As a volleyball coach, Newark East Side (N.J.) High's Dave DeOliveira is a rock. His players look up to him and have never had a problem leaning on him for support, even as his health has waned.
For the first time, that reliance undercut the team's effort on Tuesday, when East Side was ousted from the Group 3 North branch of the state tournament with a semifinal loss to West Morris (N.J.) High. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, East Side players looked to the sideline for instructions during a tense third game to find DeOliveira in a full-body seizure, a side effect of his stage 4 brain cancer.
Making matters worse, DeOliveira was only given one timeout to recover from the seizure, which meant that his players were forced to go back on the court during the final stages of the match's decisive game still concerned about their coach.
The Star-Ledger said DeOliveira recovered on the bench after several minutes, sipping water and taking deep breaths as the West Morris athletic trainer monitored his condition. Afterward, that was clearly the players' primary concern.
"We were trying not to cry on the court," East Side defensive specialist Karla Gatti told the Newark Star-Ledger. "We were trying to stay strong."
Throughout the season, DeOliveira and his team stayed strong together, with the coach refusing to step aside as side effects from his cancer became more severe. The longtime East Side coach is afflicted with gliobastoma, which is an aggressive, inoperable form of brain cancer, a condition which has reached the point where his speech often slurs and the right side of his body can fail.
Yet most troubling are the seizures, which overtake DeOliveira when he becomes emotional. The East Side coach suffered an episode similar to the one he had on Tuesday earlier this season against Bloomfield.
DeOlivera's declining health inspired his players to dedicate their playoff run to their coach, a quest which they hoped would end in a state title. When they fell short, they were left to reflect on an all-too-early end to their final run with a special coach.
"It's devastating because we really wanted to do this for him," East Side player Babara Perru told the Star-Ledger. "And then to look on the side and see him having a seizure the last two points ... you feel like you can't do anything else. It just crushes you."
While DeOliveira also had hoped for a longer playoff quest to share with his team, he was still proud of what his athletes had accomplished in such trying circumstances.
"When it's this close, someone has to win," DeOliveria said, struggling to speak. "They gave their all and that's all a coach can ask for."
His athletes could also take solace in what they achieved during a special season.
"The season was wonderful," Gatti told the Star-Ledger. "It was one of my best seasons."