Boys soccer honors teammate fighting cancer in first game

Avi Srinivasan, Managing Editor

The Palo Alto High School Boys Varsity Soccer walks off after its 2-1 win against Menlo-Atherton on Nov. 30 during its first game of the season at home. The game was especially important for junior Sam Lilly (far left), who was prevented from playing on the team this year due to his diagnosis of leukemia, which he received this past summer. Despite being unable to participate on the team, Lilly still showed his support by attending the game. The team wore orange face paint in honor of Lilly’s condition and to express their encouragement. According to senior co-captain Zach Cooper, the game was more than just about winning. “Before the game we got together in the media suite and we talked about our tactical shadows,” Cooper said. “But beyond that we really rallied around our teammate, Sam Lilly, and we wore the orange face paint on our face to sit in solitude with him.” (Photo: Nadav Sternheim)

Huddled in the team’s media suite, coach Rusty Millard goes over strategy for the boys soccer team’s first game against Menlo-Atherton. A video taken at the meeting shows his marker furiously flying and scribbling out on the board while explaining plays, he wraps up with a note about having strong celebrations after goals. Just as the team is about to leave, co-captain Zach Cooper stands up, an orange marker in hand.

He pauses for a moment and then discusses the real importance of tonight’s game. The game is not just for winning as a team, not for starting the season on a strong foot, but for honoring their teammate — Sam Lilly — who couldn’t play this season because of his cancer diagnosis.

“He’s missing out on this team not because he’s not good enough, but because of something he couldn’t control,” Cooper said.

A series of applause follows and Cooper begins to mark players’ faces, each with an orange stripe.

Lilly, a junior, was diagnosed with leukemia this past summer shortly after the school year ended. This prevented him from attending school, as well as being part of the team, which he was an avid member of before his diagnosis.

According to Kathy Howe, Lilly’s mother, since then he has been in and out of the hospital, undergoing chemotherapy and other forms of treatment.

“There are a lot of medicines to take and it’s a 2.5- to 3-year treatment protocol so it’s a marathon,” Howe said.

With leukemia being a cancer of the blood cells, Howe said Lilly’s condition made her realize the importance of giving blood.

“Sam received more than 14 units in his first two months of treatment,” Howe said. “Many friends and family have come out to donate both here in the Bay Area, and across the country and I am grateful to them and to everyone who donates as it really makes a huge difference.”

In light of Lilly’s condition, members of the varsity team wore orange face paint Nov. 30 during their first game against Menlo-Atherton High School, which the Vikings won 2-1. Wearing colors in the medical world symbolizes support for people diagnosed with diseases and orange specifically honors patients with leukemia.

According to Lilly, playing soccer could be dangerous, which is why he stopped playing.

“I had a chest implant called a port, which is meant for chemo[therapy] injections,” Lilly said. “If it was to be hit hard, then it would cause a problem for me.”

Having played on the junior varsity team last year, he expected to move up as a member of the varsity team this year. Lilly also played for the Palo Alto Soccer Club outside of Paly. 

For Lilly, being unable to play on the team was extremely disappointing.

“Soccer and being on the team have been really important to me because of a sense of being a part of something,” Lilly said. “As well as competing and improving myself in that way, it also gives me a goal to work towards.”

Cooper said the Vikings’ first game was especially important due to Lilly’s circumstances.

“It was more than just about winning the game,” Cooper said. “More than for our record and for our CCS points, etc — it was about winning it for our teammate.”

According to Cooper, Lilly’s condition impacted the entire team.

“It’s hard because the team has kind of built a family and it’s literally like the same thing as your family member coming down with something like that,” Cooper said. “He’s a great guy and everybody likes him and he brings such a positive attitude, especially with the unfortunate situation he’s in.”

Lilly was especially vocal throughout the game, cheering the team on and supporting them strongly, according to senior striker Nadav Sternheim. 

“It’s definitely a big boost seeing him [Lilly] on the sidelines cheering us on,” Sternheim said. “Even though he can’t play, it means a lot to us and I hope that our gesture means a lot to him as well. I thought it was a great idea by the captains to wear the orange face paint, and I don’t know what Sam thought of it, but I hope he liked and appreciated it.”

According to Lilly, he is very appreciative of the team’s effort.

“It meant a lot to me that they all did something even just a little bit of paint cause it showed they all supported me and what I am going through,” Lilly said.

Howe said the team’s appreciation of Lilly was heartwarming.

“I was so moved by their demonstration of support and care of Sam,” Howe said. “I wasn’t there to see it myself but the way he described it, he was clearly moved too. That they took the time to figure out a way to collectively have his back like that is a tribute to who Sam is and the type of people he has in his crew.”

For the future, Lilly plans to keep attending the team’s home games to express his encouragement as well as participate when he is healthy enough.

Cooper said Lilly’s ability to show heart in the face of adversity is inspiring and the team will continue to stand with him throughout the season.

“Because everybody can empathize with him and because we’re all in that total family situation, we are able to rally with him and for him in a really positive way,” Cooper said.

Howe agreed with Cooper’s sentiments by saying Lilly’s courage is inspiring.

“It is with greatest pride and admiration that I watch Sam as he navigates this marathon with strength, hope, and courage,” Howe said. “He is the strongest, most courageous person I know.”

Senior co-captain Zach Cooper gives a speech explaining the importance of the game before the team leaves for the field.

Video Credit: Nadav Sternheim