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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Lacrosse for Leukemia: Two interviews

The 11th-annual Price Modern Lacrosse for Leukemia Fall Invitational Tournament will be held this Saturday, Oct. 11, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, Md. The tournament has long been a first-rate fall ball event for men's college teams. This year women's teams will join the fun, and all for a great cause. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) is the world's largest voluntary health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research, education, and patient services. Unfortunately, more than 894,000 Americans currently have blood cancers, many of them children.

Each team participating will play in honor of a local youth ambassador who is a survivor of, or is currently undergoing treatment for a blood cancer. These youngsters will serve as "honorary captains" for each team and will spend the day with their respective squads on the team bench. The tournament has raised over $915,000 for research and patient services over 10 years on behalf of the Maryland Chapter of LLS. The money goes toward its mission to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and myeloma, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. Spectator admission is $5 per person or $20 per car (parking included).

The eight women's teams participating in the event are Towson, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Loyola, George Mason, Penn State, Rutgers, and Louisville, while the men's teams will be Towson, UMBC, Delaware, Washington College, Mount St. Mary's, St. John's, Air Force and Rutgers.

As you can see, this is an event with great teams for a great cause but I wanted to give you more motivation to come out in support on Saturday, so I conducted two interviews this week. Both are compelling in my opinion. I spoke to Jen Adams, the greatest women's player in the world and the new women's head coach at Loyola College. And then I talked to John Valenti, the father of Matthew Valenti, a young child who has battled Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) since he was only 2 years old.

JEN ADAMS

Jen Adams is my favorite lacrosse player since Gary Gait's retirement. It is visceral. I like watching men's lacrosse far more than I do women's but I will watch Adams play before I watch any men's team, because she's always making history when she steps on the field. She's that good and she makes everyone around her instantly better. She is unselfish but can take you to the cage with ease. It is always a thrill when she has the ball.

I recall seeing her play in an NCAA tournament game for the Terps (I won't mention the opponent) when her team was up by a couple goals near the end of the contest. She had possession of the ball on the left side of the cage against a very good college defender on a very worthy team. Jen worked the defender out of position and bolted for the goal, but at the last minute pulled up and returned to the side where she had started, the defender following her all the way in and then all the way back, panting in exhaustion. Jen then took the defender to the cage again, hard. She beat her again and could have easily scored but again pulled up and returned to the spot. A minute was gone from the clock. To everyone's amazement, Jen did it again, a third time and a fourth. I am sure it was not Jen's intention but the defender was in tears by the fourth time back to the sideline spot. The game was over and everyone in attendance knew who the best player they ever saw was.

In 2005, the Australian phenomenon led her nation to the world championship in Annapolis. The 28-year-old from Brighton, South Australia, graduated from Maryland in 2001 with four NCAA championship rings. She returned to College Park as an assistant in 2007 with head coach Cathy Reese after assisting Reese for two years at the University of Denver. In 2008, Reese and Adams' Terps reached a No. 2 ranking and finished with an 18-3 record.

John Weaver: Jen, Coaching at Loyola, a program where cancer took one of its great heroes, Diane Geppi-Aikens, is it special to play in a tournament that serves children with cancer?

Jen Adams: I think that anytime you are given an opportunity to experience something bigger than the sport, bigger than your team, bigger than everyday life, it is special to be a part of. One of the greatest lessons that Diane instilled in her players was to always live every day and every second to its fullest. We are extremely honored to be able to be involved in such a great cause and I can already tell that the Loyola girls have been touched by the stories and amazing strength of these young survivors. One of the characteristics I hope our Loyola players will always represent is that of being selfless and compassionate. ... This tournament offers us the opportunity to play some great lacrosse, but more importantly to come together to show our support for a truly important and worthy cause.

JW: This is the first year women's teams have participated in the tournament. And it's a good field of teams. Is this the top women's fall event already?

JA: This tournament boasts not only a top field of talent, but also is supportive of a great cause. That in itself makes it one of the, if not the premier women's fall event. I believe that this tournament has the potential to grow over the coming years into something much bigger, and it will continue to attract interest at every level. We'd all like to thank Missy Doherty and her staff at Towson and Vince Fiduccia at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for organizing the event. I know Loyola looks forward to contributing to a successful and profitable tournament this year and many more to come.

JW: What are you looking to achieve when you take a team into a multiple-game format like the Lacrosse for Leukemia tournament?

JA: Our aim for this tournament is to enjoy the day. With multiple games and being in the fall, it's a great chance to get everyone participating and sharing in the moment. My hope is that our girls will play hard with a ton of passion and spirit to showcase some awesome lacrosse. At this point in the year I'm just looking for things to start to "click" and for us and to play well as a unit.

JW: How important are wins and losses in the fall?

JA: Wins are not important in the fall at all. Focusing on pulling everything together and getting your players to start to read each other comes from experience. Quite often in the fall we set other goals that we are looking to achieve that do not revolve around winning or losing. It's all about getting out there and playing.

JW: How do you like being The Boss? Will your first games be this weekend or have you scrimmaged already? Are you nervous?

JA: I don't like the term "boss" at all. I see what [assistant coaches] Kylee [White], Dana [Dobbie] and myself do as a collaborative effort. I certainly couldn't do it without them! They are amazing! We played in a tournament at Maryland against UMD and Oregon last weekend, and had our alumni game prior to that. I would say any fall jitters have passed and I am not in the slight bit nervous. Our girls look great and I am excited about where we are and what we are doing so far!

JW: Thanks Jen!


JOHN VALENTI

John Valenti was thrown into the LLS cause when his son, Matthew, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) at age 2. It could happen to anyone, but most people might not fight the disease on every level like John and his family does. Not only is he involved in the Lacrosse for Leukemia event, but he volunteers for many of the LLS events, gathering sponsors and anything else he can do. He, along with his family and two others have also formed a public charity to help with patients' financial issues called The Matthews Foundation.

One could get depressed reading about this terrible disease that affects so many kids like Matthew Valenti, but remember that Saturday is all about the positive, the successes made by these kids and scientists in the field. Most importantly, it's about you and how, on Saturday, you can help by just having fun.

John Weaver: John, We've spoken at length in the past about Matthew and ALL. Just to catch our readers up, tell them what you guys are going through. Tell them about Matthew's illness.

John Valenti: My son Matthew was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) in December of 2006 when he was 2 years old. He is in long-term maintenance now and has about a year and a half of treatments remaining. He is through the worst of the cancer/treatments and is really doing well right now.

JW: How long have you been involved in LLS?

JV: I have been volunteering with Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for about a year. I have volunteered for the Leukemia Cup Regatta; I am participating in the Light the Night Walk at Ripken Stadium this year and volunteering for this event, Lacrosse for Leukemia.

JW: How do the kids get involved at the Lacrosse for Leukemia event?

JV: Matthew is an honorary captain for one of the lacrosse teams for the event. He will sit with the team on the bench during the game. I along with my other sons, Zackary and Jack, will be volunteering at the event, helping out with whatever is needed.

JW: Does your son have a team that he roots for there?

JV: Matthew doesn't have a favorite team right now; he just likes to watch the game. He is going to be an honored teammate with the University of Maryland women's team, so he will be rooting for them to win on Saturday.

JW: Just so our readers understand, what's a kid with Leukemia going through? And how about a parent of that child?

JV: Matthew is taking four different chemos and is on what I call the "calendar" cycle -- he has chemo every day, once a week, once a month, and once a quarter. This is "maintenance." There were more intensive treatment phases earlier on in his treatment protocol, but this is pretty standard practice for a child with ALL. I think that is why this is one of the most difficult cancer's for a child and a family to endure, because the treatment path is just so darn long. It feels like we have lived at Johns Hopkins for about two years now.

JW: How does the tournament help? Has there been progress scientifically?

JV: The tournament helps to raise awareness and funds. Funding for research is so important because while there has been so much progress -- the survival rate for a child with ALL has gone from less than 20 percent to over 75 percent within five years -- it is just not enough. We still need a cure. Three and a half to four years of treatments are just so tough on a patient and their family. The chemos and the other medicines that Matthew has to take can have their own consequences and long-term side effects -- both physically and developmentally. I strongly believe that if we cure Leukemia and Lymphoma, which are blood cancers that are very difficult to eliminate, that we will cure all cancer.

JW: Can a person who can't make the tournament still help or get involved?

JV: Anyone can get involved by either volunteering or participating in events. I feel strongly about this for obvious reasons, but LLS is such a great organization because such a large percentage of every dollar donated goes to research for a cure. If you want to volunteer for the Lax for Leukemia event, you can go to the main tent and they will find something for you to do.

If you can't make this event, there are plenty of things that you can get involved with. If you are into running, biking, or triathlons, LLS also has Team in Training, which raises money and goes out in force to compete in these events. I am going to try to do a 100-mile ride in Lake Tahoe next year with the team. If you aren't into competing, there are plenty of events that you can participate in or volunteer for. The Lax for Leukemia event is such a great idea and I am into it because I played lacrosse in college for Salisbury University and then for various club teams for the last 15 years. Two of my older kids play and Matthew has had a stick in his hands since he was old enough to walk. Of course, anyone can donate anytime to a great cause through the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Web site.

JW: Thanks John.

OK, so dry your eyes and collect yourself. There's a good reason to feel the way you do right now. Your life is pretty darn good and you can make a difference in the lives of kids like Matthew starting this weekend. Come on out to the tournament and bring a car full of people. Print this interview and make someone in the car read it aloud on the way to the tournament. Challenge the people in the car to donate more than the car fee of 20 dollars. Make it a competition. Bet on your favorite teams in tournament with the loser donating more that day. Buy a couple of T-shirts for friends that couldn't come to the event. And then when you get home, or if you just can't make it out on Saturday, donate to the cause.

October 11, 2008
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