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NU 'mans up' in girl's memory ; Hockey team retiring cancer victim's jersey

Down a hallway, inside a dusty room near the Niagara University men's hockey team locker room, reside the team slogans that never stuck.

"Effort alone is not achievement."

"Purple Train."

"Winning or Whining? We Choose."

Ten in all, these signs are all stashed away. No need for them anymore. Niagara has a new mantra that will last an eternity. Around the corner, hanging above their sticks, is a banner that reads "Man Up!"

Here at Niagara, those two words elicit a waterfall of emotions. Meghan Redenbach, the 15-year-old Royalton-Hartland student who died from a rare form of ovarian cancer on Christmas Eve, originated that credo in an essay contest at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

NU's director of hockey operations, Jeff Weber, came in contact with Meghan and her family via the Make-a-Wish Foundation. And the team virtually adopted Meghan and her slogan.

Friday night, before NU's game against Sacred Heart at Dwyer Arena, she will be honored. The Purple Eagles will retire a number in Redenbach's honor and hoist a banner in the rafters. The No. 6 Meghan wore to games the past two seasons will never be worn again.

"In the course of our lives, we take a lot of things for granted," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. "Days blend into weeks and weeks blend into years. But she really made us stop, look and see how fortunate we are to be here.

"She was a part of our team. You could see it in her eyes when she entered our room."

Players get choked up and fight back tears just thinking about Meghan. She inspired them at a whole new level. Before games, she joined the team in a prayer. After games, she was there waiting with a high-five. All last season, players wore "Man up" hats and Niagara went 10-2 at the games Meghan attended.

"Her presence was unbelievable," senior Bryan Haczyk said. "When she walked into the room, everybody said, 'We're going to do it for Meghan.' "

And even as her health worsened this season, Meghan tried to make any games she could.

Senior Paul Zanette will never forget the first time he met her.

"She didn't look great because she was sick at the time but she had the biggest smile on her face and seemed happy as could be," Zanette said. "Honestly, that's how I'll always remember her. Every time we've seen her, whether it's at the hospital or our games, no matter how rough it's been, she always had a big smile on her face."

When Redenbach was cleared to play basketball last year, the entire Niagara hockey team came to watch her first game back. Of course, Meghan had a career night, drilling a sequence of three-pointers. A picture of that game is hanging up in a stall devoted to Redenbach in Niagara's locker room. It, too, will forever remain untouched.

So many players on the team were affected by Redenbach for life. Whenever they're down, whenever they begin to slip into self-pity, they think of her.

Zanette vividly remembers lying in his bed last summer with strep throat. He couldn't skate, couldn't train, couldn't really do anything for three weeks.

"I was just killing myself at how much I hated life," Zanette said. "Then, I thought about her and the situation she was in. She's gone months sitting in a hospital bed or in her bed at home not able to play basketball or volleyball. I thought about that smile on her face and it made me say, 'OK, suck it up.' "

From his bedroom, Zanette learned of Meghan's death in a text message from Burkholder. Immediately, he broke down in tears. His brother, Marc, who also plays for NU, soon did the same.

In the last year and a half alone, Haczyk has been to "seven or eight" wakes. Three of his four grandparents have died from cancer. But this was different. Meghan's passing struck a new chord.

"It really got to me," said Haczyk, one of 11 NU players who attended the wake. "It cut me up more than any of the other ones. It was tough to see. She's probably one of the toughest girls I've ever met. She was so positive and so determined to beat cancer."

Meghan is gone. It'll be strange for players not to see her before and after games with that 5,000-watt grin. But they'll never forget her fight.

And neither will future players.

"Her passion will be a part of this program forever," Burkholder said. "Teams forever will hear the Meghan Redenbach story."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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