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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Chicagoland teen brings new purpose to NIU volleyball

Anya Hopkins finds community at Victor E. Court
Christa Kim
NIU volleyball embraces Anya Hopkins as one of their own teammates. Sports Reporter Skyler Kisellus highlights Hopkins’ time as an honorary member of the NIU volleyball team. (Christa Kim | Northern Star)

Hardworking, humble, sweet, fun, energetic.

Those are just some adjectives used by NIU volleyball players to describe Anya Hopkins at an Aug. 26 press conference at Victor E. Court.

The full rank and file of NIU volleyball watched as Hopkins was bestowed with her own jersey bearing No. 13, other team paraphernalia and an honorary spot on the team.

“It honestly felt like … a real recruit was getting signed,” said junior defensive specialist/libero Jada Cerniglia.

Hopkins was no ordinary recruit. Her journey to acceptance within volleyball’s ranks came with a big challenge. More specifically, a challenge that impacts millions every year: cancer.


Hopkins was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in October 2020. She underwent chemotherapy for four months at Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago. It was determined that no evidence of active cancer was left in Hopkins’ body in February 2021.

It was later discovered through routine testing in October 2021 that Hopkins had relapsed. Further tests revealed that Hopkins suffers from a rare, chronic form of Hodgkin lymphoma that has no treatment or cure available.

“She’s on a watch-and-wait protocol where she goes every couple of months for PET scans and blood work just to measure the growth of her lymph nodes,” said Melanie Hopkins, Anya’s mother. “It is a slow-growing type, but it is still in her body.”

Through a community of cancer moms, Melanie Hopkins learned about a unique opportunity for children facing predicaments similar to her daughter’s.


The joining of Anya Hopkins and the volleyball team was born from a collaboration between NIU Athletics and Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing children afflicted with serious illnesses and disabilities with a sense of belonging.

“We really strive for our children and patients to experience an increase in their independence, confidence, resilience, self-advocacy, health promotions, all of those kinds of good things,” said Kiernan McGeehan, Team IMPACT’s regional director of programs in the Midwest. “Much more than just a photo-op on the field or on the court.”

Anya Hopkins is the third Team IMPACT patient to be matched with an NIU sports team. The organization previously paired Kayden Wacker-Gray with NIU football during the team’s 2021 MAC title run and later Rocco Jones with NIU men’s soccer last season.

NIU volleyball head coach Sondra Parys was also no stranger to the impact of the Team IMPACT experience. Parys was an assistant coach for the Loyola University Chicago women’s volleyball team when the program welcomed another Team IMPACT patient, Noah Tovar.

“She (Tovar) was a part of our program for two years and just was a huge, huge impact on the girls on the team,” Parys said. “It was an awesome experience for her. I immediately knew that once I stepped into this position that it was something I wanted to do again.”


Between Parys’ desire to inject the Team IMPACT experience into her program and the organization’s prior positive experiences with NIU, a matching process that can last up to six months was finalized in a matter of weeks.

“I’ll just say it was within, like, a week or two, they (Team IMPACT) called me saying they had a match already with Northern,” Melanie Hopkins said.

Anya Hopkins officially joined Team IMPACT on March 21 and was introduced to NIU volleyball shortly thereafter during the squad’s spring season.

Anya Hopkins recalled feeling anxious during her initial encounters with the team.

“At first, it was a little nerve-racking seeing a bunch of older girls who play volleyball at a much higher level,” Anya Hopkins said. “I first met them at their first game and after seeing them play and stuff, and they would talk to me … I think I opened up a lot more within the first week or so of knowing them.”

NIU volleyball head coach Sondra Parys and Team IMPACT participant Anya Hopkins hold a white NIU No. 13 jersey during an Aug. 26 signing day event at Victor E. Court. Hopkins, diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in October 2020, has been an honorary member of the NIU volleyball team since the team’s spring season. (Courtesy NIU Athletics)


In the months since that fateful meeting, Anya Hopkins’ bond with the Huskies has only strengthened.

Two players – junior setter Sophie Hurt and junior outside hitter Nikolette Nedic – attended her eighth grade graduation ceremony in May. 

Anya Hopkins returned to DeKalb in the summer, along with her sister Eden Hopkins, to attend NIU’s Elite Camp on July 17 and July 18. 

The team also invited the Hopkins family to its marquee matchup with the Big Ten’s University of Illinois on Aug. 26 in the NIU Convocation Center. Anya sat with the team on its bench throughout the match.

“As soon as she came, we just welcomed her into our family,” Cerniglia said. “We wanted to make her know that she is one of the NIU volleyball players, and she’s accepted just like the rest of us.”

Anya Hopkins has developed a special rapport with Cerniglia, the latter likening Anya to a “little sister.”

Cerniglia is one of the Huskies’ three Team IMPACT captains, along with Hurt and sophomore middle blocker Sarah Lezon. Cerniglia believes her bond with Anya is the product of her own sisterly experiences. 

“We meshed very well,” Cerniglia said. “I love her mom, I love her sister, and I just am very loving towards other people, so I think she just grabbed onto that and felt that from the get-go, which is exactly what I wanted to happen.”


When asked to reflect on her half-year spent as an honorary Huskie, Anya Hopkins’ perspective was simple and straightforward.

“It’s been fun meeting the girls from NIU,” Anya Hopkins said. “They’ve been really supportive and encouraging.”

Parys said she hopes the program’s experience with Anya Hopkins and Team IMPACT will serve as a valuable lesson in perspective.

“I think we often like to complain about our struggles or the little things going wrong, and you see someone like Anya who’s fought cancer and has her head held high when she comes into the gym,” Parys said. “It should teach them perspective, gratitude and just how important it is to be grateful for every single day that you have. For the team, I hope it shows them just the type of mentors and leaders they can be for someone like that.” 


As the Huskies enter the thick of MAC play, Anya Hopkins has been engaged in her own volleyball journey.

Anya Hopkins has been medically cleared to resume playing volleyball. She made the cut for the Glenbard North High School freshman girl’s volleyball team this fall, and now serves as a right side/outside hitter for the Panthers.

Parys relished in Anya Hopkins’ succession from participating in NIU’s summer camp to landing a spot on her freshman team.

“It’s awesome to see the worlds kind of come together,” Parys said.

Cerniglia said the players hope to attend one of Anya Hopkins’ high school matches this season, providing that both parties’ schedules allow for it.

Since being integrated into the NIU volleyball family, all parties involved have seen her emerge from her social shell.

“(She’s) more outgoing,” Melanie Hopkins said. “I even watch her with her current teammates because she did make her freshman team, and I see her just not being as shy as she was. I see her as being a leader sometimes.”

Hardworking, humble, sweet, fun, energetic. Now add outgoing to the list.

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