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Connellsville's Fess making an impact on, off pitch

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When Caitlin Fess transferred from Champion Christian School in Donegal to Connellsville Area High School last year, all Falcons girls soccer coach Jeff Puskar knew was that a new player was coming to the program.

In Fess' first practice, Puskar sat beside her on the bench and introduced himself. Minutes later, shortly after practice began, Puskar knew Fess was a polished player.

“Caitlin played cup soccer, and I knew she would be one of our better players,” Puskar said. “She came in as a junior and has been a great addition to the team.”

In a recent game against Greensburg Salem, Fess was sitting alongside her teammates watching the junior varsity game in which her Falcons were wearing white uniforms and the Golden Lions were wearing yellow.

“I started to watch the JV game, and I had difficulty distinguishing the uniform colors,” Fess said. “I asked, ‘Why is everyone wearing white?' Uniforms for both teams looked white to me, but if I focused really hard I could see Greensburg Salem's yellow uniforms, but in a game you don't have that time.”

Fess spoke with Puskar about the colors, and the Falcons quickly changed into their blue uniforms.

During her freshman year in school in 2010, Fess suddenly experienced numbness in her arm accompanied by slurred speech. Initially, doctors thought she had suffered a stroke. But then test results showed her blood sugar count topped 400 — normal is in the low 100s to 120, Fess said — she was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes.

Fess spent a week in Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, where she received insulin shots and a new diet.

Additional testing led to a diagnosis of Wolfram's disease, an autoimmune disease that causes diabetes and eye and vision problems.

Fess' vision issues, she explained, are not with her eyes, but with her optic nerve. She can recognize red, blue and green colors and mentioned that she recently received her driver's permit and can see the colors of the traffic lights with no problem. Fess says she's the third person with Wolfram's to be able to drive, and she doesn't mind being third.

“If I focus really hard, I can see the difference between white and yellow, but in a game, you don't have time to focus on the colors,” she said. “If colors (of uniforms) become an issue, I tell the coaches, and they explain the situation to opposing coaches, and one of the teams will change uniforms.”

Her friends, teachers and coaches help in and out of school. An iPad through the Intermediate Unit enlarges the print of her books. With vision of 20-40 in one eye and 20-60 in the other, she has a tendency to hold her books closer to her eyes and strains when she reads, so she also uses larger-print textbooks.

As of now, Fess said, there is no treatment to stop the progression of Wolfram's nor is there a cure. At best, her vision will remain the same. “Eventually, I could lose my vision.”

For the last two summers, she has spent a week in St. Louis, visiting Washington University School of Medicine for various tests.

“They take tissue samples, and I go through balance testing. And since last year, my vision has not gotten worse,” she said. “At the clinic for Wolfram's, they keep saying they are getting closer to finding a cure.”

Wolfram's is accompanied by chronic fatigue, but keeping active helps keep the fatigue in check.

In Fess' initial season with Connellsville last year, she played midfield, “but this season we had a need for a team defender and sweeper,” Puskar said. “We had a need for a talented player in front of our goalkeeper to play sweeper. She is a speedy defender, and she best fits the position of sweeper. Caitlin plays with tremendous heart and determination, and she makes good decisions. Sweeper is not a glory position, but Caitlin will do what's best for the team, and she was willing to learn her new position. ”

“Caitlin is very athletic and an impact-type player,” he continued, noting that Fess is one of four team captains. “She did well as midfielder last year, but this season we had a definite need for a strong defensive player at sweeper to solidify our defense. She has great soccer sense and tenacity. She has a good first touch with the ball and a strong leg to clear the ball and is not intimidated. She cares about the team and other players and is noticed by other coaches and players for her talents. She has fit in very well, and we never missed a beat with her coming into the lineup.”

After her sophomore year at Champion Christian School, even though she was playing cup soccer, Fess, a resident of the Connellsville Area School District, wanted the opportunity to play high school soccer.

“Going from midfielder last year to sweeper this season was a little difficult in the beginning,” she said, “but because we lost seniors (to graduation), Coach said I was best suited to make the transition and play sweeper. I am more than satisfied with the change regarding both soccer and academics.”

In fact, for Connellsville's home game Sept. 25, school and WPIAL officials agreed that money from admissions, concessions and a 50/50 raffle would be donated to fund research aimed at finding a cure for Wolfram's disease.

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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