The Douglas Bearcats are hard to miss on the court. One of the top volleyball programs in the state, they are a prominent figure at the state tournament despite just one championship since 1998.
But this year, during this state tournament, they stood out for a different reason.
They abandoned the white and blue jerseys that have become synonymous with Douglas. Instead, the Bearcats wore gold with plain black numbers and letters. The libero’s jersey is an eye-catching vibrant pink.
Those jerseys were purchased by Andrew and Marissa Beard, whose 3-year old daughter, Stella, died from rare pediatric brain cancer after a three-month fight. Stella’s death shook the community of Douglas, including her aunt, Bearcat sophomore Emma Saunders.
Douglas wore those jerseys throughout September, which was Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The team decided to spread awareness once more, on the biggest volleyball stage Wyoming has to offer.
“They just wanted to go gold for state and represent it one more time for us this year,” head coach Angela Rhoades said. “It’s something that’s really in their heart with Emma being on our team and being a big part of our motivation to spread awareness to the state.”
The cause was not only on display during their matches. Every member of the team wore something pink, a bright backpack or a long-sleeve warm-up with the phrase #StellaStrong printed on it.
The Bearcats hope their play this weekend will help bring awareness to the ruthless disease.
“We’re just trying to get it out there that we want childhood cancer to have more funding,” Douglas junior Haedyn Rhoades said. “We’re really just trying to show people what childhood cancer is about. We’re playing for Stella and we’re playing for all the kids that have suffered through cancer.”
Rhoades and the rest of the Bearcats have found a great source of pride in being able to wear the special jerseys. The script S with a pink heart on the sleeve serves as a constant reminder of how Douglas is playing for more than just themselves this year.
“It gives me chills even talking about it,” Haedyn Rhoades said. “I just love how our community is so behind Stella and her family. It’s just so nice to have that on our shoulders.”
A common theme in the cancer community is: fight. Patients are quick to say they are fighting the diseases while survivors proudly say they fought and won.
Having fight is something the Bearcats also want to spread, along with awareness. They were forced to fight through a pesky Mountain View team that forced a fourth set in the quarterfinals. They also had to fight through Worland, a team that nearly took Douglas to five sets less than two weeks earlier, through a grueling five-set thriller (25-14, 16-25, 24-26, 25-15, 15-7) in Friday’s semifinals.
The fight shown in September paved the way for an undefeated October and November. Douglas has won 11 straight matches going into the state championship match, dropping just five sets along the way.
At this point, every match means something special with the biggest match left to play.
Just one victory away from the program’s fourth state title, the Bearcats will have to give everything they have in hopes of earning the gold. Win or lose, they’ve already made a community proud by wearing it.
“You’ve got to battle,” Angela Rhoades said. “Whether it’s volleyball or cancer or school or whatever is in your life, you have to find a way to battle.”