JEFFERSON — Jordan Sanner anticipated a challenging senior year, but she never imagined how difficult it would become.
Sanner entered the volleyball season as Jefferson’s only player with more than seven sets of varsity experience under her belt. She made it her goal to create an environment inclusive for all Falcons after feeling so uncomfortable as a younger player that she considered skipping her junior season.
“My only goal was to make everyone feel better about playing varsity for the first time because I’ve been playing varsity for three years,” Sanner said. “I wanted to make sure these girls felt comfortable playing at a higher level, because I know I didn’t.”
Jefferson coach Don Palm called Sanner a “reluctant leader” at first, but the senior began to settle in and lead by example.
Fellow senior Aleah Eddy said her longtime friend “really calmed everyone down, because everyone was so nervous and she knew what she was doing.”
Just a couple matches into the season, though, life threw a curveball at Sanner and her family.
Sanner’s mom, Christy, had been battling cold-like symptoms for roughly two months. She lost most of her energy and a lot of weight, according to Sanner.
Mrs. Sanner underwent a number of tests and doctors discovered two tumors in her liver and a third in her small intestine. Sanner’s father, Dan, informed her around midnight on Aug. 30.
“He just tells me everything straightforward and does not sugarcoat anything,” Sanner said. “He just tells me how it is. So, he’s like ‘She's going to have cancer and it’s not going to end well, but we just have to have hope.’”
Mrs. Sanner died Sept. 24 at University Hospital in Cleveland — less than a month after her diagnosis.
“It was very unexpected, at least for me,” Sanner said. “My dad, they did research with it and it was like a life expectancy of two to six months, but they didn't tell me that because they didn't want me to be sad all the time, so I didn't know.”
Sanner said she and her mother did everything together.
Mrs. Sanner loved to crochet. She would bring her daughter along to the store and have her pick out yarn. They had so much yarn that Sanner said two tubs big enough to fit her and her older sister, Morgan, might not be enough to store it all.
Mr. Sanner said his daughter and wife both loved animals and that trips to the zoo and Wagon Trails Animal Park were not rare occurrences.
After the diagnosis, though, Mrs. Sanner started chemotherapy and her energy level dropped to the point where she needed to be carried everywhere, according to Sanner, so they began to spend most of their time in the family room watching her favorite shows — Star Trek and M*A*S*H.
Sanner, who still wears a silver ring that she received from her mother in eighth grade with a little flower and the words “You are my sunshine” — lyrics from the song her mom used to sing to her — on it, admitted she never liked Star Trek, but she enjoys M*A*S*H and remembers listening to the theme song as a child.
While spending as much time as possible with her mom, Sanner still carved out enough to fulfill her duties as a leader of the volleyball team.
Not only has she helped create the fun, inclusive atmosphere she hoped to, but the senior leads the Falcons with 123 digs, 90 service points and 31 aces. Her 71 kills are the second most on the team.
“She’s someone that always works hard, she's got a good attitude, she's someone who obviously has persevered and she's someone we relied on pretty heavily, just to become that rock for us and provide stability and consistency night in and night out,” Palm said. “I think the fact that everything happened so quickly [with her mother], there hasn't been a whole lot of time for her to process everything that has gone on and so I think she's handled it better than I would’ve and she’s shown a lot of courage.
“She’s someone that doesn’t show her emotions on her sleeves very often, but you can imagine that she's struggling and dealing with some stuff just because that type of event, losing a parent, is obviously a devastating thing. I know how much her mom meant to her. Her mom was incredibly supportive of everything Jordan was doing. She was always at matches, always at practices. She was someone who I know Jordan was incredibly tight with. [Jordan’s] ability to deal with this type of adversity in her life is pretty tremendous.”
Mrs. Sanner was life flighted to Cleveland on Sept. 24. Jordan, Morgan and Mr. Sanner met her in the hospital room.
Mrs. Sanner was sedated at the time. She regained consciousness two times, but Sanner missed both. Mrs. Sanner eventually came to one last time with all of her family in the room.
“I got to tell her I love her one more time,” Sanner said. “My dad was like ‘Did you hear what Jordan said?’ and she nodded her head … that definitely gave me closure. I feel like if I didn't have that experience, I’d be a lot more upset about it, but knowing that she heard me and she knew it was me, that made me feel a lot better about the whole situation.”
Sanner tried to play in a match two days after her mom’s passing, but struggled to focus and became “extremely overwhelmed.” She said she still looks into the crowd expecting to see her mom there.
The more she stuck with volleyball, though, the more it became her escape from reality.
“My team, they didn't talk about it, which I really appreciated, because they didn't mention it and I just felt like normal, like everything was back to normal,” Sanner said. “When I came back to school, everyone’s like ‘so sorry for your loss’ and then I went to practice and everyone was just normal, so that made me feel a lot better.”
Volleyball always had a way of bringing joy to the Sanner family. Sanner used to play softball and acknowledged her mom was not the biggest fan. But when she began to play volleyball, she said her mom went to "every match."
During her treatment, Mrs. Sanner could not make it to several matches, but she always made sure to shoot her daughter a text, asking if it was being recorded so she could watch it at a later time.
Mrs. Sanner almost came to tears when her daughter bought her a sparkly “volleyball mom” shirt during a travel tournament.
“I don’t think she ever wore it,” Sanner said with a few laughs. “But she loved watching me play and my dad would have to yell at her because she would call some people morons for making a wrong call. She was just extremely invested in it.”
The Sanners’ love for volleyball made for an unforgettable evening last Monday. The Falcons hosted St. John in a match originally scheduled to be played in Saybrook Township, but moved to Jefferson to make way for a “Volley for the Sanners” night.
Both teams wore green, which was Mrs. Sanner’s favorite color and the color associated with liver cancer. The “largest and loudest” crowd Palm has ever seen, including a packed student section and Perry’s volleyball team, also wore green.
Numerous fundraisers were held, including a Chinese Auction and bake sale. Everything went to the Sanner family, according to Palm.
“To know that we have that many people that knew us and cared enough about us to be there, it really meant a lot,” Mr. Sanner said. “I want to make sure people know that we really appreciate it. The people that donated stuff, the people that volunteered, did the cooking, all the people who showed up, it meant a lot to us as a family just to see that many people to support.
“Obviously, my wife would’ve wanted to be there, but things went wrong a lot faster than what we thought it was going to, but it was a tremendous turnout for me and Jordan and our oldest daughter was there as well. It was a little hard for me, but the girls took it in stride … I just want to thank everybody and make sure everyone knows what it meant to us.”
Sanner and the Falcons are now preparing for tournament play. They will host Niles McKinley in a Division II sectional semifinal on Tuesday.
After the school year ends, Sanner plans to attend Youngstown State University, where she will major in finance. She said she still feels the need to make her mother proud and the first step in doing so is to graduate.
One of many people who Sanner has already made proud is her father.
“She’s proved to be a lot stronger than what I even gave her credit for,” Mr. Sanner said. “I’m very proud of her for the way she’s handled everything. To be honest, she’s probably handled it a lot better than I would have.”