February 18, 2009

PS-Abington Rallies Around Cancer-Stricken Coach

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Members of the Penn State-Abington athletic teams and faculty, along with the greater Penn State and lacrosse communities rallied around PS-A's former women's lacrosse coach Deb Andress (left) by raising $35,000 for the Brain Tumor Society - smashing the organization's record.
© Karen Weaver

Penn State-Abington athletic director Karen Weaver had the women's lacrosse program she wanted and the coach she coveted.

And then Aug. 28, 2008 happened. Deb Andress was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

It was a stunning blow for both the Abington community, where Andress taught kinesiology for 23 years, as well as members of the fledgling lacrosse program, who were drawn to her boundless energy.

"Uncertainty is always difficult," said Weaver, "but I was impressed with the way our core group of student-athletes stuck together. They were remarkable."

The announcement of Andress' malady also hit Weaver hard. Not only was Andress a perfect hire for Abington - she is a former standout at Penn State, a member of the U.S. national team from 1980-84 and a coach in the game for 25 years - but she was also one of Weaver's former high school teammates. When Weaver was looking for a mentor to guide the Lions from the beginning, her wish list was short.

"If you've got somebody on your staff who is so well-respected, to me, it's the first ask you make," said Weaver.

With Andress leading the way, Weaver envisioned the Penn State-Abington program cleaning up in the fertile lacrosse areas just north of Philadelphia where the school is located. It would be a signature program when the school was finally accepted as an NCAA Division III school (it is currently unaffiliated), which was expected in the fall of 2009.

As Andress was preparing for her surgery in September, a small idea started circulating on the Abington campus and proceeded to get a lot bigger. It centered on the third-annual Race for Hope 5K Run/Walk hosted by the Brain Tumor Society (BTS) on Nov. 2 in Philadelphia. With Andress raising the awareness of brain tumors at PS-A, several members of the campus community came up with the concept of "Team Andress" to raise money for the BTS.

Members of the women's lacrosse team signed on, along with numerous members of the school's faculty and staff. Not too long after, the men's lacrosse, women's basketball and softball teams joined Team Andress. Members of the Philadelphia lacrosse community, where Andress is a USL chapter hall of famer, and the greater Penn State community were added.

By the time the race started at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the morning of Nov. 2, 700 people were wearing dark blue t-shirts with "Team Andress" on the front. By the time the race ended, Team Andress was not only the largest group in the BTS, but it smashed the record for most money raised in the organization's history with over $35,000.

"It's absolutely amazing. All these people out here for the same person, wanting to give back," said Pam Brobst, the women's lacrosse assistant coach. "Hundreds of people I have never met, they all know Deb. They are all here for her: families, a guy running pushing a baby jogger, a dad with his two girls running with their lacrosse sticks. It's a clear and true reflection of all the people Deb's touched."

With chemotherapy and radiation treatments racking her body for the past couple of months, it became clear Andress would not be able to coach the Nittany Lions. She had enough energy to care for her five children, and not much more.

"This treatment has a way of sapping all of your energy and turning your life upside down," said Weaver. "When it was evident she would not be able to be the head coach, and our assistant was not in a position with her work to be the head coach, I started networking the position."

Weaver, with Andress' input, turned to Mary Fran Riffel. A member of the Temple program that won four Atlantic 10 championships in the early part of the decade, Riffel was coaching at Great Valley High School when she received the call.

"I knew Deb's situation, because we're both on the local US Lacrosse board for Philadelphia, and I also grew up in Bucks County and attended a lot of her camps. The lacrosse world is very small," said Riffel. "I thought it was a great opportunity to get in with an inaugural program, to work at the college level, and to help Deb out because she has done so much for the sport of lacrosse."

This season will likely not feature many wins for the Nittany Lions. They are a little thin on numbers - "We're right there," said Riffel, cryptically, when asked how many players were on her roster - and playing a schedule filled with established D-III programs.

But when it comes to the game of life and giving to those who need it most, the Penn State-Abington women's lacrosse team, and the university as a whole, remains undefeated.

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