The day she was diagnosed, Molly Gorczyca told herself she would step back on that field to play field hockey for Rowan University.
When? Who knew? Not just because of the pandemic that erased last season. Acute myeloid leukemia doesn’t really allow for sports timetables, and Gorczyca got the diagnosis in 2019.
Nobody wore her number, her Rowan coach said. Nobody took her locker.
That locker is active again. Every game this season, Gorczyca has been in Rowan’s starting lineup. She has a new position, and a new jersey number, one loaded with meaning. Same smile, though.
“I knew she was going to be Molly,” Rowan coach Michelle Andre said. “I knew she was going to come back and thrive. She’s always been one of the most positive people I’ve ever been around.”
Gorczyca calls it all “amazing,” and in this case, the word may underplay the dimensions of her return. In 2018, her first season at Rowan after transferring from Monmouth, she had an attacking role, scoring eight goals, adding five assists, and earning honorable mention all-league status in the New Jersey Athletic Conference.
Now, she’s a defender, “kind of the glue that allowed us to stabilize,” Andre said.
Her switch to defense causes her to smile. When Molly needed a bone marrow transplant to save her life, her younger brother, Tyler, was a perfect match. Tyler was a soccer player — a defender.
“Now I have his bone marrow and his DNA,” Molly said, feeling like his mindset came in the package, too.
If they ever make a movie of Molly’s life, her change of numbers, taking No. 5 this season, will be part of it. Ryan Smith wore No. 5 playing basketball for East Stroudsburg, where he was just as successful as Molly in playing his sport. He was a 6-foot-10 force on the court, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference freshman of the year in 2018-19.
Then came his diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia that summer. Same as Molly. That’s how they found each other, one receiving treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the other across the street at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Molly saw an article about Ryan battling cancer and decided she had to reach out.
They met a few times, and later began dating. Their story was so special, People magazine wrote about it.
“I think everyone, just because of our past, goes to the cancer,” Molly said. “But I think the reason we clicked, that wasn’t important to us.”
When they were together, Molly said, they were able to just be normal people. Everyone else treated them a little differently, which, she said, is understandable. She visited him at his home in Lancaster County, and they built a gym together in his garage for quarantine workouts.
“We had the same goals,” Molly said. “Both athletes. Both had that drive. We’d go to the courts and play basketball. He would lift me up to dunk. We were always trying to be as active as possible.”
Her story now includes grief. Ryan died in March. She wears his No. 5 — “I see the number, I’ll think of him” — and those R earrings she wears for games are for him.
Orange was his color. When Molly sees a bright orange sunset, she thinks of Ryan. She went to the beach this summer and there was an orange towel on a chair, left there in her mind for about five hours. “He’s there,” she told herself.
He’s certainly inspired her. Relentless was his motto.
“I just wanted to honor him,” Gorczyca said of the number change in particular. “I kind of attribute the fact that I’m back to him. Your body has been through hell. It’s really tough. He was the one who stood by me and pushed me. ‘You can do this!’”
She’s grateful for all this, determined to enjoy every second of her comeback. Rowan, a Division III national contender in field hockey, is having a special season with a 15-2 record and a 13-game winning streak after Wednesday’s victory in an NJAC semifinal game against Ramapo. The Profs went undefeated in regular-season league play, are ranked first in their region and ninth nationally. Gorczyca is a captain, voted by her teammates.
More honors show her the heights of her comeback. League coaches voted Gorczyca the NJAC defensive player of the year and first-team all-conference.
“She’s older and smarter,” Andre said. “She’s truly a student of the game and has a passion for the game.”
“I feel great,” Gorczyca said of her physical shape. “It’s just so great to be back.”
She has a bracelet with the word TRIUMPH emblazoned on it. R and M are capitalized, given to her by her boyfriend, the R to her M.
“He was always very thoughtful like that,” Molly said. “I try to incorporate him in every sense of my day.”
Did her coach really think Gorczyca would make it back?
“I did, I did,” Andre said.
Being such a big-time player? At a new position?
“What’s happening on the field is the bonus,” Andre said.