High School: Coaches who dealt with cancer inspire on, off the field

North Carroll head coach Denean Koontz talks to her players during a game against Century in Eldersburg Monday, Sept. 21, 2015.
North Carroll head coach Denean Koontz talks to her players during a game against Century in Eldersburg Monday, Sept. 21, 2015.(DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Cancer awareness carries different meaning to those who have dealt with the disease.

The ones who win their fight against the world's second biggest cause of death seem to come away with a new outlook on their lives. And if they have a chance to inspire, they usually jump at the opportunity.


Coaches can inspire in the sports world in many ways. And sometimes that inspiration comes from off the field.

Denean Koontz was diagnosed seven years ago with Stage 2 melanoma, or skin cancer, on her left leg. The former North Carroll field hockey coach dealt with the news and felt relieved when doctors told her the cancer had not spread. The North Carroll community rallied around her, and a recovered Koontz wound up leading the Panthers to state championships in 2013 and 2014.


At the end of last year, Koontz said she discovered a tumor in her leg. A biopsy confirmed her skin cancer had returned. In late July, when doctors removed the tumor, Koontz said, they also took out some nearby lymph nodes to test for cancer. Those results were positive, too.

A few weeks later, Koontz underwent surgery to remove all of the lymph nodes in that region of her groin. The tests on those came back negative, Koontz said.

"The second surgery was tough because they basically had to cut muscle," said Koontz, 48, who teaches physical education and health at Manchester Valley. "I basically had to re-learn how to walk again. Physically it was a difficult surgery. I struggled mentally with this.

"I feel like I am a positive person, but it takes you a while to be positive. You fear the worst. Right now I fight more of the mental battle than the physical battle. I can handle the physical pain, but it's just the fear of it returning ... you have to work through the mental aspect of it as well."

Like many who fight cancer, Koontz said her support system played a major role in recovery.

Koontz pointed to her husband, Bernie, also a PE/health teacher and coach at Man Valley, and children, Jensyn and Dayne, as the inner circle. Then came her mom, sisters, and aunt.

And the dozens of friends, co-workers, and community members who prayed, sent well-wishes, and kept in touch while Koontz spent some of her summer rehabilitating.

"The thing that I tried to do was stay as busy as possible, to take my mind off things," she said. "Until you go through it, you can't explain it. It's just a sense of total terror. Until you get through all your tests, you figure out a plan, the fear of the unknown is probably the most difficult part of it. The first thing that comes to your mind is your family and your kids."

Koontz said she starts 20 days radiation in about two weeks, with some physical therapy to follow. When she's out watching Man Valley sporting events, the only reminder to those who know about her cancer is the compression hose she wears on her left leg.

And for that, Koontz feels fortunate.

"If that's the worst thing I have," she said, "then I'm pretty daggone lucky."

Fortune and luck can have their worth when it comes to discovering or diagnosing cancer.


Just ask Jeff McConville, a 2006 Westminster graduate and former cross country/track and field athlete.

McConville was in the fourth grade, he said, when he started dealing with chronic high fevers, flu-like symptoms, and body aches. It wasn't until McConville began suffering from severe pain in his spine that his family decided things were serious.

Perhaps some of Jeff's luck came from his mother, Kristin, who is an immunologist. As someone who studies diseases of the immune system, she didn't take her son's symptoms lightly.

Neither did he when doctors told him he had leukemia, or cancer of the blood.

"I was fortunate, my mom knew what she was looking at," McConville said. "We caught it really early. ... I remember being sort of lost in the moment, I guess you could say. When the doctors sat down and told me it was leukemia, I was sort of like, 'OK, let's knock this out then. Let's beat this thing.' I was pretty motivated as a young guy to beat it."

After about three years of treatment, McConville said, he was cancer free. That was 13 years ago.

Now 28, and in his second year coaching boys cross country at South Carroll, McConville said he doesn't mind sharing his story to students or athletes looking for a little inspiration.

"I like to think I turned something terrible into one of more positive experiences of my life," McConville said. "You're sort of forced to deal with your mortality at a very young age. It was, 'Why am I here, what's my purpose?' Now I try to tell them, 'Make the most of what you've got.'"


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