Lacrosse Player Makes Inspirational Comeback
In late September 2013, the Catholic University’s women’s lacrosse team played a game during a tournament at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The Cardinals were one of 11 college teams participating in the Fifth Annual Nicholas Collelouri Women’s Classic. With the spring season months away, the lacrosse players take part in a fall tournament each year for fun and camaraderie. The stakes are not high.
But when CUA’s Tori Neill, a junior from Voorhees, N.J., scored a goal early in the match, her teammates cheered like it was a championship game. On the sidelines, her coach and her mom were reduced to tears. And for a second, Neill paused to savor the moment as she realized she was back.
“It hit me that I hadn’t scored a goal in over a year, since I was a freshman,” says Neill. “It came right back to me. Suddenly I felt like a college student and a lacrosse player again, instead of someone who had cancer.”
Neill missed her sophomore 2013 spring semester and lacrosse season in order to undergo what would be eight months of treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma and thyroid cancer. She endured 12 rounds of chemotherapy followed by a summer of radiation. All along she stayed fixed on the goal of returning to campus in fall 2013. Her last radiation treatment was Friday, Aug. 23. She was in class when the semester began on Monday, Aug. 26.
“My mom said she felt like she was dropping me off for my freshman year all over again. She was worried,” says Neill. “And I have to admit, I was a little anxious as well. I was still feeling the side effects of radiation. I was tired all the time. What helped was the support system I had on campus. My coach checked in with me once a day. My roommates were constantly asking how I was doing and looking out for me in so many ways. And my professors were aware that I was still not feeling great and were very understanding.”
As the tournament approached last September, Neill was able to practice at a pace she considered “halfway” based on her heart rate. It was only in the week before the tournament that she was cleared to practice “full out.”
The team chose the tournament at Hofstra for a reason. It was sponsored by the Headstrong Foundation, which was founded by Hofstra University lacrosse player Nicholas Collouri after he was diagnosed with large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2005. After his death in 2006, his family carried on the foundation’s mission to raise awareness and funds to help those with blood cancers.
“It meant a lot to me that my teammates wanted to support this cause. It was a great way for me to return to the field,” says Neill, whose teammates voted her one of three captains last fall.
From the moment she was diagnosed in January 2013, Neill has been a role model and an inspiration for her teammates, says Meghan McDonogh, head women’s lacrosse coach and assistant athletic director.
Neill hadn’t been feeling well for several weeks when she returned to campus to start the spring semester in 2013. As her symptoms worsened she quickly returned home for testing at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “We were expecting a diagnosis of something like pneumonia,” recalls Neill. “It was a shock. I never expected anything that bad. But in a way it was a relief. I had been feeling sick for so long. At least I knew what I was dealing with and we had a plan of attack.”
Neill told her teammates about her diagnosis via Skype and reassured them she would be OK. She decided from the start she would keep a positive attitude, and would stay busy. Just days after her diagnosis the head coach of her high school team called to ask Neill if she’d like to help coach her former team. Neill didn’t hesitate. So in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, she spent her afternoons on her old high school field helping younger players develop their skills.
“I didn’t want to sit home. Helping the girls I grew up with in the sport I loved with coaches who had coached me was exactly what I needed,” says Neill.
“It also helped that my CUA coaches and teammates were in constant contact. I never felt like I wasn’t part of the team. I made it to three games and just being on the field, standing on the sidelines, warming up the goalies — that was vital to my recovery,” says Neill.
An honors program student with a major in international business and a minor in Spanish, Neill was able to stay enrolled in two of her spring semester courses online, and take two more online courses over the summer to keep her on track to graduate with her class in 2015. “That was really important to me. I didn’t want cancer to affect my life any more than it had to.”
With her strength back after the fall semester, Neill trained hard for the start of lacrosse season during winter break. “I was so excited about jumping into the spring season, but also a little nervous. I didn’t know if I could pick up from where I was as a freshman. So I just focused on being the best player I could be for myself and my team.”
If there was any doubt about Neill’s comeback to the game of lacrosse, the Landmark Conference had an answer when she was named defensive player of the week March 24. According to the conference write-up, “Neill had a strong week for the Cardinals with 11 ground balls and eight caused turnovers to go with three draw controls. She capped off Catholic’s come from behind win over Mary Washington, who was receiving votes in the latest national poll, with the game-winning goal in the final minute of play. In a battle with No. 15 Washington & Lee, Neill scooped up a game-high seven ground balls and caused five turnovers in a narrow 12-9 loss.”
In a 21 – 6 win over Goucher College on April 9, Neill led CUA’s defense with three caused turnovers and a game-high six groundballs.
“Tori comes into every practice and game with a toughness that our entire team tries to emulate. She wills herself on the field to give her all and when her teammates see her working so hard and overcoming so much, they don’t have a choice but to do the same,” says McDonogh.
“Personally for me, it is great to have such a talented player back, but more importantly I am in awe of this incredible young woman who I trust to lead our team to achieve our goals on and off the field.”
Neill says the young team (13 freshmen play for the team this year) is hitting its stride and should come back next year as “strong contenders.” She looks forward to a future that includes a summer internship at Citibank in New York City. Neill admits her outlook on life “sounds a bit cliché, but my illness put everything into perspective. I’m comfortable with myself. I’m okay with whatever life gives me. I am significantly closer to my parents. What they did for me — they’re my best friends. I appreciate all my relationships more. My coach, my roommates, my teammates — they were there for me.”
Neill says the measure of her success in beating two cancer diagnoses is in how little she thinks about it. “Most days I forget that I had cancer. It’s just not prevalent in my life and that’s the best part of where I am right now.”
Major: International Business
Favorite thing to do in D.C.: "I love to run through the monuments."
Favorite course: Family, Markets, Cities: Societal and Scientific Perspectives (HSSS 204)
Recent read: The Divergent series