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Letter of Intent Signing: Frontier’s Knihinicki goes the extra mile in cancer recovery

MacKenzie Knihinicki, also pictured left playing for Frontier, makes her signing with Daemen College women’s volleyball official as she’s alongside, from left: her brother, Mitchell, mother, Anne Marie, father, Mark, volleyball coach, Deb Schruefer, and Frontier athletics director, Rich Gray. It’s been her family, and friends that have rallied around her as she’s being treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. (Photo by Michael J. Petro)
Running the mile is test of perseverance and endurance. MacKenzie Knihinicki never liked going the four laps around the track that it took to finish the mile, yet the Frontier High School senior learned getting where she wanted to go would start with completing that run.

It became symbolic of her eventual success in varsity high school volleyball and is now helping drive her in the fight of her life.

As the school year wound down, Knihinicki was supposed to be planning for graduation, her final summer before college and then playing women’s volleyball while attending Daemen College. Dealing with cancer was never in those plans, but Knihinicki found she was about to embark on a challenge that would make the mile look easy.

In early May, Knihinicki was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of lymph tissue found most commonly in the lymph nodes, spleen, liver and bone marrow. Fortunately, it is considered one of the most curable forms of cancer, especially if found in its early stages, but requires radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of both.

It’s times like these that would make going up against an opposing 6-foot-2 middle hitter on the other side of the net seem like a breeze, but despite that, over the past month-and-a-half, Knihinicki has exhibited the kind of bravery that could get just about anyone past the most difficult of times.

She’s been able to handle this situation with not only courage but also a level of comfort and openness that has helped put her family and friends more at ease. Knihinicki believes she has too much to look forward to in college and then in life to take this on in any other manner.

“A lot of goals that I want to achieve have been pushing me through this,” said Knihinicki, an All-Western New York Second Team selection her senior season, who received a partial athletic and academic scholarship to Daemen.

Staring down a challenge and finding a way to get past it is nothing new to Knihinicki. As a junior, she was called upon to run that mile outdoors on the track in preseason practices for girls volleyball. At first, she had her problems with the run, attempting to stop after just two of the four laps. But her troubles on the track became a turning point in which she decided it was time to give it her all.

“She came over (after the second lap) to inform me that she was done. I said, well, you might be done in more ways than you know,” her varsity volleyball coach, Deb Schruefer, said sarcastically with the room in laughter. “Then, she figured out a way to get that mile done and since has worked hard to achieve every goal.”

Knihinicki is working even harder to get through her treatment. She’s halfway through four cycles and although she’s lost her hair and goes through bouts of nausea, most of the time in the second week of treatments when she feels like “she’s been hit by a bus,” her spirit remains in tact.

“Even her friends have came over to see her and said to her, “MacKenzie, it’s OK to break down a little bit,’” her father, Mark, said. “She broke down a couple of times briefly. But she’s been so strong.”

She received great news on Monday as her PET scan revealed that the cancer is nearly all gone. Two more treatments remain which are slated to end July 23.

“That should be it,” said MacKenzie, who was forced to miss much of the end of the school year for treatments but managed to graduate on Friday. “I should be done. Thank God.”

It will be in perfect time for a team trip with the Daemen women’s volleyball team in August to California for practices and a tournament. She can’t wait for the trip and what it will signify — an end to the treatments and hopefully, remission.

“My mom and I have been attached at the hip lately with everything that’s going on, so my dad joked that you better get her a plane ticket for her too,” MacKenzie smarted.

Anne Marie, her mother, couldn’t be more proud of how her daughter has handled herself in such trying times. MacKenzie also credits the support of her parents, younger brother, Mitchell, and her entire family, along with friends and a lot of prayer, for helping her through it.

“She’s been so positive. She’s actually been handling this better than we have,” Anne Marie said. “She’s doing very well. She’s all of our heroes.”

Even before her courage in the face of cancer, MacKenzie was a positive example for the younger girls on the team. Schruefer said her teammates looked up to her and were sad to see her play her last game this season.

“She’s a passionate young woman who’s always found the good in every one and every thing and I think that’s why she’s able to persevere,” Schruefer said. “I can’t say enough about her — great outlook, always smiling. She just maintains a good balance in life.”

Her plans for the future are just as bright as ever, despite these difficult times. She plans to major in health studies but eventually hopes to get into the physician’s assistant program.

She met with the team during a visit to Daemen and found players and coaches alike to be very supportive. Daemen sees her continuing as a middle hitter but there is a possibility for movement. She was the only freshman signee on a team that returns much of last year’s players, a season after the program’s most wins since 2004.

“I definitely wanted to keep playing volleyball and playing D-II is great,” said Knihinicki, who played for Niagara Frontier Volleyball Club since she was 14. “I like that it’s a smaller school with smaller classes so I’ll get more one-on-one interaction.”

She credited Schruefer as an inspiration both on and off the court and in helping her reach a level where she could contribute for the past two seasons on a team fighting for a sectional title almost every year. She was a member of Frontier’s Class AA title winning team as a junior.

“She definitely pushed us to be better people and players,” Knihinicki said. “She was a great coach.”

Her mother now tells MacKenzie to remember what Schruefer once told her about the mile and treat this latest challenge in the same way. The mile may have been tough on MacKenzie at first but she figured out a way to get it done. In many ways her fight with cancer has been just like the pursuit of finding a way to finish that mile.

“Yeah, halfway there,” MacKenzie said. “Two laps down, two more to go.”

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