GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — After practice was over Thursday, Stockton University women’s volleyball player Kennedy Hubbard helped her teammates roll the nets off the court to make room for the women’s basketball team, then strolled out of the Athletic Center.
The 18-year-old freshman paused on the sidewalk and took a deep breath. She inhaled slowly, filling her nostrils and lungs with the balmy air before blowing it out through her mouth. She touched the blue tube jutting from her throat, then smiled and walked back to her dorm to do some studying before dinner.
“I had a tracheostomy when I was 6 months old,” Hubbard said. “That’s how I breathed until two years ago. The doctors put a cap on it before my junior year, and I’m hoping to get it out soon.”
She was born with lymphatic malformation, which is a mass of fluid-filled channels around her mouth and jaw. Excess fluid accumulates in the channels, resulting in swelling of the affected area and sometimes in enlargement of soft tissue and bones.
As a result, Hubbard’s tongue is oversized and her chin and jaw are swollen, although the condition has improved dramatically in the past three years since she started taking an experimental drug called Sirolimus through Boston Children’s Hospital.
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“Some people with my condition undergo a tongue resection, but I’m not going to do that,” Hubbard said. “There is a possibility that I would lose the ability to eat and my speech may be affected, and I’m not willing to risk it. I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m happy where I am now.”
Hubbard has served as a breath of fresh air for the Ospreys.
Together with her parents, Leanne and James, and older sister, Casey, she founded Kennedy’s Cause, a charity that supports research for a cure and lends support to families of children with the condition.
Last summer, she teamed with Sports Imports Inc. to build two sand volleyball courts in Moorestown, where she went to high school. She was then selected to receive the inaugural Sports Imports Courage Award and will be honored at a banquet for this year’s college All-Americans during the NCAA Division I Volleyball Final Four in Omaha, Nebraska, Dec. 17-20.
“I just wanted to do something to give back to the community because it did so much for me,” Hubbard said. “I also wanted to do something to help the sport of volleyball, which provided me with a support system throughout my life. And that’s especially true at Stockton. My teammates and coaches are like family to me.”
Hubbard once served as Stockton’s water girl while Casey played for the Ospreys, but she is on the team because she earned her roster spot as a setter.
As of Friday, she had appeared in 10 matches and registered 25 assists for Stockton, which carried a 25-2 record into a tournament this weekend at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
“Kennedy definitely earned her position here,” coach Allison Walker said. “She played club volleyball for us over the summer and proved that she belonged. She hasn’t played a great deal only because we have a senior setter in Shannon Clark, who has a lot of experience. But I play all the freshmen when the opportunities present themselves to give them some confidence.
The Stockton University women's volleyball team didn't drop a set, winning two matches in a …
“But Kennedy brings more than just volleyball ability to our team. Her sincerity and compassion are immeasurable. She serves as a mentor to a lot of children who are going through the same thing she went through, and she’s gotten our entire team involved. She asked the team to do a little video for a young girl who was going through some tough times, and they were happy to do it. Kennedy is a special young woman.”
She is also one of the more popular players on the team.
“Kennedy is awesome,” said Clark, a psychology major from Folsom, Pennsylvania. “The team is like a family, and she fit in right away. She’s so funny, and she’s inspired so many of us. I mean, how could you not be inspired by her? For her to overcome all that she’s had to go through and still be able to do something that she loves, like volleyball, I give her major props for that.”
Hubbard got her start in volleyball in high school. She was not permitted to play sports as a youngster because of the potential dangers if she got hit in the face.
Finally, she convinced her doctors to sign “a bunch of waivers” so she could follow in her sister’s footsteps and play volleyball.
“I used to be very worried about her getting hit in the face,” said Casey Hubbard, 26, who is now an elementary school social worker in Ewing Township. “We always used to tell her, ‘Your face comes first. If you have to duck out of the way, do it.’ And there were a couple of times when it would happen, and I would gasp, but she was fine. She is one tough cookie.”
The toughness is also evident off the court.
“I’m thinking 90 percent of the people who have dealt with similar circumstances wouldn’t have handled it nearly as well as Kennedy,” Casey said. “There’s just something very special about her and the way she handles things. I’m sure it bothers her at least a little bit, but she never lets anything get her down.
Two Stockton University volleyball players earned New Jersey Athletic Conference weekly awar…
“If you ever see her cry, it’s because she’s very upset and it usually has nothing to do with her situation. It’s usually about something that every teenager is going through.”
She was a good enough player at Moorestown to receive offers from a few colleges, but she always knew she would play for Stockton.
When Casey played for the Ospreys from 2008-11, Kennedy was the one who handed cups of water to the players between sets. Over the years, she became close with Walker and assistant coaches Greg Langan and Nicole Ober, who joined the coaching staff last season after playing for the Ospreys with Casey.
“I had coaches from other colleges offer me starting positions as a freshman, but playing for the Ospreys has always been my dream,” Hubbard said. “I love all my teammates, and I also love the school. It was a little nerve-wracking at first because I didn’t know anyone outside of the volleyball team when I got here, but the school is such a close-knit, welcoming community they made me feel right at home.
“I’m just hoping that I can serve as an inspiration to younger people who are going through the same things I went through. I want to give them hope and stay strong. I know people can be rude sometimes, but that stuff doesn’t matter. I’ve always tried to just take things as they are and make the best of them.”