Freshman women’s basketball guard Neena Pacholke finished her first season as a Bull two weeks ago.
Now that the off-season has begun, she has more time to be a teammate off the court to more than just the women’s
Pacholke volunteers her time at the Children’s Cancer Center in Tampa – largely because of the experience she went through with her high school boyfriend.
“It’s not easy what (pediatric cancer patients) have to go through,” she said.
Children’s Cancer Center Lead Support Services Coordinator Sharin Nelson said she is aware of Pacholke’s “mission” of volunteering at the cancer center.
“She’s able to take (her experience) and put it towards helping others, which is very commendable,” Nelson said. “It could very easily be something that you would just say ‘I don’t want to deal with pedantic cancer anymore. I need a break from it,’ whereas I think she sees the need to
Pacholke and former high school varsity soccer player Jordan Harris were athletes at Freedom High School in Tampa and teammates off the playing field.
In 2011, while most students were preparing for the FCAT, Pacholke learned she needed to prepare for a different type of test. A day before the FCAT, she was given news that Harris was diagnosed with Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumors (PNET), a rare form of brain cancer.
“We all had strength as friends, but when I started dating him it sank in – this kid is literally fighting for his life every day,” Pacholke said. “It just made me appreciate life so much more.”
Harris was there for Pacholke as an inspiration, while she was there for him during the biggest match of his life – brain cancer.
She helped him and anyone supporting his battle against cancer off the court, ordering gray rubber bracelets that said “Freedom’s Survivor,” selling them for $1 to raise money for his family.
Her effort ended up raising about $800 for Harris’ treatment.
As support grew for the cause, Harris’ condition improved. His diagnosis went into remission in January 2012.
Their test returned nine months later though, in October 2012 when they heard the cancer had returned.
She still wanted to continue supporting her boyfriend and anyone who joined his journey against cancer, so Pacholke resumed raising money with a
“Jordan loves snapbacks,” Pacholke said. “So (my friend and I) were like ‘How cool would it be?’ We went to the principal and he OK’ed it.”
Her fundraising event called Snapbacks Against Brain Cancer raised about $700. Participants in the event joined as a group for a picture during the last period of that day to send to Harris.
The support came during a time when Pacholke was kept from seeing her boyfriend play the sport he loved. He had already missed out on his junior year of soccer, and would also eventually miss his senior season, despite hopes to play collegiate soccer on a scholarship.
Harris was kept from the soccer pitch, but still visited the basketball court regularly where his girlfriend played home games. They attended senior prom together and shared the news he was accepted to the University of Florida, his first choice school.
Their excitement of going to college with hopes he would remain cancer free as of May 2013 turned somber. His diagnosis returned later that summer.
He attended orientation at UF and was ready to start his first day of classes with his student ID, but never experienced his first day
After receiving a prognosis of having a couple days to a couple weeks left that August, Harris passed away in October at the age of 18 from PNET complications, just one day before his 19-month anniversary with Pacholke.
Pacholke’s first game as a USF Bull was coming up 23 days later.
After being supportive during a tough battle off the court, senior center Akila McDonald was the teammate Pacholke reached out to while coping with the loss of her boyfriend.
McDonald could relate to Pacholke’s story, because she had a friend pass away two
“It was just a difficult thing to deal with for me, especially at the time,” McDonald said. “So I understood her. I just tried to let her know it could always
Pacholke continued participating with the team after one week off. Her time as a student-athlete thus far, which included playing in nine games this season, presented the opportunity to meet one special fan.
Nick Wolf, the 9-year-old honorary captain of the USF baseball team diagnosed with brain cancer, met Pacholke over a pretend cup of tea they shared while she was volunteering.
“(Wolf is) always a happy kid,” Pacholke said. “There are kids his age that are out playing soccer or baseball and he’s sitting here
Pacholke was able to help support the USF baseball team and athletics department in providing Wolf with an unforgettable day outside in a sports setting. During the team’s series against Penn State in February, both Nick and his brother Scott took part in the Wolf Pirate Takeover.
Included in the half inning activities of sword fighting pirates and singing “A pirates life for me” during the seventh inning stretch, the brothers had to rescue the damsel in distress. That damsel was playing an away game against Temple in Philadelphia the day before the Wolf Pirate Takeover.
“We were out of town, but then we ended up coming back the day before from our game so I (could) make it,” she said. “I liked doing that.”
Pacholke’s unbroken spirit and effort to continue being supportive off the court did not go unnoticed. She was nominated for the Unsung Hero award at the annual Stampede of Champions award banquet for USF Athletics, an award she ended up taking home.
“I’ve never seen a person smile so much all the time like her,” McDonald said. “When we’re running these practices, the one person that is totally unfazed by it all is (Pacholke). She’s always got a smile on her face and says ‘Come on, guys.’ It just makes me love her even more because I’m going to miss it now not being here anymore.”
Pacholke said she has maintained a positive outlook, one that grew stronger while supporting Harris and others.
“You still have your bad days, but in the end they say everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Part of me still questions that, but it will still make you a stronger person. It sucks you don’t have that person to text all day, but I still have his morals to carry with me.”