WESTFIELD, NJ — As important as the match was for both Westfield and Union Catholic, the cause both teams played for put the volleyball result in the back seat Saturday.
Union Catholic captured a three-set win in a likely preview of the upcoming Union County Tournament final. But the Scotch Plains win wasn’t the main event at Westfield High School's 10th annual "Pink Out," a fundraiser and volleyball game benefiting the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
The vivid abundance of pink in the gym, the riveting energy caused by a near-capacity crowd and a whirlwind of emotions from the post-game breast cancer survivors ceremony – which honored Westfield head girls volleyball coach Beverly Torok – is what Saturday's game will be remembered for.
“It means a lot to me and our entire team, especially because our coach is a breast cancer survivor,” said Westfield senior Anne Friel, a tri-captain along with Nora Brindle and Jenna Miller. “While I’m playing, of course, you want to win, but honestly, there are times in the game where I would just think about how this is about a great cause and how we have such a great crowd, that it doesn’t matter about the outcome.”
What makes Westfield’s annual “Pink Out” special is the unique circumstances that the Blue Devils carry. Westfield head coach Beverly Torok is a breast cancer survivor herself, as Friel noted. The tournament, which Torok's supporters initiated, began in 2009 after she underwent treatment for the disease.
Since then, Torok has beaten cancer, and as Saturday's event showed, the annual game has become a spectacle of positivity and generosity.
“We started it 10 years ago after I had my cancer in 2008,” Torok said. “I coached that fall, and the next year, somebody said, ‘You should do something.’ The captain’s parents took it and started it. My JV coach at the time was big in setting things up, and we just started one thing at a time. We did certain contests, the 50-50, had a few baskets, and then it just evolved.
“Now there are tons of baskets, and some of the community members donated just some wonderful stuff,” she added. “Go to the vendors in town, and they’re so generous.”
For the players, playing in the “Pink Out” is a special experience that extends beyond the game itself.
Shortly after Union Catholic scored its 25th point of the third set to win the match, players on both teams gathered to form a “tunnel” with both hands raised and met with a counterpart on the opposite side. The 32 breast cancer survivors and acceptants then walked to center court while being announced and honored.
Torok was the first survivor to walk through the tunnel, and all 31 other survivors or those who accepted in their honor, had equally amazing backstories.
“It was awesome, especially for the one woman, who just finished her last treatment yesterday,” Friel said of the tunnel ceremony. “That was great. I love seeing how many people that are affected by it can survive, especially those that are close to us.”
Before the moving post-game ceremony, there was a volleyball game played.
Energy from the near-sellout fed onto the court. After Union Catholic took an intense first set, 25-21, Westfield rallied and flipped the scoreboard in the second set, 25-21, to force a decisive third frame. Union Catholic pulled away in the end, though, and won the final set, 25-16.
Local merchants’ contributions in raffles and prizes, a silent auction and food sales in the high school's hallways benefited the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which supports research for breast cancer treatment and cures.
The fundraiser, however, didn't distract from the game. The Lady Blue Devils gave their all against their county rival, Union Catholic, Torok said.
“We always strive to play great against them, and we always just try to play tough because we know that we’re going to see tough competition," she said. "We hope to, of course, see them at the county tournament. But they bring it every time, and we just hope to make it a game.”