None of the teams participating in the NCAA Volleyball Championship at Sprint Center this week have pink in their color scheme.
Yet the schools, coaches, players and fans that will fill the arena, and those in the volleyball community at all levels, have a deep understanding and appreciation for pink as a symbol for breast cancer awareness and progress in finding a cure.
And chances are, every participant from Penn State, Florida, Stanford and Nebraska has a pink T-shirt or two tucked away somewhere.
Is a sport today as connected and involved with a charitable cause as profoundly as volleyball is with breast cancer?
The Side-Out Foundation, launched in 2005, is volleyball’s metastatic breast cancer fund-raising arm. The foundation raised nearly $1.2 million last year, and more than $12 million since its inception, for research. At the college level, Penn State, the tournament’s top-seeded team, has raised some $23,000 over the years through games designated “Dig Pink.”
All major sports organizations, including the NFL and Major League Baseball, have dedicated games for breast cancer awareness, complete with pink uniform accents and equipment. Those sports have raised funds, too — the NFL broadened its campaign this year to include all types of cancer in its Crucial Catch campaign.
But no organization has raised more money for the cause than its member volleyball schools, teams and clubs — 765 in 2016.
The foundation has its roots — and perhaps its strongest ties to the Kansas City area — in high school volleyball.
Each October, the Olathe School District holds a Dig Pink event, bringing its four varsity and junior varsity teams to one gym for competition. This season, it was held at Olathe South, where Matt Johnson is the athletic director and whose wife, Jennifer, is a breast cancer survivor.
“I don’t know of anything else in terms of fund-raising this big,” Johnson said.
Between the varsity and junior-varsity games, the action stops and a parade of breast cancer survivors are introduced and honored. They are escorted by athletes; rose in hand, they cross under a pink balloon bridge to an ovation.
Dr. Alison Banikowski had just retired from her role as district deputy superintendent when she, a seven-year cancer survivor, was escorted by Lindsey Heller, a high school junior and member of Olathe Northwest’s two-time Kansas 6A champion squad.
“This is definitely a collective effort,” Banikowski said. “There’s competition on the court, but I really like the idea of all the schools coming together for such a great cause.”
The Olathe event, which included a fund-raising banquet the previous evening, provided $10,600 for Side-Out, which has received checks from several other Kansas City districts and schools, too — among them, Shawnee Mission, North Kansas City, Blue Valley West and Staley.
The foundation has its roots in high school volleyball. Rick Dunetz was a first-year coach at West Springfield High in Virginia. With his team on a surprising postseason run, he told his players of his mother’s recent diagnosis with Stage 4 breast cancer. The players rallied around Duentz and his mom, who made her first appearance to see the team win the district championship.
If the team and Duentz’s mother could inspire each other, why not enlist others in the volleyball community?
Side out is a volleyball term that means a team has won the serve by winning a volley. According to cancer.org, more women are diagnosed with breast cancer than any other kind, and some 41,000 will die from the disease in 2017.
Side-Out reports that only 7 percent of cancer research overall is devoted to metastatic breast cancer, and that funding from the foundation has been targeted to the least-studied stage of the disease — Stage IV. And there have been results.
Clinical trials funded by Side-Out, named “the Side-Out Protocol,” have had a significant effect in slowing the progression of tumors.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) gave Side-Out its “Community Champion Research & Hope Award” for outstanding achievement in the fight against breast cancer.
Just another sign that the pink-hued games, rallies and events like the Olathe-wide Dig Pink are working.
“It means a lot to those of us who are survivors,” Banikowski said. “And we’re helping these young women know to pay it forward either financially or through effort.”
NCAA Volleyball Championship at Sprint Center
Nebraska vs. Penn State, 6 p.m. Thursday, ESPN
Stanford vs. Florida, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, ESPN
Semifinal winners, 8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN