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Despite cancer diagnosis, Ekness ’18 still excelling on the court

Marissa Ekness on the volleyball court
Author: 
Joe Tischler, Director of Athletic Communications
Publication date: 
September 8, 2017

Editor's note: Marissa Ekness has been declared cancer-free since this story was originally published. 

The 2017 Minnesota Morris volleyball season got underway last weekend and senior Marissa Ekness spent four matches smashing kills into the opponent's court.

It was not unusual to see her do that; she entered this season sixth on the Minnesota Morris all-time kills list with 1,231.

The remarkable thing that Ekness did was just step onto the court in the first place.

The New Prague High School product earned All-Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) First Team honors for the second time and was an American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Honorable Mention All-American selection after totaling 503 kills and 4.75 kills/set in 2016, numbers that ranked her 12th and eighth nationally, respectively.

Ekness was looking forward to the offseason and training with her team that had everyone eligible to return from a squad that reached the UMAC championship game for the fourth straight season. With the addition of talented newcomers, expectations were high for the upcoming season.

Her mindset changed in February. She noticed a suspicious looking mole on her back and went to the doctor to get it checked out. A biopsy of the mole showed signs of melanoma, a type of skin cancer. She later had another biopsy on a lymph node from her right armpit and that came back positive for a tumor. The rest of the lymph nodes from the armpit needed to be removed and a Jackson-Pratt Drain was inserted for two weeks to lessen the chances of lymphedema developing.

The number of hospital visits and surgeries put a big strain on Ekness. She was not concerned about lifting weights for her volleyball training anymore; she was concerned with lifting herself out of bed.

"Honestly, I wasn't able to do much for two to three months," said Ekness. "I just laid in my bed, which was probably the worst part.

"I had to get help sitting up, I had to get help showering, I had to get help walking up and down the stairs. Eating was hard; chewing hurt the scars on my back and under my armpit."

The team's thought processes changed from preparing for the 2017 season to caring for their teammate. After the initial diagnosis, Ekness went into head coach Lauren Torvi's office to explain the situation. Torvi's first reaction to the news had nothing to do with volleyball.

"For me, it was how do we handle this and where do we go from here," said Torvi. "I've never had an athlete dealing with something like this.

"How we handled it from diagnosis until now is we haven't talked about volleyball. It has always been about making sure her well-being was okay."

News about Ekness' condition hit the team hard.

"It was shocking," said senior Katie Reitsma. "I felt bad, because she's a great person and a great player and it was sad to see her go through that process."

Teammates, the Morris community, and even opponents, reached out to show support for the Webster, Minn. native.

"I know of coaches that we've either played once in the past three years or maybe play every year reaching out," said senior Bekah Morris. "That has been really great to see how much of an impact Marissa has had."

The outpouring of support is something Ekness could never have imagined.

"The support has been amazing. I never really thought that it would be like this," she said. "Right when everything happened, every team in the UMAC sent me cards and well wishes. My professors have been really supportive and they just reach out and talk to me and ask how I'm doing."

As the summer went on, Ekness was able to regain her mobility and do things on her own again like showering, writing, typing, and being able to catch up on homework. Being an outside hitter on the volleyball court, she was able to raise her right arm again.

By the end of July, she was able to start exercising with some light weight training. Prior to the start of preseason practice in mid-August, Ekness had another minor surgery to remove a mole from her back.

Through it all, Ekness was there on the first day of fall practice, but with limitations. With the stitches still fresh from her most recent surgery, she was not able to do much. Ekness has been good at not pushing herself too hard and the team has been able to adjust without her on the court, if need be.

"As far as practice, what we've been doing is tailoring Marissa to her needs," said Torvi. "She knows her limits. I don't know when it hurts her. She only knows when it hurts or when she's sore and she tells me when she's had enough."

Day-by-day, Ekness was able to do more and more. Prior to the first match of the season, she was given 100 percent clearance to fully participate. After what she went through the past six and a half months, just having the opportunity to be back on the court with her team would be remarkable.

"It's going to be amazing," said Ekness a week prior to the first contest. "On the court or off the court, it's going to be good to be back with the team. It felt like I wasn't really with them during the spring season though everyone was there for me. Now I'll be with them."

The opener came September 1 at the Sugar Loaf Classic in Winona, Minn. and Ekness was in the starting lineup. In the sweep of Saint Mary's, she played all three sets and collected seven kills. Later that night, she returned to the court and played all five sets in the team's win over Chicago and delivered a team-high 22 kills.

Still feeling good the next day, Ekness had 17 kills in a 4-set match against Luther and had nine more kills in a straight-sets win versus Ripon.

In two days, over four matches, Ekness collected a team-high 55 kills and was named to the Sugar Loaf Classic All-Tournament Team, quite remarkable for someone who was given a cancer diagnosis and underwent multiple surgeries prior to the season.

Ekness is not out of the woods yet though. She has dermatology appointments every three months for full body scans and she needs to get CT scans, PET scans, and brain MRIs every four months. She has one of those coming up later this month.

Ekness is a strong competitor and whatever she faces both on the court and off, she will face them head on.