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September 30, 2013 • 09:12:54 a.m.

Huntley coach not sidelined by breast cancer

By Story by JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com

Coach Lynnann Holzapfel (left) of Lake in the Hills talks with Maddie Marino, 9, of Huntley during practice for the Huntley Elite All Stars, a competitive cheer group of girls ages 8 to 13 in Huntley. Holzapfel is a two-time cancer survivor and still finds time to organize fundraising events and coach. The group is raising money for the girls to compete at Disney World. (Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)

When Lynnann Holzapfel really had no reason to cheer, she did so anyway. 

She'd round up her cheer team, tell them to stretch, to head to the corners, to practice their stunts. She'd rally them on, offer hugs and all the support they needed.

It's been her routine for more than 14 years. She's worked with different girls and teams through the years, doing so even after her own daughter had outgrown the sport. She's always been "cheer coach."

And breast cancer, even if it was a second time around, even if it she'd just had a hysterectomy for pre-cancerous cells, wasn't going to change that.

"I never quit. I keep going. That's just something I do," said Holzapfel, 48, of Huntley. "It's better to be positive. When I'm on the cheer floor with the girls, that is my whole world. If anything else bad is happening, I've got all those little faces looking up at me ... and I know that's where I want to be."

Now the coach for Huntley Elite All Stars Cheer, a Huntley Park District program, Holzapfel has a team of 11 girls ages 13 and younger she's determined to bring to Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

If they can raise at least $6,500, the team will compete there in March as part of a national All Star cheer and dance competion. The team has raised about $3,500 so far through fundraising efforts.

"This is my little team that could," Holzapfel said before stepping out onto the mat at Huntley Unlimited Gymnastics School, where the team practices. 

A 1985-86 member of the Chicago Honey Bears, the now defunct cheerleading squad for the Chicago Bears, Holzapfel cheered the football team on in the Superbowl. The Honey Bears made their final appearance at that Super Bowl before dissolving.

Holzapfel became involved in cheerleading again when her 21-year-old daughter, Shelby, was younger. She coached the first cheer team for Huntley Youth Football, now Huntley Mustangs Football.

She later coached for the Huntley Park District's basketball cheer program and a Five Star Elite cheer program in Ringwood before starting Huntley Elite All Stars. The team is in its second season. 

Working full time as an executive assistant, Holzapfel never really considered leaving cheer when her daughter grew out of it. 

"I got attached to the girls," she said. "I've been doing this for so many years. I cannot sit still. ... This is my passion."

Recently undergoing radiation for six weeks to fight this latest round of breast cancer, Holzapfel never told her team about the illness. She'd sometimes go for radiation in the morning, then head to a Sunday practice. 

She'd be tired, but happy.

"She's alway here," her 17-year-old assistant coach Michelle Liacone said. "She never gives up." 

It's a drive she's installing in her team both through encouragement and her own example. Liacone has watched Holzapfel's eyes fill with tears when the team nailed a stunt. At the same time, the coach knows when to push when they need it, the girls say.

"She's really, really nice, and she helps us with a lot of stuff," said 12-year-old Kaleigh Gallagher of Crystal Lake. "When I found out about [the cancer], I thought that was sad, but you can't really tell."

The girls learned of her illness only after she'd finished radiation, and they put together a gift basket for her.

"She'd show up with a smile on her face, and you'd never know," said Christine Bachman of Huntley, whose 8-year-old daughter, Lorna, is on the team. 

The mother of four girls, Bachman sought out the cheer team when the family moved to town to give Lorna the chance to make friends.

"It was that whole feeling of belonging when we met them that sold us," she said. "They treat you like family." 

The team practices a couple of times a week, with the girls spending about eight hours a week between cheer and tumbling there. 

Holzapfel said she loves every minute of it. And she saw no real reason to share all that she was going through.

"It happens to a lot of women. You go through a lot of things and move forward," she said. "What are you going to do? I never say, 'Why me?' When it happeens, the focus is different in life. Everything changes, and you become this positive person."

In 1997, she'd had a radical mastectomy to fight her first bout with the disease. 

The latest diagnosis came as a surprise to both her and her doctor. 

But, she said, "Eerything's OK. I'm doing well."

She's on medication and will return for check-ups every six months, but the radiation is over.

"This is a little bump in the road, and I'm on my way," she said.

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