, unifying moment Dodson was diagnosed, and for their coach, Christmas came early. It came not on that Nov. 27 night in Minnesota, but last Tuesday.
That was when Dodson, after a battery of tests, was given promising news: The cancerous tumor in her brain was dwindling. The next step starts tomorrow with thrice-weekly chemotherapy that doctors termed "maintenance."
"It was a good day," Bock said. "Everybody from the ophthalmologist to the oncologist was very positive. Erin is just doing terrific."
Professional and major-college sports are a petri dish of ego, money, genetics and television. Strangely, the purest form of our games can be found in small colleges and high schools, where you stumble across people like you and me and our children, real people leading real lives. With a volleyball net occasionally strung across the middle.
In this case, you look for a story about the winningest coach in women's volleyball history at any collegiate level and a program fabulously successful except for that nagging little hole at the bottom of its resume, and you discover a tale of despair and hope and spirit and a different kind of triumph instead.
"It was hard finding out about that, playing on that first weekend, going to see her," Carli Dale remembered. Dale, from Cochranton, about a 90-minute drive north of Pittsburgh, was referring to the weekend Ohio tournament where the blue-and-gold Eagles figured they have to worry only about moving their coach closer to that 1,000th victory. The night before Nos. 999 and 1,000, they learned that Dodson had cancer, which explained the awful migraines and the hemorrhaging and the emergency surgery. In the hours before No. 1,003, they visited her in the Geisinger Medical Center in nearby Danville. It gave these young women a perspective radically different than the other side of the net.
"It's tough to see your teammate in that condition," Dale continued. "We really relied on each other after that. We definitely pulled together."
After 14 semifinal flameouts, after four championship-match defeats, after 24 consecutive 30-victory seasons and a 99-percent graduation rate, after losing to illness a prize recruit who became a starter "about two minutes into the first practice" (the coach's words), it all somehow converged for the team that Thanksgiving weekend in Minnesota.
First, at the Thursday night banquet, Dale was named the Division III national player of the year, a first for Bock and the 28-year program. Then, for opening ceremonies, Dodson showed up, after completing rigorous treatments days earlier. Her role, the coach said, was to get better, "and she's our MVP in that regard. Her dad, Doug, got a motor home and drove out. Emotionally, for Erin and the rest of the kids, it was enormous."
"It was a complete surprise," Dale continued. "She had to do a lot of pretty tough things to be able to come out. But there she was behind the bench, yelling at us the whole time, too. It was pretty great."
The story reached a nice, tidy conclusion against a Washington University team that twice before downed the Eagles in the championship match. This time, Juniata persevered, 30-27, 30-27, 30-28. They lined up for their gold watches. They revel in the moment still.
"When we're together," Dale began, "we say, 'I wonder what time it is?' 'Why, let me look at my national championship watch.' "
The rings will come later.
So will the ceremony next fall to raise the first NCAA championship banner in a Memorial Gymnasium filled with tapestry commemorating every success but that one. For the avuncular coach with the amazing 1,032-169 record, the ultimate victory would be to have No. 12 standing on the end line. Shoulder to shoulder with her teammates.
Yes, that will be a good day.
First Published December 26, 2004 12:00 am