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Determined teen stays in the game ;Passion for volleyball overshadows cancer

Meghan Redenbach made it to every Royalton-Hartland volleyball game she could this season.

When her body was healthy enough, even while it was battling cancer and dealing with chemotherapy, she played.

When she was able to be on the bench, the 15-year-old sophomore became another assistant coach. On one occasion this season, she was not exactly pleased with what she was watching.

"I didn't bust out of the hospital for you guys to be playing like this!" she yelled.

That was classic Meghan, according to Roy-Hart coach Bill Holahan, who watched her battle back from two surgeries to take the floor for the Rams this past season.

"When she wasn't able to play she would watch, and if people weren't giving 100 percent, it would bug the heck out of her," he said. "You have to think that time was so precious for her, and for someone not to take advantage of every single second."

Meghan's timetable was different because when she wasn't at a game or a practice, she was in a room in Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where she is battling a malignant tumor in her ovaries called a fibrosarcoma, a form of ovarian cancer so rare that only 30 cases have been documented -- and only one in a child -- according to what doctors have told her parents.

"She just has incredible courage and determination and the ability to fight through things," Holahan said. "Anyone who has come into contact with her has fallen in love with her and her courage."

Last year, a joint effort by New Era Cap Co. and Roswell Park chose Meg-han as one of three cancer patients whose story -- and baseball cap design -- would represent the New Era New Hope campaign.

Meghan wrote:

"I guess the saying, 'You never know how strong you are until strength is your only option,' is really true. People have said it is amazing how I can do all this and stay so positive. I strongly believe that I am doing what any other person would be doing if they were in my position.

"Being diagnosed has opened my eyes to everything in life. I have never really appreciated my friends and family as much as I do now. If it weren't for them, I am not sure I would have gotten as far as I have. Every day I tell myself, 'Just another day. No matter what, I will make it to tomorrow. Even if I fight all day. I'll make it.' "

Monday night, Roy-Hart senior Bridget Shanahan, Meg-han's best friend and teammate, was part of a photo honoring the All-Western New York girls volleyball team at the Buffalo Niagara Court Center in West Seneca. She left Meghan's bedside to bring Meghan's Roy-Hart and Niagara Frontier Volleyball Club jerseys, which were held up during the photo as a tribute.

"We would have a game, and even though it would be hard for her to get there, she would still be there," Shanahan said. "The atmosphere would completely change when she would step on the court. It was unlike anything else. The whole crowd would cheer, and she wouldn't even have to do anything.

"It's hard to see someone you love so much be in so much pain. It's indescribable. You're sitting there, and you can't do anything about it. There's not much you can say. It's terrible."

Meghan initially was diagnosed Dec. 12, 2008, midway through her eighth-grade year and after a successful junior varsity volleyball season, as well as a day after she tried out for the Niagara Frontier Volleyball Club team. Later that year, Meghan returned to Roy-Hart, where Holahan was her eighth-grade history teacher.

"You wouldn't believe the number of days she attended," he said. "She'd drag herself there. Sometimes, because of her treatments, she couldn't stay awake, or she'd be loopy -- but she just wanted to go to school and be a normal kid."

>More persuasion

By her freshman year, she had another impressive year on junior varsity and earned a call-up to the varsity for the playoffs. At every step, Holahan was astounded by her "innate ability to lead" and her lack of bashfulness in talking to older players. At the end of the season, she did some more persuasion -- she would need another surgery, but she talked doctors into holding off until the end of volleyball.

"She told doctors, 'You're not going to cut me open now because I've got a couple of games left,' " Holahan recalled.

The Roy-Hart community rallied behind Meghan and her family -- parents Mike and Nancy and older brother Nick -- with several fundraisers and by establishing Meghan's Fund (see meghansfund.org to donate).

Last summer, Meghan had returned to the court and attended several volleyball camps. She attended a camp at the University of Wyoming with Shanahan, who had verbally committed to play Division I volleyball at the school.

This season was shaping up to be a special one at Roy-Hart, a small school that doesn't see a Division I athlete every year. Meghan, at 5-7, was an accomplished setter, the focal point of a volleyball offense, and she had as close a connection with the 6-2 Shanahan on the court as she did off it. They were the ideal volleyball yin and yang, Meghan placing the ball in the perfect spot in the air, Bridget rising up to it and hammering it down.

Then, in August, the cancer came back.

"When it did return, rather than the typical 'Woe is me,' her first thought was that it was so untimely," Holahan recalls Meghan saying. " 'It's [Shanahan's] senior year.' "

The first thing she told her coach when he visited her that month in Roswell Park was, "Let's get ready by Albion." Roy-Hart's main rival in the Niagara-Orleans League would visit the Rams on Sept. 21.

"She's there flat on her back," Holahan said, "but she knew Albion was coming up, and she was not going to let her teammates down."

Meghan was able to get back on the court for that match -- won by Albion -- and Holahan got her into any match he could.

Meghan had some highlight games, including a 12-assist performance Sept. 27 against Barker, but getting on the court was an accomplishment itself.

>'She'd get right up'

She had lost weight, and her strength had been sapped. Holahan said the gym floor never seemed so hard as it was when Meghan went down during a play. Shanahan was vigilant about helping her friend up -- even if it came in the middle of a point.

"Just to see the fire in her eyes as soon as she would be down on the floor," Shanahan said, "I would try and help her up as much as I could. And she'd get right up and get the next ball."

More than a few plays were heartwarming and heart-rending at the same time.

"You'd be clapping with tears running down your face," said Caryn Shanahan, Bridget's mother.

The sports pages from Roy-Hart's 2010 volleyball season forever will read that the Rams lost both matches against Albion and that they fell to eventual state champion Falconer in the Section VI Class C semifinals -- another match in which Meghan was able to play.

But different kinds of victories brought different things to cheer.

At Roy-Hart's "Dig Teal" night to raise awareness for Meghan and ovarian cancer -- while the pink ribbon is associated with breast cancer, the teal ribbon is associated with ovarian -- featured teal balloons and teal cookies.

But no one knew if Meghan was going to be able to make it -- until, walking with difficulty, she showed up about 12 minutes before the match. That was the Rams' allotted time for their prematch warm-up, but instead teammates visited and took pictures with Meghan, who on this night was so ill she couldn't stay for all the action.

>'Amazing speech'

On Senior Night, Meghan was on hand to present flowers to Shanahan during the pregame ceremony.

And two weeks ago, Meghan, as Caryn Shanahan put it, "busted out" of Roswell Park to get to Roy-Hart to attend "Teal Night" at a basketball game. Meghan drew another ovation as she entered in a wheelchair.

Like their season, Roy-Hart volleyball's awards banquet took on a different meaning this year. Shanahan delivered a speech that Holahan called "amazing." In it she said, "sometimes winning isn't the most important thing."

"Everything that I thought is totally different," Shanahan said just after Monday's photo was taken, still holding Meg-han's jersey. "It's not about just me, and of course, volleyball is an important part of my life, but, volleyball will bring me back to the old times when she could set me the ball, and I would slam it down," she said with a big smile, moments after wiping away some tears. "When I'm on the court, she'll be right there with me."

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com