Imel dedicates season to fallen sister
Division I transfer sparks Rollins to national semifinals
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Mo Imel might have been a couple of years older, but with their lives and a college lacrosse career at a crossroads, it was her kid sister Keeley who called the shots.
Keeley was just 14 when she was diagnosed with medulloblastoma -- a rare form of brain cancer. She and mom Judi headed to Memphis, where she underwent treatments at St. Jude's Children's Hospital. The sisters' dad, Jamie, traveled back and forth between Tennessee and their home in Ellicott City, Md.
Mo was drawing a lot of attention from colleges on the lacrosse field. If for no other reason than not causing the family any more burden than it already faced, she jumped in and handled her own recruiting process.
For practices and games, Mo figured out a way to get there.
When there was a school visit to be made, Mo scheduled it.
If there was some sort of communication to be made with a potential coach, Mo handled it herself.
When it came time to fill out stacks of forms, Mo filled them out.
When all was said and done, Mo decided on Oregon. Keeley was in remission, and had been since Mo's senior year of high school. The Ducks landed Mo, but only after she had consulted with her sister.
"She wanted me to play because she knew how much the game meant to me," Mo said. "Having her blessing was kind of the motivation for me to make sure I continued my dream of playing at the college level. She made it very clear to me that wherever I wanted to go, she was going to be supporting me. That's how I ended up on the other side of the country."
Although she appeared in only four games as a freshman and three the following season, Mo loved being a part of a Division I program. Her coaches had always known about Keeley's situation, and that Mo might be headed back to the East Coast if the cancer ever returned.
During October 2011, during Mo's sophomore year at Oregon, it did.
That was it. Mo was ready to pack it in and head home to be with her sister, and if that meant that she might never play lacrosse again, so be it. Not that it was going to be some big sacrifice on her part … it's just what sisters do. That's precisely when Keeley put her foot down.
"Honestly, it was really the last thing she wanted me to do," Mo remembered. "She knew how much I absolutely loved that school and that program. I knew that I was going to have to come to a school closer to home. I honestly did not know if I was going to continue to play lacrosse."
They struck a deal. Mo would find a school in a warm-weather climate, where Keeley might enjoy visiting. Enter Rollins College, located in none other than Winter Park, Fla., where there's not only warm weather but beaches close by, to boot.
What Rollins also had was lacrosse. Mo stepped onto the field for the Tars and had an almost immediate impact, starting 15 games and scoring 22 goals and assisting on seven others. Best of all, Keeley was able to spend some quality time with Mo and her teammates.
"She couldn't have been more excited to be part of a team," Mo said. "She was an athlete herself for a long time, and then when she got sick, she wasn't able to participate any more. This team made her feel like she was a part of something again. She absolutely loved being around this team.
"She loved coming to the games. She would even come to practices, and would do the stats sometimes if she was feeling well enough. To be a part of something was really special to her and extremely special to all of us."
Keeley died on April 1, 2012.
There are countless stories across the world of sports in which athletes have overcome tragedy to perform superbly on the field, and Mo is no different. The day after Keeley's funeral, she played in Rollins' home game against Queens. Mo had two goals and an assist in the Tars' 21-6 victory.
What those stats don't show is that Mo and her parents drove the nearly 900 miles from Ellicott City near Baltimore to Winter Park, arriving just an hour or two before game time. Leaving in the quiet darkness of early morning not long after Keeley was laid to rest, their trek took 14 hours to complete.
And then Mo went out and had one of the best games of her career on Friday of Easter weekend. That's the rest of the story.
"She never wanted me to stop playing," Mo said. "That was something that she was always so passionate about -- following your dreams, no matter what. I just wanted to make sure I continued to do that for her."