Aili Makuch and her father Bill Makuch.
SILVER CREEK, N.Y. - It was the season finale for the Silver Creek High School Girl's Basketball Team, and the stakes could not have been any higher. But it has little to do with sports and almost everything to do with life.
"This group of girls has been incredible, and they are so caring, generous, compassionate, and kind," said Silver Creek Coach Tammy Rice. "And I'm honored to be their coach."
Three years ago, Silver Creek lost a 32 year-old teacher Olivia Coia to breast cancer. Coia was a track and swim coach and loved by her students.
"She's just one of these people that was full of life, and creativity, and enthusiasm, and generosity," said Rachel Curtain, who is the Silver Creek Dean of Students. "When she got sick, it was one of those wake-up calls for the community."
The Silver Creek students decided to dedicate one basketball game every season to Coia, calling it "Pink Out the Gym," because pink is the color for breast cancer awareness. The school uses this annual game to raise money for the cause. Sadly, they confronted cancer again after Coia's death when tragedy struck almost exactly year ago. Last February, a second Silver Creek teacher, Fran Burchett, died of cancer.
Everyone in Silver Creek knew this year's "Pink Out" game against Chautauqua Lake would be emotional. But when they marked it on their calendars in the fall, neither team could have ever imagined what was about to happen. When the two teams played earlier this season, the Silver Creek girls discovered something about one of Chautauqua Lake's students.
"The girls noticed signs (in the Chautauqua Lake School) that said 'Aili's Angels' all over the gym," Rice said of her players. "And then they started to ask questions and they found out that it was a girl at Chautauqua Lake about their age that had ovarian cancer."
The player with cancer is Aili Makuch. The Silver Creek girls decided, on their own, to dedicate their "Pink Out" game -- and the thousands in fundraising from t-shirts, raffles, and gift baskets - to Aili and her treatment. The entire school got behind the cause.
"Because it's like one of us. She's our age. She's a young girl," said Allie Gurka of the Silver Creek Girls' Basketball Team. "We would want other people to do the same thing for us."
Immediately before the game, Aili's dad Bill spoke to the crowd on her behalf to say "thank you."
"Regrettably, Aili could not be here today," Bill Makuch said. "She spent a good portion of the day at Roswell (takes a deep breath). . . I just think that that is amazing, that a bunch of high school girls who chose to share this event with my daughter - my daughter a student at Chautauqua Lake. That is just amazing to me (applause)."
Many of the Silver Creek students fought back tears as Makuch spoke.
"Obviously, everybody wants to win, but sometimes you win. Some you lose, and we really just want to play in her honor," Gorka said.
"They really know how to take care of not only themselves, but others that they love," Curtain said.
It was a touching lesson on a night when basketball took a backseat to life.