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UMAC volleyball programs collaborate to raise melanoma awareness, support fellow conference player

Photo collage of volleyball team supporting Marissa Ekness
Upper Midwest Athletic Conference
Publication date: 
October 25, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn.---Over the last decade, sports has become a launching pad to raise awareness for social issues impacting millions of people around the globe. Most notably, in the month of October, professional sports organizations have used their platforms for breast cancer awareness and funding research.

Quickly, this desire to support causes like breast cancer awareness spread to intercollegiate sport with a particular emphasis in the sport of volleyball. However, this fall, the National Football League (NFL) has expanded its "Crucial Catch" initiative to include all types of cancer, not just breast cancer.

Following the NFL, volleyball teams in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) have partnered together to go beyond the normative "Dig Pink" initiatives of October to support a different cause, one that goes beyond just talking about a disease but shows support for a remarkable student-athlete who has inspired so many people over the last eight months.

In February, University of Minnesota Morris outside hitter Marissa Ekness was diagnosed with melanoma that spread into the lymph nodes of her armpit. Since her diagnosis, Ekness underwent surgery to remove the lymph nodes and endured several other procedures that have since helped her become cancer free.

7597This fall, Ekness returned to the court, despite all odds, to help lead the Cougars in an impressive 24-7 campaign this season. However, her impact has gone beyond digs and kills – she has led and inspired other UMAC programs to work together to raise awareness for melanoma research.

"The outpouring of support for Marissa has been incredible and we're very thankful all these teams came together for her," said Minnesota Morris second-year Head Coach Lauren Torvi. "This conference and the people within it are truly amazing."

The support from UMAC teams began shortly after Ekness' diagnosis as all of the programs sent her cards and gifts to show their support. Additionally, a Go Fund Me campaign was started on her behalf that has raised nearly $10,000 to help support her medical costs. "She was completely overwhelmed by it all," said Torvi. "I don't think that she's expected any of this to happen."

This month, UMAC teams stepped up again to share in Ekness' desire to bring awareness to a lesser-known cancer that takes the lives of nearly 10,000 Americans each year. Torvi had black t-shirts with "#melanomore" made to sell to fans at home games – black is the official color for melanoma. Both North Central University and the University of Northwestern purchased the shirts to wear during the teams' matches against Minnesota Morris this month. Sales from shirts so far have raised over $600 that will be donated to the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF).

In addition to purchasing t-shirts, North Central participated in a Melanoma awareness match with Minnesota Morris, while Bethany Lutheran College hosted its own awareness game in honor of Marissa with its Student-Athlete Advisory Comminttee (SAAC) raising money to donate to the MRF. Martin Luther College hosted a "blackout" match and serving contest organized by its SAAC group to raise additional funds, and the College of St. Scholastica wore black t-shirts for its match at Minnesota Morris with dollar bills in the shape of a number 5 – Ekness' uniform number.

Despite being opponents competing on the court for victories, UMAC volleyball teams have exemplified the conference's values of sportsmanship and integrity through their joint efforts this month to raise awareness to a cause that goes beyond the sport of volleyball, which is something that was extremely important to North Central first-year Head Coach Faith Vander Galien when she took her position this summer.

"One of the main reasons I wanted to become a coach is to show student-athletes that sports are not about stats, glory or accomplishments, but (are about) playing for something bigger than yourself," said Vander Galien. "We had an opportunity to use volleyball to support something that was bigger than a 'W.'"

Beyond teaching her athletes the 'Xs and Os,' Vander Galien – who was an All-UMAC performer at Northwestern – was personally driven to support Ekness through a prior relationship as club teammates and UMAC opponents.

"I have always respected (Marissa's) passion, heart and drive to not just be a better athlete, but an amazing competitor and good sport," said Vander Galien. "It was so sad to hear she had melanoma in the spring. So, when the opportunity came up to support her, it was an easy 'yes.'"

While Ekness' has inspired the entire conference, her impact has been felt most greatly within the Minnesota Morris volleyball program. In a personal post on the Minnesota Morris Facebook page, Torvi outlines Ekness' unfailing desire to finish out her volleyball career that led to a remarkable recovery and return to the court when it wasn't supposed to be possible.

According to Torvi's post, following Ekness' surgeries, she wasn't able to lift her arm during spring practice, but she attended every practice shagging balls and supporting the team in any way she could. In the fall, she started back into practice slowly, but it was clear early on that her passion and determination would push her to a return to full game action sooner than anticipated.

In the team's second weekend of competition, Ekness returned to full force and battled fatigue to lead the Cougars to a pair of five-set wins over then-ranked No. 23 Tufts University and Bowdoin College. The 2016 All-America Honorable Mention selection has returned to top form and currently ranks fifth in Division III in total kills (444) and seventh in total attacks (1,242), and she is second in the UMAC in kills per set (3.89) in overall matches this season.

On Sept. 29, Ekness helped the Cougars to an impressive 3-2 win over Augsburg College in which she compiled a career-high 30 kills to set a new Minnesota Morris volleyball record for career kills, surpassing the previous record of 1,490 – all of this occurring just seven months after finding out she had cancer, which has left an even greater legacy and impact on the Cougar volleyball program and campus community.

"(Marissa) has shown us what perseverance really means," said Torvi in the Facebook post. "She has inspired all of us to stop with the excuses and do your job. She has inspired countless people in our community, in the UMAC, and in this program. I know she would want me to thank all of the teams that have showed her what sportsmanship and Division III volleyball is really about. We have so much gratitude for those that have helped her and her family with bills, support and the promise to fight melanoma for all those who may someday have to battle it.

"We will continue this fight for Marissa and be in awe of everything she has and still will accomplish," said Torvi. "We will continue to remind ourselves that life is bigger than volleyball and wins and losses and playing time. We will continue to remember that playing for this program is about leaving your legacy and becoming amazing women who are prepared to take on the world. We will continue to hold ourselves to the standard that Marissa has held herself to. We will continue to follow her lead. And that includes me."

Because of athletes like Ekness – who have demonstrated acts of selflessness and sportsmanship – and the ability of UMAC programs to work collectively despite distinctively different missions, the UMAC has laid the foundation in its first 10 years as a Division III member known for its outstanding sportsmanship and respect amongst institutions, student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans.

"I have been blessed to be part of the UMAC as a player and a coach," said Vander Galien. "Because of the well-respected teams in this conference, we have always been able to set aside conference wins and play for a bigger purpose. As a coach, I have seen great support from all the UMAC teams and coaches. I love that (we) can continue the legacy of sportsmanship in the UMAC."

Original UMAC press release