Battling Back Through Tears

Times Staff Writer

Andrea Collins' presence is felt in profound ways, even five weeks after her death.

Her teammates on the Santa Ana Mater Dei High girls' volleyball team feel it every time they look toward the bench, where Collins' No. 54 jersey occupies an otherwise empty chair during Monarch games.

"She's there," said Kim King, a senior middle blocker. "We have 18 players on our team, not 17. Andi is our 18th girl."

The pain and tumult that accompanied Collins' nine-month battle with a rare form of breast cancer have given way to acceptance and reflection. Family members and friends look back on her short life — 16 years and 11 months — with a sense of fulfillment rather than emptiness.

They are grateful to have known the girl with the brilliant smile and competitive spirit who made everyone around her feel special.

"It was a privilege to have her for a short period of time," said her father, John.

Andi, a highly recruited setter before cancer forced her to the sideline, was the glue that held Mater Dei together during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, when the Monarchs won consecutive Southern Section Division II-A championships.

Her death on Sept. 4, during the first week of what would have been her senior year of high school, could have emotionally crippled a team devastated by the loss of a close friend.

Instead, the Monarchs have pulled together in a common goal of winning another title for Collins. They have dedicated the season to her.

"We'll struggle together, we'll win together, but everything is for Andi," said senior middle blocker Kerry O'Dorisio, who was Collins' closest friend on the team. "Our team made that decision from Day 1."

Seeing the players come together has been comforting for Mater Dei Coach Craig Pazanti.

"It's incredible to watch the closeness that this group shares, and the willingness they have to work for each other," said Pazanti, whose team is 19-2 and ranked No. 1 in the Southland by The Times. "It has made me a lot stronger to watch them."

Collins will be with Mater Dei every step this season. The players have the initials "A.C." embroidered on their jerseys. During warm-ups, they wear pink T-shirts with Collins' picture. They wear pink ribbons, symbols of the fight against breast cancer, in their hair and on their shoelaces.

Tributes to Collins have extended to other schools. When Mater Dei played St. Francis of Wheaton, Ill., in the final of the Nike Challenge in Oak Lawn, Ill., on Oct. 4, the teams joined hands in a prayer for Collins before the match.

When Mater Dei played host to Fullerton Rosary on Oct. 1, Rosary presented Monarch players with St. Sebastian pendants, representing the patron saint of athletes. Cardinal Roger Mahony had blessed the pendants at a mass attended by Rosary players.

The outpouring of love and admiration for Collins, including numerous postings on volleyball Web sites, have taken her family by surprise.

"She left a mark much wider than we had ever imagined," John Collins said.

Only a year ago, Andi Collins' life appeared full of promise. She was an A-student and an exceptional athlete sought by many top universities. She made friends easily with a fun-loving and engaging personality.

"The strongest memory I have of Andi is her smile and presence," Pazanti said. "She had a smile that could light up a room."

Collins made her mark in volleyball playing for club teams in Orange County. At a young age, she displayed poise, confidence and skill beyond her years.

But in the summer of 2002, she began to tire quickly and could not play at her usual, intense level.

Her physical problems carried over into the high school season last fall. She complained of soreness in her back and collarbone.

"I could see in her junior year that she was trying but she just didn't have the energy level to compete," Pazanti said. "We had a couple of meetings throughout the year to try and figure out what was wrong. She just said she didn't feel well."

Collins, who had broken into Mater Dei's lineup as a sophomore and helped the team to a section title, was replaced midway through last season and did not play again for the Monarchs after experiencing severe pain during a November tournament at Torrey Pines High.

After being examined by several doctors, Collins was told on Dec. 18 that the pain she felt wasn't from playing volleyball, as she suspected. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer, a rare form of the disease that usually strikes middle-aged women. The cancer had spread to her bones, brain and liver.

"My wife and I both realized at that point that [Andi] would need a miracle to survive," John Collins said. "[But] she never did give up. She was going to beat it."

An announcement of Andi's condition was made at Mater Dei. Pazanti, who was out of town at a coaches' convention, received several frantic calls from Monarch players on his cell phone.

"I was in a state of shock," he said. "I couldn't believe it. Breast cancer isn't supposed to happen in someone that young."

Breast cancer patients younger than 21 represent less than 1% of the roughly 15,000 people that age who are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States, said Dr. Leonard S. Sender, chief of oncology and medical director of the Children's Hospital of Orange County Cancer Institute.

Collins withdrew from school and began chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Hoag Cancer Center in Newport Beach. Her already weakened body was further debilitated by the treatments. She lost weight and her hair fell out.

Yet Collins never gave up hope that she would play volleyball again. Her favorite song was Christina Aguilera's "Fighter," and that's what she became.

By late January, Collins was starting to work out again, though she would quickly tire and have to return home. Close friend Charlie Brande, the volleyball coach at UC Irvine, helped her regain her touch and confidence, and her mother, Patty, pitched in by shagging balls. Collins gradually became stronger, and her medical tests showed improvement.

Wearing a brunette wig, Collins suited up for her Orange County Volleyball Club team in February at a tournament in Las Vegas. She got in a few serves and was exhausted afterward, but that only made her determined to work harder.

By May, she was setting full time for her club team, sometimes playing only days after undergoing chemotherapy. Friends who saw her on the court again could hardly believe it.

"It was amazing," said King, Collins' teammate at Mater Dei. "She was out there playing just like it was another day of volleyball."

Collins completed her spring semester of high school at home and scored 1,200 on the SAT. She took recruiting visits to Georgetown and Pennsylvania, among the few schools that continued to pursue her after she was diagnosed with cancer.

She was inundated with get-well cards and e-mails, including a note from Tour de France champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong wishing her "a full recovery."

Her condition soon deteriorated, however. At the Volleyball Festival in Davis, Calif., in early July, Collins experienced fatigue and a loss of balance. Tests revealed that her brain and liver cancers had spread.

Dr. Neil Barth, the oncologist who had diligently treated Collins, told her parents on July 8 that she would not survive.

John Collins said that information stayed within the family until Labor Day weekend, when Andi's liver failed. By that time, her older sister Lauren had transferred from Wellesley College to USC to be closer to home. Brother Will, a freshman long snapper on USC's football team, came home that weekend.

Friends filled Collins' Laguna Beach home on Sept. 3, the day before she died. Pazanti canceled practice so Mater Dei's players could say their good-byes.

Though Collins had slipped into a coma, some of the Monarch players said she acknowledged their presence by briefly opening her eyes or by smiling. They held her hand and kissed her head.

O'Dorisio was among a small group of close friends who spent the night at Collins' house and was in her bedroom when she died at 11 a.m. on Sept. 4.

"It was very sad, but it was nice knowing that she was going to be in a better place and she wasn't going to be suffering anymore," O'Dorisio said.

Collins would have turned 17 on Oct. 2, a birthday shared by O'Dorisio.

Mater Dei observed the date by holding a memorial mass in Collins' honor. Two thousand miles away, the Monarch volleyball team found an empty banquet room in its Illinois hotel and said the same prayer.

Two days later, Mater Dei won the 24-team Nike Challenge, among the nation's most prestigious tournaments.

Everyone could picture Collins smiling about that.

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