Volleyball a refuge for Seton-La Salle twin sisters

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 10:09 p.m.

There's a story the Torchia family loves to tell that involves Mona Torchia coaching her twin daughters' 7-year-old soccer team and ordering trophies with the word “undefeated” engraved on them.

The punchline comes when somebody starts laughing and reveals that Toni and Tia Torchia had not yet played in the championship game.

“We're a very competitive family,” said Tia, who, like Toni, is a senior outside hitter on the Seton-La Salle girls volleyball team.

Sports — always played at a pedal-to-the-medal pace — have served as a bond between the Torchia girls and their mother, who has endured two separate bouts with cancer and a year ago had her right lung removed.

They've also been a refuge, for not only the times when Mona's health has taken a turn for the worse but after the Torchias' garage caught fire and Toni and Tia were forced to live with teammate Shelby Williams for six weeks.

“Volleyball is really important to us,” Toni Torchia said. “It's our second family. Anything that happens at home, we can go to volleyball, and it makes it better; everyone is there for us. It's kind of like an escape, a getaway.”

Watching her daughters smack a volleyball so violently and accurately is also something that provides Mona Torchia with an escape — in this case, a literal one.

Pausing an interview around the kitchen table of the Torchias' Green Tree home, Mona Torchia walks slowly into the family room, the oxygen machine helping her breathe still attached, its connectors running along the kitchen floor.

Mona Torchia reaches over the large, high definition television that's showing an NFL game and plucks a volleyball with every Rebels' name written on it.

The ball is the centerpiece of the family room's decor.

“We're not artsy people,” Mona Torchia said. “But we do love our sports.”

Through Mona's cancer, the Seton-La Salle volleyball community has shown its love for the Torchia family.

Before Seton-La Salle's home-opener a few weeks ago, Rebels players created a banner that had “Play for Mona” painted in school colors with two cancer ribbons replacing the letters “a.” It still hangs in Seton-La Salle's gymnasium.

Mona Torchia received countless cards and gifts during her battles with cancer — in 2009 and August 2012, around the same time the family's garage caught fire and Frank and Mona Torchia lived at the Green Tree Residence Inn for six weeks. Parents have taken turns cooking and delivering meals. Teammates collected donations and lumped it all onto a GetGo gift card.

Mona's husband, Frank, jokes that he should've created a recording to play while fielding repeated phone calls while Mona slept.

“People really stepped up and helped us out,” he said.

The situation has left Gina Merante, a family friend who would canvass Seton-La Salle's gymnasium during volleyball matches in search of support — and food — for the Torchia family, at a loss for words.

“Personally, I don't know how (the girls) do it,” Merante said. “It has to be so emotional.”

Mona Torchia, who was diagnosed with squamous cell and small-cell lung cancer, still attends most of Seton-La Salle's home games and sits in a padded chair that Merante sets up in the corner of the gym.

Not that it helps her watch a match from beginning to end.

“It kills me,” said Mona Torchia, whose cancer is now in remission thanks to surgery and chemotherapy. “I hide in the corner, then I turn around to see which side is clapping. That's how I find out who won.”

Toni and Tia Torchia have always been obsessed with sports: volleyball, basketball and soccer. Since they arrived at Seton-La Salle, it's been lacrosse. From their midfield positions, the Torchia sisters rely heavily on their speed, something they attribute to playing with their older brother, Frank, and his friends growing up.

Both have near 4.0 grade-point averages, despite everything that could derail their focus. (their father suffers from macular degeneration, which limits how much he can drive, and the girls also lost their godmother to cancer.)

Toni is averaging 8.5 kills per match and Tia 5.3, as fifth-ranked Seton-La Salle (7-1) has enjoyed a breakout season. Off the court, it's not uncommon for Toni and Tia Torchia to take younger players aside and work with them on technique or tutor teammates.

“As a coach, you hear a lot of, ‘I had a tough day in school and my boyfriend broke up with me,' ” Seton-La Salle coach Kevin Hummert said. “Then to have something like that … we're supposed to be giving them perspective and life lessons, but I've learned a lot from them.”

Shelby Williams, whose parents, Trudy and Todd, have been instrumental in the community-wide effort, has known Toni and Tia since kindergarten.

Even she's impressed by how positive they've been through this entire ordeal.

“Seeing what they've gone through with their family and keeping their confidence and helping everybody else just amazes me,” Williams said.

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