Originally Published: October 16, 2013 6:02 a.m.
Through the years, Shellie Bowman has been a fierce competitor who never backed down from a challenge - particularly on the volleyball court.
A former standout collegiate setter with great hands, Bowman helped guide Scottsdale Community College to consecutive junior college national championships in the 1980s before moving on to play for two seasons at NCAA Division 1 University of South Carolina.
Now, the 50-year-old Bowman is in her second season as the Prescott High varsity volleyball team's head coach.
This fall, while her Division 2 No. 7-ranked squad has been fighting for a spot into the 16-team state tournament in November, Bowman's been battling an altogether different nemesis off the court.
Over the summer, after undergoing a routine annual mammogram, Bowman learned she had Stage 1 breast cancer.
Doctors caught the cancer early in its progression, but Bowman underwent a lumpectomy and began chemotherapy in August. While it's been a physical and mental roller coaster for her, she's remained positive and believes she'll beat the illness.
"I am three-quarters of the way done with my chemo - Yup! Yup!" Bowman said in an upbeat tone on Tuesday. "I have one more chemo treatment at the end of October, then I'll start six weeks of radiation therapy.
"I still have a long ways to go, but I've had a ton of help - and not just my family. It's really helped me being in coaching, and being around the girls has helped me a ton - just keep me going."
In fact, Prescott's varsity team and the Badgers volleyball community have rallied behind Bowman, who's married with two grown children.
Players' parents bring dinner to Bowman and her husband, dentist Curt Bowman, two nights a week. And the players have supported their coach through her chemotherapy by dispensing lots of hugs and prayers. The players have even crafted headwear for Bowman during her chemo and have written touching notes to her.
"I've truly been blessed and loved, and I'm forever grateful for that," Bowman said. "It's been really heartwarming. I need to fight for all the people that are fighting for me."
Ever since the Badgers' assistant volleyball coaches learned of Bowman's diagnosis, they have stepped in to lead the team whenever she's absent.
Longtime Badgers volleyball coach KC Rader, who's been close friends with Bowman for the past 15 years, has embraced an integral role in that regard.
Rader admires the energetic Bowman for her courage in fending off constant fatigue throughout her treatment. For years, Bowman had played city recreation league volleyball with Rader - until this fall.
"We've played volleyball, we've been friends, we travel together with our husbands," Rader said of her friendship with Bowman. "Seeing her determination to still be a good wife, a good coach, a good friend - she's an inspiration."
Rader added that Bowman has stayed committed to the Prescott program. For example, her chemo treatments are generally on Thursdays. Last Thursday, Bowman received her treatment earlier in the day at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale so she could attend the Badgers' match at Peoria Liberty.
"She met us at the game at Liberty High School Thursday afternoon," Rader said. "So she's really trying to troop through."
Prescott High Athletic Director Mark Goligoski said that he has the "utmost admiration" for Bowman.
"She has gone through probably the most challenging parts of her treatment while this season has gone on," he said. "She's just a really amazing individual. It's a very high-pressure sport, and she's taken all the challenges in stride.
"If anyone's going to make it through this, it's going to be Shellie. We're real optimistic."
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it's taken on a whole new meaning at PHS.
During Tuesday night's volleyball match against rival Bradshaw Mountain, both teams participated for the first time in the Sideout Foundation's "Dig Pink Rally," a fundraiser to benefit the cause. Prescott players wore new pink uniforms- the symbolic color for breast cancer - and fans were encouraged to don the hue, too.
PHS will give a portion of its gate receipts and donations from fans to the Sideout Foundation, a national group that raises money for Stage 4 breast cancer clinical trials through the support of high school and college volleyball programs.
Rader said PHS initially thought about participating in the Dig Pink Rally last year. The Badgers first experienced a rally event when they played at Anthem Boulder Creek High in 2012.
"They were honoring a student's mom who had been dealing with breast cancer," Rader said. "So we made the decision back then."
Last Thursday, the Badgers lost to No. 15 Liberty, which set them back slightly in the D-2 power rankings. However, Bowman believes her team has what it takes to make a playoff push, in part because of Prescott's tough early season schedule.
The top two teams in each one of the division's sections receive automatic bids into state. The remaining spots are at-large berths based on the power-point rankings.
With five matches left in the regular season, the Badgers remain in contention. Three of those last five will be at home.
"It's a great group of kids, and for the most part they work really hard and they've been playing together really well," Bowman said. "Things are winding down, and right now we're hopefully looking pretty good to make it into the playoffs. But you never know with those power points."
Despite that uncertainty, Prescott's players will no doubt rally behind their inspirational coach while assisting her in her fight - both on and off the court.
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter: @dougout_dc