By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
When the going gets tough for the Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central volleyball team, all the players have to do is look over to the bench to see a symbol of strength and courage and the will to fight and never give up.
Second-year head coach Karen O'Brien is battling ovarian cancer for the second time in less than two years. She first was diagnosed in February of 2015. The disease went into remission that summer, and she was declared cancer-free – but it returned this summer. She completed her six rounds of chemotherapy treatments last week, which turned out to be good timing with the District tournament beginning for her team Tuesday.
“I'm getting there,” she said. “I still have my tired days.”
St. Mary Catholic Central entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the Class C state poll, and it is led by senior hitters Merina Poupard and Leah Ritchie and junior setter Lauren Kemmerling.
The Kestrels have won five MHSAA championships since 2003, and the last three came in the past three even-numbered years (2010, 2012, 2014). That is a good sign for 2016, and good omens are welcome – but not taken as anything that is a given.
“We're going to take one day at a time,” O'Brien said. “That is what the cancer has also taught me. One day at a time. It doesn't matter where you are ranked in September or October; it's where you are November 19th.”
St. Mary Catholic Central won all five of its MHSAA titles under coach Diane Tuller, who retired after the 2014 season. O'Brien, an assistant in 2014, took over as head coach in 2015 and praised Tuller for making it a smooth transition.
“I'm very grateful to Diane Tuller for giving me the opportunity to be her assistant in 2014 and showing me the ropes of the Huron League and also of the state tournament,” O'Brien said. “Winning the state title in her last year and her allowing me to continue the tradition that she has started there has been amazing.”
It also has been challenging because of the news she received in February of 2015. But after being declared cancer-free that summer, she had hopes of a smoother 2016. It didn't happen, and the return of the cancer made O'Brien reflect on exactly what she wanted to do and not do.
“When I was diagnosed in July, I sat down with my husband and said, ‘OK, option one is to stop coaching. Option two is to find somebody that wants to take over as head coach, and I would be the assistant. Option three is stay the head coach and find somebody that wants to be my assistant.’
“I really felt option 3 was the best for me so that I had something to look forward to.”
O'Brien turned to junior varsity head coach Lindsay Notario to be a co-coach. It was a fine match as Notario had been the JV coach for several years and knew the players well.
“I was nervous,” Notario said. “I had never been on varsity before, but I knew she wouldn't just leave me hanging. She hasn't missed too much time, and she has really been there for most of the season, so it's been nice that she hasn't missed out on a whole lot.
“Her mind is always on the team. When she does miss, she will call and give me this idea or that idea or a lineup we can work on. She is always coaching me through it, too.”
O'Brien then had to explain the changes to her players.
“I had told them this summer that we were making some coaching changes,” she said. “Lindsay was familiar with the JV kids who would then be on varsity, and I pretty much told them, 'My cancer is back, and I have to go through six rounds of treatment.
“I'll have my good days and bad days, and I will miss some days, but I'll be here all the time that I can.”
O'Brien has been involved in volleyball and sports in general for more than 30 years. She has a full and impressive resume. She is a 1981 graduate of Livonia Stevenson High School and was the first female athlete in school history to earn nine varsity letters (volleyball, basketball and track), and she was first-team all-state in volleyball in 1981.
In college, O'Brien played at Schoolcraft Community College before moving on to the University of Georgia, where she made the all-Southeastern Conference team in 1983 and 1984. She has been head coach at Dundee High School, the University of Toledo and Siena Heights University, and she was an assistant at Eastern Michigan University before coming to St. Mary Catholic Central.
She also is a businesswoman. She owns two Subway stores, one in Dundee and the other in Monroe. All of that has helped give her an escape from her daily battle with ovarian cancer, and her background in athletics has given her a fighting attitude when faced with adversity.
“I think as an athlete, some adversity hits you and you right away go into warrior mode to do whatever it takes to survive and get through this,” she said. “Being an athlete, you are more organized, which definitely helps also.”
Fighting back with Teal Attack
As if keeping a positive attitude and enduring the energy-sapping treatments wasn't enough, O'Brien launched an all-out assault on ovarian cancer. Teal is the official color of ovarian cancer awareness, and she started a “teal attack” in the region.
“After my first round of chemo in 2015, it was like, 'OK, what can I do?'” she said. “I knew one person with ovarian cancer.
“I didn't know the signs and symptoms and didn't know what to look for. I was not well-educated, and I wanted to use athletics as a way to bring awareness and raise funds for ovarian cancer, so teal attack started. Basically in 14 months we've raised about $80,000 at sporting events.”
In that time, more than 40 sporting events have been teal attack games, where T-shirts are worn and sold, donations are accepted and the word is spread about the signs and symptoms. Spreading the word is just as important as the funds to O'Brien.
“Everybody thinks that ovarian cancer is an old lady's disease, and it's not,” said O'Brien, who, at 53, is far from an old lady. Neither was 8-year-old Mariel Almendras of Ann Arbor, who at age 5 was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008 and died three years later.
“It's just about educating, and I have become much more educated in the last year and a half,” O’Brien said. “It is what teal attack is all about, teaching women about the symptoms.
“The outpouring just in Monroe County has been unbelievable. Monroe High School, Bedford, Ida, we had a huge golf outing in Dundee that raised $15,000 on its own.”
As co-coach, Notario has seen a lot of teal attack up close.
“Teal attack has been amazing,” she said. “She alone brought awareness to the whole county of Monroe, and at every game she is always going over and talking to coaches and trying to spread awareness.
“Every day of September, she would wear something teal as it was ovarian cancer awareness month. People would mention that they liked the color of her shirt, and she would say it was about ovarian cancer awareness and make them aware.”
O'Brien teamed with the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance (MIOCA), and there is a link to all the teal attack events on the web page – www.mioca.org – along with a way to donate. Her dedication to the fight against ovarian cancer while fighting it herself has impressed many around her.
“It has been phenomenal,” said Chad Myers, athletic director and dean of students at St. Mary Catholic Central. “Her thing is to try to make more awareness about it and do the best that she can possibly do.
“On top of that, she has so much passion for teaching these girls and teaching volleyball. When you think you are having a bad day and then you go into the gym and see her pushing the girls and giving it everything that she has, (it) puts things in perspective. The girls are very excited to see her come back and coach.”
The next step
With the conclusion of the treatments, O'Brien can focus on St. Mary Catholic Central's drive for its sixth championship. But she doesn't want any “Win one for Coach” attitudes.
“They see me on my good days, and I think part of the way through the season they wanted to play for me, and I told them they need to play for themselves,” she said.
St. Mary Catholic Central opened the District tournament Tuesday with a three-set victory over Britton-Deerfield. The Kestrels downed Blissfield in a Semifinal on Thursday and will face host Ottawa Lake Whiteford at 10 a.m. Saturday for the District title.
“The cool thing about the team is that we don't have a go-to hitter this year; we have a bunch of really talented girls,” Notario said. “No matter who is up there, we don't have to worry about the ball getting to a specific person.”
Notario said the girls text her occasionally with questions about how O'Brien is doing, but for the most part it is not a common topic.
“Karen is kind of a private person, and I did not want to overstep any boundaries,” Notario said. “She talked to them when she felt the need to talk to them, but every now and then I'll get a text asking if she is doing OK. I do have little talks with them when she's not around to make sure they are taking care of their health.”
As far as O'Brien is concerned, the players and their families have given her a lot of support.
“I truly believe in faith, family and friends, and I've had the support of all three really since February of my first diagnosis,” she said. “The community and the school have all been very supportive.
“My volleyball parents bring me and my family meals during my first couple of days of chemo. I have a son who is 16 and plays football and now is going into basketball, and my husband coaches football and now will go into coaching basketball, and those meals have been awesome.
“I have lots of good people around who support and help me. It's been such a help.”
If O'Brien and the Kestrels win the Class C championship in two weeks, it would cap an incredible inspirational story. But she isn't ready to look that far into the future – although she does want to continue to spearhead teal attack.
“I believe I'm headed in the right direction, just finishing up the chemo,” she said. “I am glad the second chapter is done.
“I look at teal attack as something that I really want to promote throughout the state. We've had matches in North Branch and Berrien Springs, and I would really, really like to get a lot more in the state of Michigan going.
“It's not all about raising money; it's about raising awareness.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Karen O’Brien and her husband Dan are all smiles after her last chemotherapy treatment last month. (Middle) Senior Merina Poupard puts up a block during a match this season. (Below) Poupard (middle) celebrates the point with teammates including Abby Jackson (2) and Lauren Kemmerling (11). (Match photos courtesy of Kortney Poupard).