Pethokoukis inspires with courage on and off the court

Larry Flynn

The date was September 30, 2014 and the Villanova women’s volleyball team was taking on Providence. The squeak of sneakers echoed in the packed gymnasium while the bellowing voice of Head Coach Josh Steinbach punctuated any silence in the game action.

Standing along the sideline was a 6-foot-4-inch junior middle blocker. To any unsuspecting member of the crowd, she looked like the rest of the volleyball players—tall, athletic and full of enthusiasm.  

The story of Gabby Pethokoukis, however, is no ordinary story.  

And indeed, this was no ordinary game.  

The women’s volleyball team hosted the first annual “Spike it to Cancer” event during its match with Providence, selling T-shirts and raising awareness about cancer to honor none other than Pethokoukis, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma last April.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by my team’s support for me,” she said.  

While she is now inundated with support, there was a time when Pethokoukis was overwhelmed with fear, nervousness and confusion. Last April, Pethokoukis was playing in a volleyball tournament when the news came over the telephone.

Steinbach pulled Pethokoukis into the office of Rev. Rob Hagan, O.S.A.,  Pethokoukis’ mother was on the phone, and shared the terrifying news that her daughter had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  

“I was in disbelief,” she said. “It was like they were talking to someone else. It’s scary to be in that position and not know what was coming next.”

The junior, a native of Western Springs, Ill. had swollen tonsils removed last February but still felt ill after the procedure. After considering a possible diagnosis of mononucleosis, the doctors decided to perform a biopsy despite Pethokoukis’ inclination that such a test wouldn’t be necessary.  

When the biopsy came back positive, Pethokoukis had to leave Villanova and the volleyball team she loved to undergo treatment.

For Pethokoukis, volleyball was not just a hobby. She began playing volleyball in the fourth grade for local club teams, and it has been her greatest passion ever since.

“I tried many sports but volleyball clicked with me,” she said. “I love being able to work with my teammates to accomplish a common goal.”

Pethokoukis never seriously considered playing volleyball in college until she attended a high school volleyball camp. At the camp, she was inspired by a speech given by a volleyball player from Ohio State who spoke about the experience of playing college volleyball. The speech motivated Pethokoukis, who decided to come to Villanova to play volleyball to the benefit of both herself and the program.  

Not only was she a beloved teammate, but Pethokoukis also contributed in a major way her first two seasons. Despite missing nine games as a freshman, she led the Wildcats in kills with 82 on the year and recorded the team’s best .232 attack percentage.  

There was no sophomore slump for Pethokoukis.  Building on her strong freshman performance, she was named to the Big East Honor Roll twice during conference play.  She finished second in the entire conference, averaging a .351 attack percentage. In a game against Georgetown, she recorded a career-high 19 kills and hit an outstanding attack percentage of .429. 

Although ’Nova is in line for a similar record as the past two seasons, there’s no denying that the production of Pethokoukis would have a positive impact on this year’s team.

Although the Wildcats won the James Madison Classic and hovered around .500 throughout the beginning of this season, they have gone 4-7 in conference play and have won just two of their last eight games.  

On the bright side, the team has upcoming winnable games against Providence, St. John’s, DePaul and Georgetown. 

Providence has yet to win a game this season, and a victory for the Wildcats could provide some much needed momentum going into the final stretch of the season.

It is safe to say that Villanova volleyball needs its star middle blocker back as soon as possible.  

Just as much, however, Pethokoukis needed the support of her teammates.

Without her favorite sport and her teammates by her side, it would have been easy for Pethokoukis to feel alone and disconnected. Yet, even though they were separated by hundreds of miles, Pethokoukis felt as close as ever to her teammates back on the mainline.  

“Right off the bat I knew they were literally there for me every step of the way,” she said.  “They sent me packages and ‘Facetimed’ me. It still felt like I was part of the volleyball team.”

Pethokoukis not only had support from the team, but from other athletes, her boyfriend and her family.  All the support, she said, helped her to go through the fatiguing rehabilitation.

After three rounds of 21 day chemotherapy, Pethokoukis was declared cancer free this summer, on June 23.  She said she has been able to practice with the team and is feeling better each day. Every time she steps foot on the court, Pethokoukis said she doesn’t have to take as many breaks and is regaining her strength.

She has not, however, seen any in-game action this season.  As a result, Pethokoukis is considering redshirting this year in hopes of returning next fall.

For the rest of this season, Pethokoukis serves as a model of strength and perseverance for the team.  

“I want to be as big a part of the team as possible,” she said.  “I want to be there for support and I hope to have a large role in the future.”

Just as her teammates were an inspiration to her recovery from lymphoma, her fellow Wildcats are also helping motivate her to achieve her full potential on the volleyball court.

“When I came back to ’Nova, I was so impressed by the hard work of the team,” she said.  “Seeing my teammates work so hard inspires me to work even harder.”

Pethokoukis’ commitment to excellence extends beyond volleyball. As a finance major, she hopes to become a financial advisor or wealth manager in the future. She also said she would like to return to live in downtown Chicago.

No matter what aspirations she may have, Pethokoukis’ determination and optimism will allow her to overcome her obstacles and achieve her goals.  

“I just always try to stay positive, no matter what,” she said.