Northern Illinois freshman Paulina Castro gathered her teammates on the women’s basketball team together in the locker room during winter break.
She told the Huskies that the fears from the previous week had become a reality, and she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The Huskies came together – tears pouring onto the locker room floor as they embraced Castro with an emotional group hug – and they knew what to expect from the freshman.
She is going to fight.
“We make a conscious effort to not allow any negativity,” NIU coach Lisa Carlsen said. “We don’t talk about, ‘What if?’ We talk about, ‘When’s the next treatment? How you feeling?’ Paulina will tell you, ‘When’s the next game? When’s the next practice I can come to?’ We can’t be a bystander. We have to be actively involved in the positive approach to what she’s trying to do.”
During the Huskies’ 88-80 victory over Ohio on Saturday at the NIU Convocation Center, the Huskie players wore purple ribbons in their hair, wore warm-up shirts dedicated to Castro – saying “No one fights alone” on the front and “#PCStrong” on the back – and even Carlsen showed her support with a purple shirt and a streak of purple dyed into her hair, the color for lymphoma awareness.
As far as Castro, who graduated from Elgin Harvest Christian, she sat on the bench – her hair buzzed short – and scribbled team stats during the game.
Cancer or no cancer, she’s still part of the team.
“She’s got stuff to do, we’ll put her to work,” Carlsen said. “I think her being here and a part of what we’re doing in any way, shape or form is good treatment because it gives her, one, a break from thinking about it, two, an opportunity to be around people she loves to be around, and she’s not just sitting around thinking about poor me.”
One of the obvious displays of support for Castro, who was not made available for this story, came from senior point guard Ally Lehman. The face of the program, Lehman decided to buzz her hair in solidarity to Castro in the days leading up to the Ohio game.
The team’s leader in assists this season, dishing out 7.1 a game, Lehman provided her most significant assist of the season with her “we’re in this together” statement.
While on a team trip at Bowling Green, NIU assistant coach Kierra McCleary – who also shaved her head in support – asked Lehman whether she wanted to as well. Lehman, who had been mulling over the idea since Castro sent players a Snapchat photo of herself with a shaved head while the team was on the trip, responded emphatically.
“[Heck] yeah, I want to shave my head, what kind of question is that?” said Lehman, who ended up getting the hair cut at a salon in Sycamore late last week. “Of course I do. It’s such a small thing to do.”
Castro came to NIU after a stellar prep career that ended with her averaging 20.8 points a game her senior year at Elgin Harvest Christian. She was redshirting as a freshman this season and had an issue with her hip that Carlsen said they thought would require surgery.
According to Carlsen, the testing that was done put a cloud of uncertainty over her diagnosis. Carlsen said that Castro had a bone biopsy on a Monday, a bone marrow biopsy on Tuesday and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan on Wednesday.
Two days later, she had her first round of chemotherapy.
“Paulina has really been the one to decide the timing and really been so strong in what she’s told them,” Carlsen said. “She just lays it out there. This is what it is, this is what the plan is, it’s go time. ... Let’s figure out how to beat it, let’s figure out how to attack it.”
There is no such thing as a convenient time to be diagnosed with lymphoma.
The Huskies are 10-4 overall this season – and 3-0 in conference for the first time since 1993-94 – and play an entertaining, fast-paced style of basketball. They are averaging 90.6 points a game, which is the second most in the nation, and are coming off a victory over a Bobcats team that won the MAC regular season the past two years.
It appears, three games into conference play, that this could possibly be a special season for a team that hasn’t had a winning season in a decade.
The difficult news they received over the break has not been a negative distraction for this team.
Instead, it has become a rallying cry. It has been a circling of the wagons to show the world that the words on the front of their warm-ups are not simply words for these Huskies.
No one on this team fights alone.
“Everybody comes together, especially for something like this,” Lehman said. “Everybody wants to support her. We’re there to let each other know we have each other’s backs on and off the court. That’s what makes the team special. I don’t know if you can see it, but we can feel it on the floor.”
• Jesse Severson is the Northern Illinois beat writer for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com.