MARTINSVILLE, Ind. – A few minutes before Martinsville’s home volleyball game on Thursday night against Columbus North, the Foo Fighters’ song “My Hero” blared over the loudspeakers in the gymnasium. The teams warmed up on each side of the net as parents, classmates and junior varsity players found a spot on one of the pull-out wood bleachers.
Bridget Balcerak took her turn. The 5-8 sophomore jumped and smashed a few volleyballs to the other side of the net with a right-hand swing. After each one, Balcerak wore a smile. And when she smiles, her teammates do, too. There might not be a high school volleyball team in the United States that smiles as much as these Martinsville girls.
“Bridget,” said sophomore teammate Lauryn Knox, “is the best person. I just smile when her name gets brought up. When she walks in the room, you can’t help but smile.”
The smile is distinctive. So too is the black skull cap Bridget wears during volleyball games. It covers her bald head, an effect of four rounds of chemotherapy to treat Stage IIA Hodgkin’s disease. On Tuesday, Bridget finished her fourth round of chemo. That same night, she played in a home game against Whiteland as both teams wore purple ribbons in her honor on Cancer Awareness Night.
My Hero? To the Martinsville girls, she’s right there in flesh and blood under a black skull cap.
“Every day she’s with us is a win,” Martinsville coach Danielle English said. “As soon as she walks in the gym, everybody gets excited.”
For more than a year, Bridget had occasionally noticed shortness of breath. Her father, Butch, had pleurisy in his childhood. Bridget chalked it up to genetics.
“It turned out it wasn’t,” she said.
On May 1, Bridget noticed a bump on her neck, near her collarbone. While getting her sports physical, Bridget was sent by her pediatrician to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health for further tests. On June 2, Bridget and her family received the news that she had Hodgkin’s disease.
“I’m like, ‘Wait, it’s cancer?’” she said. “But I wasn’t fazed by it as much as I thought I would be. They said it would be curable, so I wasn’t too worried about it.”
With that attitude, Bridget went about hitting life’s curveball out of the park. Her mother, Nancy Balcerak, offered this insight into Bridget’s outlook: On July 4, while Bridget was swimming with her older sister, Aubrey, her blonde hair began falling out in clumps from the chemotherapy. For a 15-year-old, this could have been a traumatic experience. Bridget’s response? She laughed.
“That’s her personality,” Nancy Balcerak said. “She always has a positive outlook. She knows she can beat it. She’s tough. She doesn’t want to stop doing the fun things that she does.”
The good news for Bridget — the youngest of three children (her brother Ben is a junior on the Martinsville football team) – is that Stage IIA Hodgkin’s disease is almost always curable. In the middle of her four chemotherapy treatments, doctors told her there was a 50 percent decrease in the size of the mass. In three weeks, she will begin radiation.
“We want to make sure we get it all and it doesn’t come back,” Bridget said.
The chemotherapy has taken a toll. After her second treatment, she was admitted to Riley for six days after falling ill. An excellent student, Bridget has had to miss more school than she would like. But she has been able to knock out her schoolwork at home to keep up.
“Waking up early isn’t always an option,” she said. “Especially when I’m trying to make up homework late at night. I wasn’t getting the rest I needed.”
But give up volleyball? That thought never occurred to Bridget.
Knox, a close friend of since kindergarten, learned about Bridget’s cancer diagnosis over Snapchat.
“We started texting back and forth,” Knox said. “I was telling her how unfair it was. She texted me back and said, ‘Life’s not fair.’ That’s how I got over it.”
Bridget got over it by keeping her life as “normal” as possible. Even through chemotherapy, she continued her summer routine with the volleyball team.
English, who played on Martinsville’s 2005 state championship team, never questioned Bridget’s decision. She moved Bridget from middle hitter to the outside in an attempt to lessen the toll on her body. During games, Bridget plays the three rotations in the front row and then comes out for a substitute when she rotates to the back row.
“I always ask her during the match how she’s feeling,” English said. “Then I’ll give her a second and say, ‘Are you really fine?’ But there haven’t been very many games where she’s felt bad. In the match, her adrenaline keeps her going. In practices, she’s more willing to take a break if she needs to.”
Bridget is not where she could be. She tires far more quickly than she would have before. But she’s out there. In that sense, she is competing for all the reasons high school sports are supposed to be about.
“Going to volleyball helps me,” she said. “It’s a distraction from feeling bad. I view things so much different than I used to. I’m definitely not taking things for granted. I understood cancer was hard for people. Battling cancer sounded so devastating. But I never really understood why. Now I really understand. It reminds me not to take every day for granted. I wake up and make the most of my day.”
Bridget’s presence has been so uplifting that it was startlingly obvious to English that the team’s demeanor took a dip when Briget missed two games while in the hospital. The team decided from that point they would wear purple ribbons in her honor if she was not able to make it to the game.
“We talked about playing for her when she can’t be there,” English said.
Bridget has every opportunity to complain. Her teammates would understand. But she chooses to focus on the positives. Like playing volleyball with her friends.
“I think it means everything to her,” Knox said. “She could have been mad. But she’s been out here every day. (Tuesday) night she had just done a round of chemo and had been cramping and her stomach hurt. She still showed up. Sometimes you can look at her face and tell she’s hurting. But she still smiles. I don’t understand how she does it.”
Bridget was there Thursday. She ended the first game with a kill in a match Martinsville eventually lost in five games to Columbus North, dropping the Artesians’ record to 9-11 on the season.
After the match, Bridget walked over and took a seat next to her mom in the bleachers. She was tired. But still smiling.