Before the second game of its spring break trip March 11 in Clermont, Florida, the women’s lacrosse team gathered around head coach Shannon McHale. The Bombers had dropped the first game of the trip to the No. 1–ranked team in the nation, Gettysburg College, by a score of 12–6 on March 9 and needed a win to pull their record back to .500. However, its record was possibly the farthest thing from the players’ minds as they formed a huddle around McHale. It was also the last thing that McHale was thinking about. The team had a bigger, more important reason to win.
“Let’s get a win for Anya,” McHale told her team. “She’s here, this is the last time she is going to see us play.”
McHale was referring to Anya Harvey, the 4-year-old daughter of one of McHale’s family friends. Anya had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in early November, and almost immediately afterward the Bombers adopted her as an honorary member, supporting her throughout her journey with video messages.
Now, Anya sits in the bleachers off to the side of the field with her family. She is wearing an Ithaca College women’s lacrosse jersey, a gift from McHale and the team. The extra-small size drapes her like a dress. The Harveys cheer on the Blue and Gold as they take the field against Dickinson College, solidifying the bond between team and family.
It all began with a single video, filmed after one of the team’s preseason practices in early November.
The video contained messages. Messages of uplifting inspiration that made it all the way to a hospital bed in Central Florida, where Anya passed her time watching the video during her stay.
The initial video snowballed into more videos, soon becoming a semiweekly, post-practice tradition for the South Hill squad, which looked forward to filming the videos — and getting responses from its newest team member — just as much as she looked forward to receiving them.
Such has been the relationship that the Bombers have had with Anya, who has provided a reason for the team to compete that transcends a win-loss record or a shot at the Empire 8 title. This season, sophomore attack Olivia Oppenheim said the Blue and Gold have found a more important motivation to win.
“She’s been our inspiration for all of preseason and pretty much as the season has gone on,” Oppenheim said.
Throughout their fall preseason, the Bombers sent video messages to Anya as she battled with her leukemia. McHale said the connection was originally formed because Anya’s grandparents are neighbors with McHale’s parents, but the bond between Anya and the team quickly grew as the student-athletes got to know Anya and she got to know them.
As fall turned into winter and the Bombers prepared for their winter break, they found a way to continue supporting Anya, even when they didn’t have practices during which to film videos. They created and decorated “Flat Anyas,” modeled after the popular children’s book “Flat Stanley.” The Flat Anyas were paper cutouts that featured Anya’s face on a cartoon body that was wearing an Ithaca jersey. Each member of the team received her own Flat Anya and was assigned a day during break before they left campus. Each day over break, a member of the team would send a photo or video of their Flat Anya to McHale, who would then forward it to Anya’s mother, Heather Harvey.
Harvey said the videos provided something to make her daughter smile each day, regardless of how sick she was feeling.
“It is hard to find things that make her happy when she is feeling sick,” Harvey said via email. “However, when the team would send ‘Flat Anya’ videos to her everyday while she was inpatient, it gave her something to look forward to no matter how bad the day had been.”
Over winter break, the Flat Anyas travelled as far as Costa Rica with sophomores Gaby Berne and Morgan Caldwell, who posed with their Flat Anya in front of a Costa Rican waterfall. They rode the carousel in the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse, New York, with junior Erika Johnson — who also had her Flat Anya pose with “Frozen” characters, Anya’s favorite Disney movie, in the nearby Disney store — and attended a New York Rangers game with Oppenheim.
All of the images and videos were sent to Anya, who Harvey said would urge her doctors and nurses to come watch them with her from her hospital bed.
“Everyone who came in her room knew that she was a part of the Ithaca women’s lacrosse team because she was sure to show them the videos and messages from her teammates,” she said. “I think it was so neat for her to see that even though she was in the hospital, Flat Anya got to be several different places around the country having lots of fun-filled adventures with her teammates. While she watched the videos from the players, they seemed to give her a sense of freedom from the confines of the small hospital room.”
When their season started and the Bombers travelled near Anya’s hometown in Florida to compete over spring break, they made sure Anya was included. In addition to watching the Blue and Gold’s games, Anya and her family hosted a barbecue for the team and hung out with the players each day they were in Florida.
While Johnson said the team enjoyed having its newest member around all week, she said one of the most rewarding parts was watching the normally shy Anya break out of her shell and become comfortable around the team.
“It was nice to see her open up to us,” Johnson said. “As the week went on, she really opened up and was riding our backs and sitting in our laps playing games with us.”
Though Harvey said the relationship has helped her family get through the difficult process of Anya’s illness, McHale said it is mutually beneficial, as the team finds inspiration from her story.
“In a very basic way, I think it opens your eyes to perspective on life, and maybe that your problems aren’t actually so bad,” she said. “For them, it’s really cool to see a little kid that’s so involved and excited about us, and in turn, we are excited about her.”
Oppenheim said the team plans to continue its relationship with Anya as their season progresses, and they hope to go to Florida again next spring break to visit. Anya is currently undergoing a three-year treatment plan that includes intensive chemotherapy and radiation. According to cancer.org, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia is more than 90 percent. Despite this promising statistic, Anya’s journey will be a difficult one, and her mother said the Bombers have made that journey just a little bit easier.
Though the team did not end up winning its final game of the trip, the bonds they built with Anya were more lasting than any number in the win column.
“We are all just so overwhelmed with love and thankfulness for the kind actions of such incredible individuals,” Harvey said. “The pride that it has given Anya to be a part of the team is priceless, and we look forward to a lasting relationship.”