Riley Maher is a 17-year-old student-athlete at O’Fallon High School with her priorities in order and her goals clearly within reach.
She’s a straight-A student who is as active in her community as on the lacrosse field where she has been a key player for coach Rob Garrison’s Panthers squad for the past three years.
But in October 2017, Maher’s life was put on hold. After she complained of chest pains, doctors discovered a mass in her chest “almost as big as my heart,” she said. The diagnosis was stage 4 B-Cell Lymphoma.
“Cancer? Of course it was scary. It was the biggest thing that had ever happened in my life,” Maher said. “I had no prior symptoms. When I went to our doctor he thought maybe I had bleeding from a lacrosse game or heartburn. Cancer never even entered my mind.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“We went to (St. Louis) Children’s Hospital and that’s where we got the diagnosis. It was Stage 4 and that sounds really scary, but that’s just because of the type of cancer that it was and how rare it was. I’m so grateful that they have found new medicine (treatment) over the last couple of years. If they wouldn’t have, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy treatments followed over the next several months and on March 21 of last year, Maher was cleared by doctors to return to playing lacrosse. On April 9, she played in a game for the first time. A month after that, the forward/defender was on the field when the Panthers won the IHSA sectional championship.
On a cold Wednesday afternoon, Maher and the rest of the Panthers were bundled up running laps around the O’Fallon field as they prepared for the start of a new season. Maher was leading the way.
“Riley not only played she helped us win the sectional title,” Garrison said. “I was shocked she was able to come back and play but I wasn’t surprised. Riley (Maher) is without question one of the toughest kids I have ever had the chance to coach.
“I’m sure she was (scared). Who wouldn’t be? But from the first day on she had the most positive attitude going forward. She wasn’t going let it beat her. She was going to live her life, she was going to maintain her straight-A average and she was going to play on the O’Fallon lacrosse team.”
Nominated for national Spirit of Sport award
Maher’s story has gained state and nationwide attention. Because of her victory over cancer, Riley Maher has been nominated for the National Federation of State High School Associations Spirit of Sport Award.
Initiated in 2008, the Spirit of Sport Award is as a way to recognize individuals who exemplify the ideals of the positive spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics. Student-athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, administrators, trainers and other individuals associated with a school’s athletic programs are all eligible for the honor, which generally recognizes individuals who have overcome adversity or gone above and beyond their peers.
The IHSA makes one nomination per year. IHSA Assistant Executive Director Matt Troha said Thursday that national winner should be announced within two or three weeks.
In a prepared statement, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said Maher is deserving of the honor.
“We are proud to have Riley represent Illinois and the IHSA,” Anderson said. “When we talk about the life lessons that participation in high school sports can provide, dealing with and overcoming adversity are often at the top of the list. The stakes were obviously much greater in Riley’s battle, and we are overjoyed to see her recover and be able to play the sport she has so much passion for, while also representing her school so well in the classroom and community.”
A love of lacrosse
The daughter of Jeff and Kelly Maher, Riley Maher began playing lacrosse when she was in the fourth grade. Since that time, her development as a player and her love for the sport has continued to grow. The growth of the lacrosse program in O’Fallon prompted the family to move there.
“It’s just a great sport,” Maher said. “Just the sport itself and my desire to want to get back on the field with my team and be out there helping them compete was a motivating force in helping me get through the treatments. Also the support from the school, the administration, my teammates, the lacrosse community and everybody was just amazing. They helped get me through all of this.”
The prognosis for Maher is good. The results of her last scan two weeks ago showed no signs of cancer anywhere in her body.
“The big thing for me was to stay positive. I was blessed to have amazing and caring doctors and nurses who were with me every step of the way,” Maher said. “My mom is actually a breast cancer survivor and having someone close to you who has gone through the treatments and knows what you are going through was a tremendous help. I am so grateful for everyone who helped me get through this and helped me stay positive.”
Maher, who turns 18 in two weeks, will attend the University of Missouri beginning in August. She plans to major in psychology.