This Thanksgiving, middle blocker Gabby Pethokoukis has a lot to be thankful for.
She and the volleyball team are headed for Omaha, where the Wildcats will be playing in their first Big East Tournament since 2010.
Aside from the team’s success on the court, she’s grateful to be healthy and cancer-free.
“It’s been amazing to be back,” Pethokoukis said. “Obviously, last year it was tough to miss the whole season and not be able to play.”
One morning, back in February 2014, she woke up with a feeling of soreness in the back of her throat. Unsure of what it was, she sought the opinions of doctors. They were just as puzzled as she was.
Originally thought to be a pesky case of mono, it was ultimately believed to be tonsillitis. Plans were made to surgically remove her swollen tonsils in the following month. As a precaution, a biopsy was performed on them.
With the mystery seemingly resolved, Pethokoukis returned to practice and to the volleyball court. The Wildcats were preparing for a spring tournament, and she was getting ready to play. Her focus shifted on to winning, and playing the game that she has loved ever since she was little.
Unfortunately, the tournament was put on hold. Everything was put on hold.
“[Coach] called me into Fr. Rob’s office, and I had no idea what I was being called in for,” she said. “They sat me down, had my mom on the phone, and they told me it was Burkitt’s lymphoma.”
Burkitt’s lymphoma is a rare non-Hodgekin’s lymphoma that is recognized as the fastest growing human tumor. Due to the rapid growth of the cancer, it can be fatal if left untreated. 1,200 Americans are diagnosed with it each year.
Pethokoukis started chemotherapy in May 2014, undergoing three rounds of rigorous 21-day treatment cycles.
Pethokoukis, a native of Western Springs, Ill., didn’t go too far from home. She sought treatment at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
She tried as best as she could to adjust to her new lifestyle that was far removed from campus, teammates, and friends. She even lost her hair. Through it all, she never felt too distant, despite the many miles between Illinois and Pennsylvania.
“During the process, she was really upbeat and communicated with her teammates,” Coach Steinbach said. “We would get her on FaceTime after practice.”
Care packages, text messages, phone calls, letters – it seemed that they were running out of different ways to reach her. Teammates and coaches went to visit her a few times.
She finished chemotherapy on June 17th, 2014. A follow up scan a week later revealed that she was officially cancer free. However, there were still some ways to go.
“In my mind I felt like I was coming back and everything was going to be normal again, but it really wasn’t,” she said.
Mentally she was ready, but her body was still beaten up and not in shape to keep up with the demands of being a Division-I athlete. She struggled to make it through 10-20 minutes of practice before feeling drained. As a result, she opted to rest her body by redshirting and sitting out the 2014-2015 season.
She still remained around the team, going to every practice and game to support her team. Unfortunately the Wildcats had a rough season, finishing 13-20 overall last year.
Her eyes were set on the following season, as she gradually felt better with time. She worked at it until she finally completed her first full practice in the spring of 2015.
“She fought so hard just to be able to practice a little bit in the spring,” teammate Claire Crutchfield said. “We look to her as such a huge inspiration and such a role model. If she can battle something that great, we want to do everything that we can just so she can see such a great season.”
This year, Pethokoukis is relishing in being on the court this season. The 6-foot-4 middle blocker has helped fill the void that was left in her absence. As one of the tallest on the volleyball team, she is one of the many important assets that has helped the team’s meteoric rise this season.
Ever since her emotional return in the season opening win against Stony Brook, Pethokoukis has made her mark.
She has tallied 246 kills (2.32 per set) so far this season. She’s also one of the top blockers in the conference, boasting a team-high 118 blocks for the year.
She was able to play in the second annual “Spike it to Cancer” game and fundraiser for the Robert H. Lurie Center, where she added 13 kills and four blocks in a close win over Creighton.
“It meant a lot to me that she was just back out there playing,” Steinbach said. “She’s having a great year so that makes it even sweeter.”
There’s only one thing that would make the year even better – a Big East title. The Wildcats have faced all of the teams in the tournament, beating each team at least once this season.
Villanova is enjoying a 24-7 season that was capped off by a perfect 12-0 record at home. This is the first winning season that this year’s senior class has seen since arriving to the Main Line.
The first ever NCAA Tournament bid in program history would also be nice, but right now the team has its eyes locked in on Xavier. They’ll take it one step at a time.
“Ever since freshman year, one of the goals was to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving and go to the Big East Tournament,” Pethokoukis said, smiling. “This is a huge deal for all of us, we can’t wait.”