The Journal Gazette
Saturday, May 23, 2020 1:00 am

Leo grad's 'mountain lion' beat for now

Daytona State coach won't let cancer win

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

A few weeks ago, Laura Stegall, 40, took off on a 10-mile run from her Port Orange, Florida, home to Daytona Beach because, well ...

“Because after the hardest year of my life, I am still here and I still can!” she wrote on Facebook. “I am a woman on a mission.”

Tears can be shed because of sorrow, pain and happiness, but also for determination, and Laura Stegall, nee Douglas, has always been a hyperdetermined person and athlete. A Leo High School volleyball, basketball and softball star, Douglas went on to a standout athletic career at IPFW, where she was a three-time all-Great Lakes Valley Conference volleyball player, GLVC Player of the Year and an academic All-American. She also played basketball for the Mastodons for three years and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 2007.

As a coach, she started the Indiana Tech volleyball program in 2005. In 2007, she followed husband Randy to Florida, where he's the Embry-Riddle University baseball coach. In 2013, Stegall led another school, Daytona State College, through its inaugural volleyball season. The Falcons have won 141 matches in seven years.

But in February 2019, Stegall was lying in bed when she noticed a lump on her abdomen. Within weeks, she was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer, which has a 39% survival rate. Stegall let the tears fall as she mourned the diagnosis. Then she got mad – and determined.

“According to the Internet, I have a 20% chance of being cured of my cancer,” she wrote. “I say screw statistics. Statistics can't account for my WILL, my FAITH and my sheer commitment to defy the odds.”

After doctors removed an 8-inch mass, instead of the normal six rounds of chemotherapy, which each last seven hours, Douglas did eight because she wanted to make sure. This cancer has an 80% chance of returning, but Douglas was already involved in the everlasting fight. She began each morning, prior to her daily trip to the oncology office, with a four-mile run at 6 a.m. because if she could finish that, then she really couldn't be sick, right?

“When she first got the diagnosis, it was like, 'I'm going to beat them, make it mine, own it,'” said longtime best friend and former IPFW teammate Star (Trahin) Smith.

When her hair started to fall out, she asked Randy to cut and shave it (thanking him for his personal expertise and experience with baldness), and then she posted pictures on Facebook. She didn't back up, down or away from anything she experienced, thanking her friends for their encouragement and then providing some of her own.

Stegall credits her Leo and IPFW coaches Mike Hey and Tim Heffron for refining her tenaciousness into mental strength. They all pushed her, and she sometimes pushed back before pulling ahead. They are all now her friends, including PFW athletic director Kelley Hartley-Hutton, and are also her coaching mentors.

“She attacked this the way I've never seen anyone fight for anything,” said assistant coach and former Bishop Luers star Laura Booker-Anderson. “She has this relentless spirit. That's where she thrives. Don't let life get easy. Not that this is the route she wanted to go, but I feel like God did this on purpose because she needed a platform to reach a broader audience. She has the power to change some people, and that's the best kind of motivation anyone can see or get.”

Booker arranged a surprise last season, inviting more than 400 alumni and friends to a “Stegall Strong” match. Daytona State had never beaten College of Central Florida during conference play and fell behind 19-11. Then the Falcons rallied for a three-game sweep. Stegall called it the most emotional win of her career.

And there's been a lot of emotion. Every six weeks, she returns for more tests to see if the cancer has returned.

“This is like you and your husband are fighting off this mountain lion and you are running up the mountain to fight him off,” Stegall said. “You get up to the top of the mountain and push him off the edge, which is the last day of chemo. You never know if that mountain lion is clinging to the edge and can come back and get you. I'm so grateful that the mountain lion is off the edge, but is he waiting there?”

That's where her mental toughness comes in, and a new drug shows promising results.

“My new mantra is 'Win the day,'” Stegall said. “I know it can come back at any time, but the longer it takes the better the treatment options are. That's my new normal and my new life. I live six weeks at a time, and I live until I have to hold my breath again. I know I'm blessed and lucky.”

So she focuses on Randy and their three children, Sarah, 10, Ashtyn, 8, and Brady, 6. Like her mother in competitiveness and intelligence, Sarah figured out early something was going on and confronted her mom about it after falling apart during her own volleyball practice one night.

“Are you going to die?” Sarah asked.

“You do know who your mom is, right? I'm the most stubborn, toughest fighter on the planet,” Laura replied. “I promise you I will not die without fighting my brains out for you. I will fight like hell for this family, and I will do anything I need to.”

And that's what she does every day, still the determined, relentless competitor, using her experiences to inspire her children, her players and others.

“I'm a winner, I've always been a winner and I'm not going to lose or back down to this,” she said. “God has to take me off my feet because I'm not going to lay down and go down easy.”

During February, for the first time in seven years, Stegall ran a half-marathon. When she turned the corner for the final 100 yards, her legs were dead. Then she noticed several hundred of her college and travel club players cheering her and somehow she finished before collapsing into her husband's arms.

Then she tore off her ovarian cancer bracelet and threw it to the ground.

“It was symbolic that I was leaving my cancer behind,” she said. “I'm leaving this last year and all the trouble and heartache at the finish line.”

And then there were tears of happiness.

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