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More than a game: Pascack Valley lax 'adopts' 8-year-old girl with brain cancer


More than a game: Pascack Valley girls lax 'adopts' 8-year-old girl with brain cancer

By JJ Conrad | NJ Advance Media for
on January 19, 2017 7:48 AM, updated January 19, 2017 8:42 PM

Diane Mattessich couldn’t control her emotions.

Standing before a crowd of largely strangers inside the Pascack Valley auditorium, many who already knew the story she was about to tell, the mother of three struggled to fight back tears while describing the sad narrative of her youngest daughter, Delia, 8.

Delia, a second grader from River Vale who loves princesses, her iPad and cheerleading, was diagnosed last October with a malignant brain tumor. The heartbreaking cancer diagnosis instantly turned the Mattessich family’s life upside down.

“Delia is so strong,” Mattessich told the crowd before pausing briefly to regain her composure. “She has never felt sorry for herself. She’s so tough. She’s showed so much bravery.”

And now she’ll have one of the most loving support systems around.

Mattessich’s tears were quickly wiped away Wednesday on Pascack Valley girls lacrosse’s “adoption day,” after coach Melissa Velez's program teamed up with Friends of Jaclyn – a non-profit organization designed to improve the quality of life in a variety of different ways for children with brain tumors and other childhood cancers.

The Indians’ girls team also adopted Delia’s sister, Sienna, 10, while the boys team joined in as well by adopting Delia’s brother, Blake, 11, as part of FOJ's Safe on the Sideline program -- designed to avoid healthy siblings feeling neglected during trying times.

Both Pascack Valley teams wasted no time in getting to know the newest and youngest members of their programs, with all three children consistently flashing smiles that lit up the room Wednesday.

Delia's upcoming chemotherapy cycles begin Monday -- an exhausting 13-month stretch -- and will run right through Pascack Valley’s girls lacrosse season. Wednesday, the team was already planning on Delia attending its pasta parties, practices and games. Getting apparel with her requested number, 95 (Why 95? Delia likes 9 and her mother likes 5, so 95 was the choice) was in the works, too.

“We did this for a lot of reasons,” said Velez, who jumped at the opportunity when approached about it last November by Patricia Kimball, whose daughter, Molly, is a brain cancer survivor and currently a freshman in the school.

“I know for a fact we have a great group of girls here that will embrace this and do a great job of making sure they’re taken care of. And I think I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger than just lacrosse and bigger than just teaching. The fact that this came to us, I just feel like it’s meant to be.”

Delia became the 736th adoption arranged by Friends of Jaclyn, an organization that has been featured on HBO, twice, and again as part of the New York Yankees’ annual Hope Week. Division I, II, III, junior college and high school sports teams across the country have lined up to help better the lives of children from coast-to-coast -- and there are over 1,200 more teams on the waiting list.

There will be no waiting for Delia and the Mattessichs. They've already been welcomed into the Pascack Valley family.

“It’s beautiful,” Mattessich said. “It humbles me and I’m so happy. It’s hard for Delia, but it’s hard for Blake and Sienna, too. But just to be around all these teenagers, to have them to look up to and be around and have them all being so nice to them… I’m so grateful. I’m so thankful. I’m thrilled that we can be a part of this.”

Delia, center right, and her sister, Sienna, surrounded by the Pascack Valley girls lacrosse team on Wednesday. (JJ Conrad | NJ Advance Media for


The road has not been easy for Delia since her diagnosis on Oct. 9.

Headaches led to vomiting. Vomiting led to a trip to the emergency room. A CT scan then revealed the worst.

Delia had brain cancer.

Surgery to remove the tumor in her brain was necessary quickly. A scramble to find the most suitable surgeon led to a doctor at the Weill Cornell medical center in New York.

The operation was successful, but led to a partial loss of speech, temporarily. Six weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation ensued.

A fever on Christmas Eve led to a four-day stint in the hospital – one of the few times Delia, who was forced to spend Christmas on a hospital bed – cried since being diagnosed.

She eventually lost her appetite. She lost weight. She lost her long brown hair.

Bandanas quickly became a top accessory for the young girl who loves dressing up.

And Pascack Valley lacrosse, even before Wednesday’s adoption day, was there for her.

“When we found out she lost her hair, I e-mailed my lax girls on a Thursday,” Velez said. “I said, ‘If you can get out and get bandanas to bring to Delia, that’d be great.’ I had 40 bandanas on my desk the next day, including the one she’s wearing right now. ... You kind of figure out what this is all about one minute into meeting her. It's no longer about hospitals or her hair or how she's feeling. With our girls, it's normal stuff. It's what she should be experiencing now."

The road isn't about to get any easier for Delia.

The anticipated 13 months of upcoming chemotheraphy could go even longer, depending on how she reacts to the treatment. Blood and platelet transfusions will be necessary. Her mother says the routine sickness and regular stays at the hospital will inevitably begin again, too.

Now, though, she's got roughly 60 "big sisters" at Pascack Valley to help her cope during the tough times.

"I love it," Mattessich said, smiling, while watching her two daughters interact with members of the girls team.

As important as any chemotherapy, radiation or drug ever could be, Pascack Valley – through Friends of Jaclyn – is now offering love, support and friendship to Delia and her family during the toughest time of their lives.

Delia Mattessich may have lost her hair, but she hasn't lost the fight in her.

And Pascack Valley lacrosse will be with her every step of the way going forward.

“There are bigger things out there than lacrosse,” Velez said. “I think now, as a mom, too, this is life. Everything else just seems so little compared to being healthy. Whatever we can do for Delia and Sienna and Blake, we’re going to do. And we couldn’t be happier or more excited to welcome them into our family.”

JJ Conrad may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jj_conrad. Like High School Sports on Facebook.