For as long as she can remember, Caitlin Rozek has loved volleyball. The last year or so, it's also been a respite from a world that was treating her mother, Barb, so unfairly.
The past 3 weeks, volleyball has reciprocated the love Rozek and her sister, Cristin, have given to the game.
On Oct. 2, after a 14-month battle with cervical cancer, Barb Rozek died at the age of 48. As part of their healing process, her daughters have turned to the sport which has given them so much … and the teammates who are giving them so much more.
"The whole team, we just want to be a giant support bubble for them," senior Olivia Sztochmal said. "I've never had a situation like this before, a teammate losing someone so close to them. It just brings us even closer than we already were, and we have so many fantastic personalities on this team that all just want to be there for them through this."
Volleyball has served as Caitlin's home away from home the past few seasons. Now, it's serving as the place where she can find just a little bit of solace in the toughest time of her life.
It's the support of her teammates, coaches and teammates' parents that has given the senior and her sophomore sister even more strength, as those who care about them most wrap them in a cocoon of love and warmth.
"It's been important for us because it shows just how much they really care," Caitlin said. "It's making it easier for us to deal with this whole terrible situation because we know we have people to talk to and people who will listen, not just say 'I'm sorry,' then brush us aside and move on."
Even knowing what was coming, Gregg Rozek had no idea how his three children would react when the inevitable finally arrived.
Already a close-knit family, the Rozeks were forced to face something no one should ever have to, and the patriarch is proud of how Caitlin, Cristin and older brother Cody have handled themselves … and helped him as well.
"It's been difficult for all of us, but I think I have more bad days than they do," Gregg said. "The day it happened, then the visitation and funeral, were obviously hard on all of us, probably the hardest days of our lives. But they've been so strong for each other, and so strong for me, and the support we're all getting from the girls' teammates and parents and coaches has been overwhelming."
In addition to the shoulders to lean on, the Duchesses volleyball family has also helped show their support more overtly. A balloon release was organized, and Lancaster Gym was decorated to honor Barb during Dixon's match against Sycamore the day after she died.
A moment of silence brought tears to many eyes, as did last Thursday's Volley for a Cure match against Sterling, with the life cancer stole from them so fresh in the minds of all the Duchesses.
"I've known Caitlin since third grade, and she's been my best friend," senior Lexy Duncan said. "Her mom meant a lot to all of us, and we've been with her from the start of this. We'll sit and talk for hours, and I think we're so united in our understanding of how we need to be there for Caitlin and Cristin and their whole family. We're not going to let them go through this alone."
For Caitlin and Cristin Rozek, there was never any doubt as to how quickly they wanted to get back to the volleyball court. The day after their mother died, both girls wanted to return to school and be amongst their friends and classmates, and they both played in the match against Sycamore.
Later in the week, the two traveled with the volleyball team on an organized trip to watch NIU play, then both hit the courts again that Saturday at the Sterling Invitational.
"They've stayed busy, which has helped," Gregg said, "and I'm so happy they have such a great support system, and so many people who they can rely on and who care about us so much."
It's not that the girls are avoiding what's happened. But volleyball is a way to get away from everything, even if just for a few hours, before reality comes crashing back down around them.
"Volleyball is actually helping me deal with it a little bit," Caitlin said, "kind of a way to express my emotions and anger by hitting the ball and being able to do something, not just sit around at home thinking about it. I can't blow my teammates off and say, 'Oh, I'm dealing with this, I'm not going to give them my all.' It's helping me express my emotions, and control them in a way, too."
That's not to say Barb never creeps into the girls' minds when they're on the volleyball court. After all, even a place of solace they've relied on their whole lives is subject to the enormity of their situation.
"I feel unfocused sometimes, but that's when my teammates try harder because they know what I'm going through," Cristin said. "They try and keep me excited and keep my energy up, and I always know my team needs me. It helps me get back in the game, and helps me work through things."
Every day, Caitlin and Cristin Rozek learn a little more about themselves and their friends. But their friends and family members are also learning a lot about the two girls.
While serving as the support system for the Rozeks, her fellow Duchesses have slowly realized that Caitlin and Cristin are helping them, too.
"They've been very strong, stronger than maybe a lot of us would be in this situation," senior Rachel Gascoigne said. "I'm very proud of them, the way they've handled everything and still come out fighting hard to push through it. The way they're dealing with all this, it's helping us, too."
Caitlin says it's the least they can do. Usually one to stay out of the limelight, she realizes that the focus is going to be on her and Cristin, especially around school. Knowing they have so many friends watching their back, it's in Caitlin's nature to give something back.
"Some people don't know how to react, what to do or say and how it will come across," Caitlin said. "They want to make sure we have support and love, but we also want to make sure they know how much we appreciate everything they are to us. It is a little give and take, and we want to help them, too."
It's this attitude that makes Gregg one proud papa. Even while dealing with such a tremendous loss, his daughters are still thinking of others and how their entire close-knit group of friends is affected by this.
"I'm so proud of them for being so strong," he said. "Everybody has been so great about showing the girls love, showing our family love, and it's brought all of us closer … in a different way than maybe we were before."
It's no surprise that the ever-upbeat Caitlin Rozek is trying to find the silver lining during the toughest ordeal she might ever face. As her already good friends become even closer friends, the senior is already eyeing what the future has in store for her.
Whatever it is, she knows she'll always have something special to take with her.
"I think there will be some happy memories from this season to go with the bad ones," she said. "The fact that something bad happened off the court, that doesn't mean we're not going to be happy and excited and pumped up every time we play volleyball.
"There are so many things I'm going to treasure: the closeness of my family, the love of my friends, and the success we've had on the volleyball court. It all goes together, and that's what makes this journey even more special."
While the 2013 volleyball road is nearly complete – the postseason begins Monday for all classes – there is still a long way for Caitlin, Cristin, Cody and Gregg Rozek to go. But two things are for certain though it all: they will be there for each other, and their friends will always be there for them.
"We really are a family, and this has hit us all so hard," senior Maggie Provo said. "Mrs. Rozek was our team mom our freshman year, and we're all feeling some of the loss Caitlin and Cristin are feeling. Their mom took care of us, in a way, and now it's our turn to take care of her daughters."
Sports: Volleyball, soccer
Family: Father Gregg, brother Cody (sophomore at Rock Valley College), sister Cristin (sophomore at Dixon)
FYI: Mother, Barb, lost 14-month battle with cervical cancer – which claims nearly 4,000 women per year – on Oct. 2.