WINONA LAKE, Ind. – Forty miles is all that separates Fort Wayne from Winona Lake. But for Paige Eakright, that journey took five years.
Eakright is a fifth-year redshirt senior on Grace’s volleyball team. The “super senior” is playing her first and last season for the Lady Lancers. After competing for three seasons at Huntington University, Eakright decided to make Grace College the final stop of her incredible collegiate journey.
The Fort Wayne native has seen a series of sensational highs and staggering lows during her career.
Her journey is not complete yet. And it has had Grace College woven into several key moments along the way.
An Early Meeting
Eakright was almost a Lady Lancer five years ago. Eakright was an accomplished outside hitter from Fort Wayne (Homestead High School) and had Grace College high on her list of schools she wished to attend.
Grace had just hired a new volleyball coach named Katie Van Hofwegen, so Eakright reached out to say congratulations.
Van Hofwegen was in her first week as a collegiate head coach when she got the call from Eakright. The rookie coach was impressed by the high school senior’s maturity and enthusiasm.
“Paige was actually the first player who contacted me after I was hired — between my new players at Grace and the incoming recruits. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this kid is awesome,’ because of her confidence and personality. So she’s always been a special person to me just because of that,” Van Hofwegen said. “She’s a really easy kid to love.”
Eakright had the chance to scrimmage with many of the players on Grace’s team during a summer camp and had an official visit to campus.
But in 2015, Grace was filled with outside hitters on the roster. While Eakright loved the people and community at Grace, she saw more opportunity to play immediately at Huntington and committed to play for the Foresters.
It seemed that Eakright and Grace were destined to remain on opposite sides of the net.
A Devastating Diagnosis
Eakright’s college experience was unlike almost anyone else’s in the country. And not in a good way.
Shortly before college was set to begin, Eakright could tell something was not right. Eakright scheduled an appointment with a gynecologist to find some answers.
On her first day of college orientation, Eakright got her answer. She was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer which had centralized in her uterus and cervix.
Immediately her world was changed. Eakright spent much of her freshman year undergoing treatments and had to miss several games.
“It was disappointing for several reasons obviously,” Eakright said. “I was looking forward to a chance to start over in college and get to know everyone at a smaller school. But being forced to meet everyone and be known as the girl with cancer was a bummer. I just really wanted life to get on like normal.”
Incredibly, Eakright still contributed on the court and was named to the conference’s All-Freshman Team.
While Eakright had managed to fight for success on the court, her battle with cancer was only beginning.
Teal and Tears
Near the end of her freshman season, Huntington hosted a “Teal Out” night to coincide with Eakright’s cancer ribbon color. The event was used to raise money for Eakright’s upcoming treatments and impending medical bills.
Huntington’s opponent that night? Grace College.
The Foresters’ coach at the time (Kyle Shondell) knew Eakright had remained friends with many of the players on Grace’s team.
And for Eakright, lining up against Grace always felt different compared to other games. “It was like I was playing against my friends. It was like another family to me,” she said. So pairing with Grace for the Teal Out seemed like a natural fit.
“We were so happy to lend support to Paige because of the relationship we’d already built up,” Van Hofwegen recalled. “We bought a lot of wristbands from the fundraiser to support her, and our girls dyed their socks teal and had teal ribbons in their hair. Our team was very invested in Paige’s story because of the friendships.”
One of the wristbands that Grace bought had the lyrics to a song taped to it. The song “Good Good Father” was a rallying cry for Eakright during that time. Van Hofwegen taped those lyrics to her computer, which remains there to this day five years later.
Shortly after her freshman season, Eakright began the life-draining gauntlet of chemotherapy.
She underwent 36 rounds over the course of a year along with one major surgery. Near the beginning, she had three rounds of cytoxan, an intense cancer-fighting drug. After each round, Eakright experienced severe side effects that were at times life-threatening. The fourth round was promptly canceled.
The frequent trips to the hospital produced association sickness, which caused her to throw up any time her body sensed she was at the hospital. Her mom ingeniously helped her with a ruse to fool her senses — wrapping a blanket over Eakright’s head, plugging her nose, playing music on her headphones and singing as loudly as she could. That at least stopped Eakright from throwing up until she reached her treatment room.
“The first 12 rounds of chemo before surgery weren’t too bad,” Eakright recalled. “But the final months were awful. I would scream and cry and tell the nurse I wasn’t going. It was physically and emotionally exhausting.”
Back on the Court
Eakright was officially declared to be cancer-free on March 6, 2017. But returning to the court was challenging even with her cancer in remission.
The residual effects of cancer and chemo treatments left her with damage to her nerves, stretching from her shins to her toes. When she returned to Huntington’s court in 2018, she estimated that she competed at 50 percent of her ability. She played the season with practically no feeling in her feet, resulting in frequent ankle rolls and frustration.
“I cried almost every day during preseason in 2018. My feet would get so tired. It was frustrating for it to all be out of my control,” she said.
Eakright still managed to produce 267 kills. She was named the Crossroads League Attacker of the Week once and earned a spot on the Second Team All-League despite playing in a weakened state.
Her next year was even better. Eakright was an All-Conference performer in 2019 with 416 kills, 327 digs, 26 blocks and 19 aces.
“Those volleyball accomplishments meant a lot to me, probably even more than graduating from Huntington. School I enjoyed and could still do while sick. But I was actually bad at volleyball for awhile because my body didn’t work,” Eakright said. “Competing at that high level was always a goal, so I was proud of myself to be able to achieve it.”
Full Circle: Back To Grace
Eakright describes herself as a “full-circle type of person.” She felt a circle complete at Huntington, going from an All-Freshman Team honoree in 2016 to an All-League winner in 2019.
But Eakright never felt her volleyball days were over, even after completing her undergrad degree.
As it turned out, Grace was in need of a graduate assistant coach — someone to lead and mentor the JV program as well as assist in recruiting and coaching the varsity team. The job posting in early 2020 caught Eakright’s eye.
The GA role had unique benefits for Eakright. Not only could she use her final season of eligibility to play at Grace, but she could also gain experience coaching while working toward a Master’s degree.
“I texted Coach Katie, ‘Is this real?’ because I thought it could work,” Eakright said.
The two talked at a restaurant in Columbia City, and the rest is history.
As a result, Eakright traded out her forest green jersey for a Lancer red one this fall. The transition has been ultra smooth for Eakright, despite adjusting to a new set of normals.
“Coming to Grace was not a difficult decision at all, and I don’t regret it,” Eakright said. “I was telling one of my teammates at practice that it feels like I’ve been here for four years. It just feels like home! It never felt weird during the transition.”
Eakright has enjoyed her new role on the team. The super senior has enjoyed helping the freshmen adjust to college life. She has found chances to share her wisdom and parts of her journey as the time deems right.
“Paige not only provides wisdom and leadership, but her energy and zest for life have been huge for our team,” Van Hofwegen said. “She didn’t want to be known as the cancer girl, so we’ve been very respectful of her story. But whenever she shares that with us, we realize how small our struggles are often times. She faced death and is now on the other side. That puts into perspective what we are going through.”
Looking back, Eakright is more confident than ever in her “Good Good Father.” While she would not want to repeat her journey from the last five years, she is more sure than ever that God was there every step of the way.
“Even when I was sick I had an inner peace from God. I was confident that God would be with me,” she said. “We often try to control our lives, but going through this taught me how little control I have. It allowed me to make my faith my own.” – from gclancers.com