Villanova coach Josh Steinbach was really busy that day in April 2014. The NorthEast Qualifier was getting ready to start in Philadelphia and because of it all sorts of club kids were making visits, a Puerto Rican youth team was practicing on campus, Villanova was preparing for its spring tournament the next day, and, well, it was just a crazy time for a college volleyball coach.
And then things got crazier.
The mother of Gabby Pethokoukis was on the phone. Pethokoukis, a 6-foot-4 middle, was Villanova’s best returning player at the time, coming off season in which she was second in the Big East in attack percentage (.351). But, her mom told Steinbach, the biopsy a couple of weeks earlier on Gabby’s tonsil showed a cancer called Burkitt Lymphoma. It’s recognized as the fastest growing human tumor in the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma category.
It was bad, but fast forward to this past weekend, when Villanova opened its season at Penn State against Stony Brook.
‘It was hard for us to keep it together for her first match back,” Steinbach admitted. “I know when they introduced her name I was tearing up and my assistants were as well. Just from where we were a year and a half ago, this was so big.”
Nova beat Stony Brook and Buffalo before losing to Penn State, and for the weekend Pethokoukis kicked off her junior year with 21 kills and hit .280, and had eight block assists, one solo. Which is a far cry from a year earlier when she struggled to get to class, so much as play volleyball.
“I’m doing well and honestly, this is the happiest I’ve been in a long time,” she said Wednesday. “I’m feeling normal again and it’s been really great to be back on the court and have more of a role on the team.”
Not that she ever left the Wildcats. Pethokoukis had only three chemo treatments but they were extra-dosage, if you will. She lost her hair, too.
“It took a lot out of me mentally and emotionally,” she admitted, but she added she was given tremendous support from her teammates, the coaches and the Villanova athletic community.
And even before the diagnosis she was more fatigued than usual, “which was a big red flag,” Pethokoukis said in retrospect. “During the entire process I needed to stop just when walking down the block. It was a struggle just to get around and that continued for the next five or six months.”
“The chemo kicked her ass pretty good,” Steinbach said.
Gabby is a second-generation Greek-American. Not only has she visited Greece, she made it the destination for her senior trip when she graduated from Benet Academy in suburban Chicago. Accordingly, she went back home for the treatments but was soon to get back to Philadelphia, hard as it was.
When Villanova’s volleyball season started in 2014, Pethokoukis was hardly ready.
“She would jump in to a little practice now and then but she couldn’t drill for more than about 10 minutes without being exhausted,” said Steinbach, whose Wildcats finished 13-20 without her.
Pethokoukis, a finance major with an eye on investment banking or wealth management, said she started to get back into shape this past May, which put her in good position to play in 2015.
“There was no bulletin from athletic training that says here’s your recovery time from chemo,” Steinbach joked. “So it was a really an as-you-feel kind of thing.”
Pethokoukis hurt her foot in the first match of the 2013 season, a stress fracture that kept her out a few weeks and something Steinbach still keeps in his consciousness today, sometimes limiting her practice time and jumping. Whether it was the foot or cancer, Pethokoukis kept on going.
“Gab’s not a complainer,” Steinbach said. “It’s almost a problem, because when she’s been injured before she doesn’t want to say anything and wants to plug away and get through it.”
This weekend Villanova goes to Denver to play Air Force, Texas-Arlington and Denver. It’s not likely anyone will appreciate it more than Pethokoukis.
“This is what I want to do, to be able to play volleyball,” she said. “And for me to be able to get back into it is just been an amazing feeling.
“I’m so grateful that I’m fully healthy again.”
500, but … for Ole Miss’ McRoberts
What an up-and-down Tuesday it was for Ole Miss coach Steven McRoberts.
He picked up his 500th career victory in the afternoon when the Rebels beat McNeese State, but later that night watched his team go up 2-1 but then lose in five sets to visiting Tennessee Martin.
McRoberts is in his 19th year of coaching, which includes stops at Lubbock Christian University, Central Arkansas and Tulsa before taking over at Ole Miss in 2014.
Tennessee Martin, by the way, lost in five earlier in the day to McNeese. Results like those for all three teams are why coaches are so high strung.
Huge NCAA weekend on tap
There are some fantastic gathering of top-ranked NCAA teams and we’ll preview them tomorrow, but they include:
At No. 1 Penn State with No. 2 Stanford, No. 6 Illinois and No. 21 Colorado.
At No. 3 Texas with Florida and Nebraska, tied for No. 4 in this week’s AVCA poll, and Oregon.
At No. 17 Hawaii with No. 25 UCLA, Iowa and American
At No. 22 Ohio State, No. 14 Florida State and Northern Illinois, coming off that big upset of Iowa.
AVP, Midwestern style
The AVP continues its stay in the middle of the country as the beach game goes from Chicago to Cincinnati Thursday through Sunday. WKRP will not be covering the event.