Noah Hays was set this spring to enjoy his first year as the starting goalkeeper on Providence High lacrosse team.
Hays, a junior, had a standout sophomore season. He was honored as most valuable player on the junior varsity team, and earned a varsity letter serving as that team’s backup goalkeeper. Providence coach, Rob Horrigan, said Hays had worked tirelessly to earn the starting spot.
But everything changed last year in August. Noah was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer – rhabdomyosarcoma. Doctors confirmed he was in stage four of the disease.
“I didn’t know how to feel, because it’s one of those things that you think will ‘never happen to me,’ especially when you are 16 years old,” Hays said recently. “This whole experience has definitely made me appreciate life and the little thing so much more.”
A new focus
Hays turned his focus from school work and lacrosse to immediately starting on a 52-week, chemotherapy regimen.
For Noah, just getting through each day takes a lot of courage, and he’s an example of what real courage is that, fortunately, most of us don’t ever have to have.
Providence coach Rob Horrigan
His mother, Gina Cugliari, took a leave of absence from her job to oversee his daily care and help him with his home-schooling.
For the last six months, Hays has spent one week each month in the hospital, for chemotherapy at Levine’s Children’s Hospital.
“I decided early on that we had to focus on just getting through all of this, one day at a time and remain positive,” Cugliari said. “Life has totally changed for the entire family. When someone in your family gets cancer, it’s like the whole family gets cancer.”
Horrigan said “Gina and her entire family have handled this whole process with an amazing level of stability. Obviously, the diagnosis was a shock. ... But then they just said ‘OK, what’s the next step, what do we have to do get better?’ Not everybody has that kind of determination and focus.
“For Noah, just getting through each day takes a lot of courage, and he’s an example of what real courage is that, fortunately, most of us don’t ever have to have.”
Noah has about 22 more weeks of chemotherapy as of March 8.
A daily inspiration
Hays has been a regular at most of the Panthers’ practices this spring – helping the team and sometimes even running sprints. He also serves as an assistant coach, especially helping junior goalkeeper, Cole Tebou, who is now the starting goalkeeper. And, he’s a co-captain, along with seniors, Eliot Ball, Bradley England, Jack Morelock and Zach Tenkin.
“Just seeing him at practice, is something that inspires the team,” said Horrigan, who has coached Hays since he started playing lacrosse in third grade. “The courage and toughness that he shows every day is something you want every captain to have. He’s leading by example, facing adversity and taking it head on. We all are learning a lot more from him, than he has ever learned from us.”
Hays and his mom say going to practice is important.
“It’s still weird not being able to go to practice and do everything every other player is doing,” Hays said. “But it’s great to get out there and see my friends. … I can’t wait to get back out there and be able to play.”
Each lacrosse team member has Hays’ number, 46, on the back of their helmets. The year-round club lacrosse team also changed their name to “Team Noah Strong,” and wears orange jerseys – Hays’ favorite color.
Hays and his family say support has been strong from the community, Providence High, friends, family, the Carolina Panthers and the University of Tennessee. They’ve helped raise thousands of dollars and provided unforgettable experiences.
Providence High asked the students and fans to wear orange to support Hays and family at the East Mecklenburg game on Sept. 18. Hays attended the game as an honorary captain for the Providence football team.
The Carolina Panthers’ sent a team representative to honor Hays’ “Make A Wish,” request, giving him an all-access pass to hang out with the team. Hays got his wish for the Carolina Panthers home game against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 27.
Hays met the entire team, got to attend their Saturday walk through practice, and got to take his entire family (20 people) on a party bus (provided by Panthers) to the Panthers-Saints’ game.
The University of Tennessee, which is Hays’ “dream school,” gave him early acceptance in November 2015.
He still wants to meet Golden State Warriors guard, and Charlotte native, Stephen Curry. And he wants to get his drivers’ license.
‘Back to Being Noah’
Noah says he’s looking forward to getting back to life as normal as possible and just “getting back to being Noah.”
He said he hopes to get back to work on the lacrosse field as early as April or May. He wants to be ready for his senior year.
“As a coach for the last 15 years at the college and high school level, seeing Noah come back for his first game will blow away any experience I’ve ever had,” Horrigan said. “It will be a surreal thing to see No. 46 playing goalkeeper. I will have to pinch myself to make sure it is real.”
Noah said: “My first game back will be very emotional. I don’t even really know how to describe how I will feel.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.