Cherokee girls rally around teammate

Teamwork for most lacrosse athletes this season will involve the correct slides on defense and the extra pass on offense, plus the standard stuff about supporting each other through the season's highs and lows.

It's far more than that for the Cherokee girls.

The Chiefs are learning the hard way that all that business they've been hearing all these years about sticking together and rallying around each other doesn't have anything to do with games.

It's about life.

Cherokee has dedicated this season to senior Katie Bednarek, a four-year member of the program who has brain cancer.

The Chiefs are on a mission that has nothing to do with wins or losses or division championships or playoff runs. They plan to prove that the best teams are extended families.

"Being a part of a team is equivalent to having a second family," Cherokee senior Morgan Everett said. "As a family, we have to stick together and help each other out when times get tough.

"Since Katie is a senior, we want to make her senior year as memorable as possible and also keep a positive attitude for her. This season, we play every game for Katie and support her through this difficult time."

Behind coach Sarah Frazier and her assistants, the Chiefs have rallied the school, the Cherokee athletic program, the Marlton youth sports organization, and the South Jersey lacrosse community in an effort to support Bednarek.

The movement will burst into full flower at Cherokee's home opener at 6 p.m. on Friday, when hundreds of Cherokee students and faculty members and others will fill the stands in purple T-shirts inscribed with their fervent prayer: "We believe in hope. . . . We believe in Kate."

Cherokee players will wear ribbons attached to the back of their uniforms with the letters "KB" and plan to write those initials on their arms and legs in honor of their teammate.

"We are playing for Katie because it's her senior year," senior Rachel Lamb said. "Even though she cannot be out here playing with us on the field, we want to go out every day and give it 110 percent to make her proud of us."

Said junior Karlee Slavin: "We aim to play every game to make her proud. Every senior wants their last year to be the best, so despite the challenges that Katie's faced, we hope as a team we can unite to make this the best year of her life."

Bednarek was diagnosed in September. She attended school on a modified schedule until recently, making the honor roll in the first semester and completing her service hours for the National Honor Society.

She has been a lacrosse player for most of her life, first in the Marlton Rec Council program and through her high school career. She was a junior-varsity player as a junior, although she practiced with the varsity, and was known for her unselfish, responsible play.

"The reason why it is important for me to do something for Katie is because I have always been able to trust her," junior Kaleigh McKenna said. "But now it is time for her to be able to trust me.

"Since freshman year, I have always been able to depend on Katie. She would be there to double or be there on the slide. Katie is not just a teammate - she is a friend.

"After you play on the field with someone for three years, you do not want to see them suffer.

"You want to be the extra person in the double team to help her defeat her attacker. Or in this case, her illness.

"You want to be able to be with her saying, 'Katie, I'm your help.' "

The other day, Frazier brought a shovel to practice and the Chiefs all signed a flower pot and filled it with dirt from the practice field so that Bednarek would have something tangible from a place that has been such a big part of her life - the soil over which she ran with her teammates time and time again.

They've made posters and signs and raised nearly $2,500 thus far, and they've uploaded dozens of photos to Twitter with the hashtag #chiefsplayforkate.

Senior Christine DiLullo said Bednarek is "a sister to all of us."

Frazier called Bednarek "an incredibly strong person" who has inspired her teammates.

And those girls have responded in kind, with a display of support and concern and determination that has shown the true meaning of teamwork.