WILMINGTON — When the St. Elizabeth volleyball team needs a big hit, or the occasional perfect set, they may look for the tall sophomore in the No. 15 jersey. Reena Robinson is happy to help her teammates in any way possible. In fact, she’s pretty darn happy to be back on the floor at all.
A year ago at this time, as she was starting her freshman year, she began to experience pain in her abdomen. She had earned a spot on the varsity volleyball team, and she kept playing and going to school. But the pain — initially diagnosed as a pulled muscle — persisted.
“On my second visit back, they got blood work and ordered an ultrasound just in case. The blood work didn’t show anything, but I got an ultrasound, and they found a mass in my stomach,” Robinson said recently at the St. E Center.
The tumor — the size of a football — was found to be stage four ovarian yolk sac cancer. It is a rare type of cancer that begins in germ cells, those that form sperm or eggs, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Robinson, 15, had her right ovary removed and began chemotherapy. She missed the Vikings’ last two regular-season matches and state tournament match.
“I really wish I could have finished (the season) out before anything happened. But I’m glad I went in when I did and was diagnosed when I was,” she said.
She surprised her teammates by attending the tournament match against Newark Charter. One, Kylee Bowen, knew the visit was in the works, but she kept that a tightly guarded secret.
“She was always part of the team, but just to have her presence there and to know she was getting better, it was a lot,” said Bowen, a senior.
During warmups that night, the Vikings wore “Reena Strong” t-shirts with her number, 15, on the back. They brought them back out this summer at various playdays.
Bowen has known Robinson since she was in fourth grade and Robinson was in second, and the two are close. Finding out her friend had cancer was tough.
“It was so devastating. I was there with her, too. It was hard to watch someone who’s such a good person go through something so terrible. But she kept a positive mindset about the whole thing,” Bowen said.
Chemo was the worst part of the ordeal, Robinson said. She was always nauseous and missed a lot of school. As soon as she started feeling better, it was time for another round. She lost her hair but said that didn’t bother her too much. Short, curly locks have replaced the ponytail.
There were a few silver linings along the way, Robinson said. First was the support from the St. Elizabeth community.
“Everyone was so great,” she said. “I can’t say enough about them. My team was awesome. They came to my house one day after practice. They surprised me; I didn’t know they were coming. It’s just the greatest feeling to know that people are there for you and supporting you and have your back 100 percent.
“The school was also great. As soon as I came back, the teachers had a meeting to see where I was with my schoolwork and see how I was behind other people. They basically taught me individually. They helped me catch up with everyone else.”
Her connections through the Brandywine Volleyball Club provided another positive. Joe Trinsey, the son of club directors Bob and Gina Trinsey, was an assistant coach with the U.S. National Team in the 2016 Olympic Games. Joe Trinsey told the team about a young volleyball player in Wilmington who was battling cancer. Christa Harmotto-Deitzen, the captain, sent Robinson a signed jersey.
“It was really nice. Through that, I found out that they ran a camp in Pittsburgh. I went to that this past summer, and it was really fun,” Robinson said.
The camp was run by the Give It Back Foundation, which donates proceeds from the camp to charity. This year, the beneficiary was a high school in Uganda. In Pittsburgh, Robinson helped campers with their hitting and vertical jumping.
“It pays for your whole club tuition or whatever you need to pay for your club season. They gave me a scholarship, so I get to play club for free this year, which is really awesome. It can get really expensive,” she said.
But before the club season begins, Robinson and the Vikings are concentrating on the scholastic campaign. Robinson liked what she saw during the preseason, and she’s excited to see how St. Elizabeth can improve on its 2018 season.
Her coach at St. Elizabeth, Jerry McCarthy, is thrilled to have Robinson back, and not just because she’s a quality volleyball player.
“Reena Robinson is a one-of-a-kind individual on many, many levels,” McCarthy said. “First, she always puts her team first. Second, she’s a great competitor, and third, she’s very humble. What does that do for a team? It sets the bar high. She sets the work ethic for everybody else. A bad day for Reena is her working 150 percent.”
Robinson’s illness also touched McCarthy on a personal level. Robinson’s mother, Donna, was friends with McCarthy’s sister Janice, who died from cancer in 2016.
“Knowing Donna, who was friends with my sister, who we lost to cancer a couple of years ago, it brings an extra special touch to it. Every time I think I have a bad day, there are a lot of people like Reena that are having worse days. But Reena doesn’t show it. She’s a competitor, always bringing out the best in everyone,” he said.
Bowen is thrilled that her friend is back. “She’s like a sister to me. She brings such a good positive energy to the team.”
Robinson also plans on playing soccer for the Vikings in the spring, and she wants to join the school’s Jefferson Club, which focuses on community service. She lives in New Castle and attended St. Peter the Apostle School. Her brother, Chase, is a senior at St. Elizabeth, and her mother is a graduate.
One final positive to come from Robinson’s illness is that she discovered that she likes art, particularly painting. It serves as a kind of therapy for her. She was home a lot during her treatments and needed something to help pass the time.
“That’s kind of where I learned I could draw. I was just so bored all the time. I didn’t know what I could do,” she said.
One of her favorite paintings is of the logo of the B+ Foundation. The Wilmington-based charity, established in memory of former Salesianum School student Andrew McDonough, supports pediatric cancer patients and their families.
Robonson didn’t choose to have cancer, but she’s not sure she would go back in time if that was a possibility. Facing that challenge helped her mental toughness.
“It’s something you need to go through, so you just do it. I think that helps with other aspects of my life.”