By Josh Perry, Managing Editor
MILFORD, Mass. – On Thursday night, the Milford volleyball team beat Millis 3-0 (25-12, 25-12, 25-18) and improved to 5-9 on the season.
But the story of Thursday night had nothing to do with wins and losses, league standings, tournament qualification, sets, kills, digs or anything else that happened on the court.
The story of Thursday night happened before a ball was served. The real story of Milford’s first annual “Linda Zacchilli Dig Pink Night” was about what head coach Jay Guinan called, “the special moments.”
Moments such as longtime Milford boys’ volleyball coach Linda Zacchilli getting a bouquet of flowers from freshman coach Amanda Mort, who played for Zacchilli when the coach had her first bout with cancer and was forced to miss the Hawks appearance in districts. The players filmed the game and brought it to Zacchilli’s home to watch. Zacchilli, who is beating cancer for a second time, stood in the packed bleachers and gave a quick thumbs up to the Hawks on the court as a sign of her appreciation for the night.
Moments such as Guinan choking up as he tells the crowd about the conversation he had with Milford freshman volleyball player Carlie Gonzalez just a few days before when she informed him that she had been diagnosed with cancer. She told her coach not to worry because she’s going to beat it. There were few dry eyes in the gym when Gonzalez then stepped to the microphone and gave a stirring rendition of the national anthem.
Moments such as Millis coach Lisa Farese failing to hold back tears as she prepared to coach against her alma mater. Farese played for the Hawks, coached freshman boys’ volleyball under Zacchilli (and even coached Zacchilli’s son), her niece is on the Milford JV team, her brother played for Zacchilli and she has been a friend and neighbor to the Gonzalez family for years. She watched Gonzalez warming up before the varsity teams took the court and admitted to her team that the night could be pretty emotional.
More than anything, the story of Thursday night was that everyone who packed into the stands was connected by the fight against cancer. Everyone there shared the pain of lost friends and relatives and everyone shared the inspiration of Zacchilli’s strength and Gonzalez’s courage.
“I haven’t coached any of these girls,” said Zacchilli in an interview during the match, “so the fact that they brought it to the attention of Peter [Boucher] and the coach…I’m very, very honored that they wanted to share the night with me.”
Guinan also coaches boys’ volleyball at Millis and has competed against Zacchilli for years. When he heard that Milford was looking for a girls’ coach last spring, he approached her before a match and suggested that she should take over. Zacchilli explained that she was once again fighting cancer and that her chemotherapy treatments would interfere.
“I was just like wow,” Guinan recalled. “It’s not about winning or losing.”
Zacchilli is currently in remission and the hope is that she will be back on the sideline in the spring to coach the Hawks once again. She was willing to give five minutes for an interview, but once she started speaking about the Hawks the time limit flew past. No one in the gym doubts that she will be able to win this battle as she has won so many on the court.
“I fought against her for so long as a coach that I can’t imagine that anything can take her out,” said Farese with a shake of her head. Farese then marveled that in the background Zacchilli had come out of the stands to help remove the net and clean up the court.
“As soon as we got the message that hey by the way you’re playing Milford and oh by the way do you mind it being the “Dig Pink”? I was like no that’s the coolest thing ever.”
Zacchilli had not coached any of the current Milford players, although she has continued to be around the program and watched plenty of games this season. She insisted that the Hawks are better than their record shows and even in the middle of being interviewed could not tear her eyes or thoughts away from the court.
She said, “I’m glad to see that they’re turning it on tonight for sure,” and then as another Milford serve landed for an ace, she exclaimed, “Unbelievable! I’m loving this!”
The night began as a chance to honor Zacchilli, who athletic director Peter Boucher called a legend and “the matriarch of volleyball” at Milford, but the story changed this week when Gonzalez made her announcement.
“I approached the mom and they just said, we’re ready to fight,” said Boucher, who revealed before the match that he also battled cancer when he was young.
“She’s just a brave kid. We wanted to highlight the battle and the awareness and try to raise finances because I think it really matters.”
When Gonzalez got her test results and knew that it was cancer, she went to Guinan to tell him about it. As he described that moment to the crowd, he had to stop and choke back tears. He explained that Gonzalez had looked at him and told him that she was going to beat it.
“I like all these kids and treat them like my own…it’s hard,” he said after the match. “What’s hard is they kind of look at it like, no big deal.”
He added that Gonzalez left chemo early on Wednesday to be at the match against Algonquin and cheer on her teammates. Guinan said, “That’s the kind of chemistry that you want to build in a program.”
On the court, the Hawks were on fire from the first serve of the match. Kara Halpin went on a long service streak, Jill Powers, Kayla Antonellis, and Kelley Reichert dominated at the net, and seemingly every player on the Milford roster played a part in the win.
“They played a solid game against an opponent that was working really hard,” said Guinan, “but they were happy and that’s been our problem. I think we’re back on track with that.”
The win was secondary for Guinan and the Hawks. It was the opportunity to play in front of a packed house for a great cause and support two people very important to the program that really mattered.
“It’s about remembering the special moment,” he explained. “They’ll remember this as a special night. I’m glad that everybody pulled through for that.”
Donations to the American Cancer Society can be mailed or dropped off to Peter Boucher in the Milford High Athletics Department. To support Carlie Gonzalez and her family, visit https://www.gofundme.com/3f5zqn58.
Josh Perry can be contacted at JoshPerry@hockomocksports.com and followed on Twitter at @Josh_Perry10.