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Geneva’s Serra beats cancer on way to D-I soccer

GENEVA – Weaving past onlookers in the Geneva gymnasium foyer as smoothly as she darts through the midfield, Ally Serra posed for her share of pictures Wednesday and shook her share of hands.

The Geneva senior committed to play women’s soccer at Colorado State in November, but national signing day always has a way of refreshing athletes’ accomplishments.

With every encounter, Serra relived the reason that might just entitle her to smile a little wider, to showcase that green and gold sweatshirt a little more proudly.

Two years ago, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Now she’s an NCAA Division I recruit. Walking on air before playing in altitude suited Serra just fine.

“I took that [cancer], made myself work twice as hard as any other athlete, and it really made me stronger, and I never gave up,” Serra said. “Because I knew there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and I just fought through it.”

Serra, a center-midfielder, was the second of three girls soccer recruits to sign letters of intent at Geneva.

Kelly LaPorte (West Virginia) led off before Michaela Loebel (Nebraska) followed shortly after.

Serra has played club soccer for Geneva-based Strikers Fox Valley alongside the pair since elementary school, teaming with Loebel in third grade and LaPorte in fifth.

“So we’ve had the whole ride together,” Serra said. “We’ve really grown as teammates and soccer players together.”

Make no mistake, Serra endured personal trials with her teammates since discovering a lump protruding from her throat early in her sophomore year.

Surgery removed the lump, but a biopsy revealed cancer, prompting a string of three surgeries, two radiation sessions and “a bunch of other treatments and doctor appointments” in the ensuing two years.

In the interim, Serra worked to raise awareness for her condition and funds for Lurie Children’s Hospital, the site of her procedures.

“She’s a great player and a great person, too,” LaPorte said.

After competing for Geneva as a freshman and sophomore, Serra elected to play club-only during the 2012-13 school year.

High school girls season is played in the spring, after the fall club season, and she didn’t want to risk complicating her recovery.

“I was always playing within those two years, but there was always two weeks at a time I’d have to take off for treatments, or recovering from a surgery could take up to a few months,” Serra said. “It just depended on how rigorous the surgery was.”

Serra endured her final surgery in June and is nearing a year of full recovery. She visits the doctor for check-ups every six months, but there’s no dread this time.

Last fall, Colorado State coach Bill Hempen told Serra that each of the Rams’ Mountain West matches felt like a rivalry game.

“I’m ready for the competitiveness,” said Serra, who expressed uncertainty about returning to the high school team this spring.

If nothing else, the past two years proved as much. On Wednesday, Serra took a moment for a detour on her way to the mountains.

Just win, baby: Wisconsin-Whitewater captured its fourth NCAA Division III national football title in five seasons in 2013.

Three weeks before the Warhawks reigned again, Batavia rolled to the IHSA Class 6A crown.

Visions of trophies weren’t the only thing swirling in Bulldogs defensive lineman James Millette’s head during his campus visit, but the coincidence sure eased his decision.

“It was the best fit for me, and I like to win championships, so … ,” Millette said.

Millette joins Batavia wide receiver Jordan Zwart, a classmate since their days at Hoover-Wood Elementary School, at Whitewater.

A few other Bulldogs also are college-bound, including running back Anthony Scaccia (Butler), linebacker Anthony Thielk (Minnesota State) and defensive back Forrest Gilbertson (Wisconsin-Platteville).

A signing day ceremony hailing everyone’s achievements allowed energetic Bulldogs coach Dennis Piron to stay in character.

“He was really happy,” Millette said. “There’s a lot of guys going to the next level. I mean, everybody earned it, so it’s a good feeling. Going to college is going to be good for everybody.”

‘Texas’ bound for Terre Haute: Kaneland defensive lineman Justin Diddell doubles as the Knights’ 285-pound wrestler, a role he doesn’t take lightly even though he knows he won’t duplicate it in college.

That loyalty helped erase any trepidation after last month’s commitment to Indiana State. The Sycamores appealed to Diddell from the start, and he wasn’t thrilled about filling his weekends with official visits elsewhere because it would mean missing wrestling tournaments.

“I liked their program. I liked the coaches there. They’re all really nice,” Diddell said. “And so I decided, ‘Hey, if I like the school, I like all the coaches, I like all the teammates, I might as well just go ahead and commit.’ And then it’s been a lot of stress relieved.”

Look out, Indy: Reece Conroyd finished his career as St. Charles North’s career tackles leader, but the linebacker was self-assured well before he reached that milestone.

“You have to have the mindset in football that you’re the best out there,” Conroyd said. “You have to think that all the time, or else someone is going to show up and beat you.”

Conroyd will take his credo to Division-II Indianapolis with an eye on gradually becoming a Greyhounds great.

Hearing his would-be teammates speak about the program during a campus visit piqued his interest immediately. Players fielded questions from parents and recruits in a room without coaches, and Conroyd respected the way “they gave it to you straight.”

“You go somewhere and you feel like you belong there because you have the same values and the same outlook of what you want out of the game,” Conroyd said.

Mule musings: Pittsburgh plays its home college football games at Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Steelers. Central Missouri plays its home college football games at Audrey J. Walton Stadium at Vernon Kennedy Field, home of the Division-II Mules.

Geneva wide receiver Kyle Brown pondered the proposition of calling either venue home and ultimately opted to take his talents to Warrensburg, Mo. He saw himself hearing the roar of the crowd there sooner.

“I mean, for Division II, their stadium seats almost 15,000. They average about 15,000 a game, which is nuts. That’s crazy,” Brown said. “That was another big thing, and I just like where their program was headed.”

Pitt offered Brown a spot as a preferred walk-on after his diligent pattern of sending highlight clips to Division I coaches finally paid dividends. The Panthers actually were the only team to respond to Brown’s blitz, doing so within about 90 minutes.

Knowing he had a sure offer to play at Central Missouri, Brown decided to head southwest instead of east. He’s happily absorbed any ribbing about his new team’s nickname.

“Yeah, oh yeah. I’m getting a lot of crap for it, but you can’t base a decision off that,” Brown said. “I’ll take it, you know what I mean. I’ll take it. It’s a cool mule.”

Central Missouri’s women’s teams are called the Jennies, for female donkeys.

Pohl to Toledo: Among St. Charles North’s women’s soccer recruits, forward Sophie Pohl committed to Toledo. The Rockets won Mid-American Conference championships in 2008, 2010 and 2011.

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