A season of trial and triumph for KSU volleyball

This wasn’t just another in the string of team meetings. No, this was more family gathering.

It was late March when Kennesaw State volleyball coach Keith Schunzel called his young women together, away from the gym and out of the usual offseason habit. He had some hard news about one of his own — and by extension one of their own.

They all knew the coach’s son as the 2-year-old who made all the growth charts gasp in amazement, the robust package of barely containable energy who did laps around all their home matches and some of their practices. Many had taken their turn babysitting him, tending to his very exacting demands about keeping indoor toys indoors and outdoor toys outside.

Griffin has cancer, the coach told them that day in spring. When reality invades the cloister of athletes at play, it doesn’t much care who it hurts.

“You hear stories about it, but you don’t expect it to happen to someone so close to you, especially a 2-year-old,” Anaiah Boyer — sophomore outside hitter is her volleyball rank — said. “A lot of us were shocked. And we just wanted to know what we could do to help.”

Since arriving at KSU for his first head coaching gig in 2013, having been a vagabond assistant at six other schools and a pro player overseas, the 34-year-old Schunzel often introduced his players to the useful concept of perspective. After a bad day on the court or upon hearing enough of the shallow complaints of the modern college student, he’d join them in the locker room, call up an online news site, and invite them to look at the world at large.

Let’s see: Syria or a tough economics test, which could be worse?

But this was the most personal kind of lesson, one that he and his wife would be attending as well, front row.

It is eight months later now, and the regular volleyball season has but one weekend left. Schunzel’s Owls were 16-7 pending a last swing through Florida. They are 5-0 against in-state competition, including a first-ever victory over Georgia Tech. “When we go out recruiting in the spring, you better believe I’ll let people know that,” Schunzel said.

A third-place team in the Atlantic Sun Conference entering the weekend, the Owls have a puncher’s chance at the conference tournament next week. They seem to be peaking. The winner will advance to the NCAA tournament.

This also was the season that Schunzel’s wife Briana, an All-American at Ohio University, came on as a volunteer assistant coach. The amalgam of team and family was just about complete. And better buckle up, Schunzel told his players in advance of his wife’s arrival because she’s competitive and she’s direct.

And Griffin?

All signs good. He has finished an intensive series of treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is ready to shift to a maintenance phase.

The original diagnosis came a day before the exact type of his cancer was determined, and the possibilities ranged from lethal to mostly treatable. “The worst night of my life,” Keith said, recalling that period of uncertainty. Then the word came back that Griffin’s leukemia was the far more survivable variety.

While composing one of the program’s better seasons, here were both coach and volunteer assistant dealing with a child’s profound illness.

“If I couldn’t compartmentalize, I would have been a train wreck this year,” Keith said. “There were times inside that I was a train wreck, and I couldn’t show it in front of (his team). That was really hard.”

Griffin required multiple chemo treatments a month and hospitalization when some germ attacked his weakened immune system. The treatment dripped into his body through a port surgically implanted near his chest. Before each trip to Scottish Rite, his parents would tell him, “Time to charge up your power pack.”

A college volleyball season unto itself barely merits a public passing glance, especially in this part of the world. But this particular season, under these particular circumstances, Kennesaw State’s 2015 has been almost blindingly illuminating.

A late-October match against the New Jersey Institute of Technology might have been one of the more insignificant pinpoints on the schedule. Only this time, it was renamed “Griffin’s Game,” with the proceeds going to two other families dealing with childhood cancer. Other programs, notably Clemson and Wake Forest, had held fundraisers for the Schunzels.

“We were learning something other than being better players on the court — like playing for things bigger than ourselves,” Boyer said.

Who knew that beyond setting and spiking, a volleyball season might reveal the enduring presence of human kindness? “It has been amazing to see all the blankets of support we’ve had,” Briana said.

Or that a boy just shy of his third birthday could show college athletes a thing or two about being strong. Why, it was a couple of weeks after his hair fell out before he said anything about it at all, blurting out in the car one day, “Mommy, I don’t have any hair on my head.”

And now that the good days are outnumbering the bad, he is even more full of life.

“He’s so resilient,” said senior Cierra Royster, a middle blocker. “On the days after chemo sessions, he’d be running around throwing his ball. He can be cranky like anyone, but no one would know he was sick.”

The volunteer assistant coach, as competitive as they come, found out that losing a match didn’t exactly bring down the walls or make the rivers change course.

“It’s easy to rebound when you see Griffin, see his face and he’s giggling about something,” his mother said. “Yeah, (coaching) is stressful, but really, what’s the big picture?”

Mash it all together and you have a volleyball season that became greater than the sum of its matches.

For everyone involved had adopted a share of Griffin’s difficult year, and then they adapted.

“It’s our story,” Royster said. “It’s another little piece that defines who we are and what we’ve been through and why we fight so hard.”

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