Volleyball Team Rallying For Coach Battling Cancer

November 15, 2010 / Volleyball
The Hartford Courant

Britney Curtis first knew something was wrong when she got a text message from her volleyball coach in August.

The message, she said, went something like: “I’m unable to coach this season. I know you’re going to have a lot of success. But I’m fighting the biggest fight of my life.”

Curtis, a senior captain who has won three state titles with the Coventry High School volleyball team, read the message from coach Matt Hurlock over and over.

She still couldn’t comprehend it.

Aleesha Quintana, the team’s other co-captain, had received the same message. Hurlock was at Windham Hospital. They decided to go see him.

“That was the first shock,” Curtis said of the text message. “The second shock was when we scheduled going to visit him in the hospital. I’m used to Coach Hurlock — I’ve known him for the past eight years — he’s been my gym teacher, my coach, family friend.

“When I went to the hospital and I saw him in the bed, with the IV, and he said, ’You need to shut the door because I might start to tear up’ … That’s when I knew the season was going to be different.”

In many ways it has, but on the court things have been very much the same. Coventry, which has won six state titles since Hurlock took over the program in 2001, is still winning volleyball matches. The Patriots (22-0) won the NCCC championship for the fifth time Nov. 6. They defeated Cheney Tech 3-0 Friday in the Class S tournament and host a semifinal match Wednesday against Coginchaug Regional High School.

And Hurlock, 38, is still coaching the team. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in August and discovered then that the cancer had spread to his liver. He is now undergoing chemotherapy and has taken a leave of absence from his job teaching physical education at Nathan Hale Middle School in Coventry.

“Volleyball helps me stay normal,” Hurlock said. “I feel like I lost the teacher role, but I still embrace the coaching role. Coaching has been good, keeping me sort of balanced. If I didn’t have it, I would be more focusing on negative things. There’s a lot of positive things and that’s one of them.”

The Patriots are the No. 1 team in the state coaches volleyball poll, ahead of perennial Class L power Darien, also unbeaten this season. It’s a distinction that has eluded the team, despite its success, until now.

“We just got named No. 1 after we beat Southington,” Curtis said. “We have never been No. 1. This is the season to have it.”

The day the captains went to the hospital changed everything. Hurlock, who resigned from coaching the Coventry High boys basketball team, initially wasn’t sure he could get through the volleyball season.

“Surprisingly, we didn’t have to talk him into anything,” Quintana said. “He told us everything that was going on, what he knew at the time. We just kind of went from there.

“I think before we got there, he had made the decision he was going to coach.”

It hasn’t been easy for Hurlock. He’s lost weight and doesn’t have a lot of energy. He misses practice sometimes after chemotherapy sessions and has missed a few matches.

But he also has seven seniors who know his system and what is expected of them.

“They’ve been good with it,” Hurlock said. “There’s usually a three-day window when I’m not at practice or games because I’m recovering from the chemo. That’s hard, because I know they’re not going to do exactly what they would do if I was there.

“The other day, a ref sent me a card and she said she missed me at one of the matches … but she said the sign of a well-coached team is how they do when the coach isn’t around and she said they were great. It was nice.”

Hurlock doesn’t participate in drills during practice like he used to. Earlier this month during a practice, he sat on the floor by the wall, watching intently.

“Without the senior class, I think this would have been very hard,” senior Kelly Myers said. “We’ve all been in sports since we were little. We’re really close.”

The Coventry assistant coaches — Ryan Giberson and Bryan Huff — have also helped, coaching the team when Hurlock can’t be there.

“It’s definitely difficult, with how competitive we are,” Quintana said. “When Coach isn’t here, sometimes we’re not very level-headed. The assistants always remind us, we’re playing to be a team.”

Hurlock, who grew up in Mansfield, started coaching volleyball in 2001 at Coventry, where he was already the boys basketball coach. The school hadn’t won a state title in a girls sport since 1988, when the basketball team won the Class S championship. The last state title any team had won from Coventry was in 1994, when the boys cross country team won Class S. Coventry has won the title every year since 2003, except for 2005, when the Patriots lost in the championship game.

“I knew I could have an impact on the program,” said Hurlock, who played beach volleyball. “I just didn’t know it was going to be this much. I followed the blueprint of what I do for basketball. You run summer leagues, you run a camp, you run middle school clinics. I did the same thing with volleyball. So when they’re freshmen, they’re ready. Most teams, when they’re freshmen, they’ve never played before.

“I liked the sport and I knew I could help bring it to a different level, but I didn’t think we’d be winning state titles and having this much success.”

This season, Coventry beat Southington, the team that broke its 84-match, almost-four-year win streak last season. A decisive 3-0 win over the then-No. 1 Blue Knights on Oct. 20 boosted Coventry to No. 1 in the coaches poll for the first time.

The next match was against No. 4 East Lyme. Coventry, shockingly, lost the first game.

“We’ve never lost a first game, except for Southington [last year], when we lost,” said Curtis, the team’s libero. “We were all shaken. We were completely blindsided.

“Coach was here. He stayed for all five games. It was probably a little more stress than he wanted.”

Coventry won, 3-2.

Hurlock said this is his best team in 10 years.

“I’ve had a team with six seniors before, but that was before I knew what I was doing,” he said. “Now I know what I am doing and these girls have come up since fifth or sixth grade [and played]. These girls have been in a lot of battles and most of them have started since their sophomore year.”

Hurlock, married with two young children, hopes to be able to get back to teaching in the spring.

“I miss being around the kids,” he said. “I loved what I was doing. I was saying just the other day, ’I had the perfect life – I loved my job, I love my family.’ And then things just change.”

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