As the Conference 5 championship got underway Oct. 26, Westfield junior defender Carolyn Ziegler sat in her family’s basement watching “Dancing with the Stars.” Ziegler, a role player on Northern Virginia’s most dominant field hockey team this fall, wanted desperately to be bouncing alongside her teammates on the sideline, to be cheering in the sanctuary that soothed her spirit during the most painful year of her life.
Yet she knew that home was exactly the place she needed to be that night. Her older brother, Michael, was locked in an 18-month battle with Stage 4 brain cancer, and he had recently suffered a seizure that stole his ability to speak. Perched on the basement couch next to Michael was their mother, Barbara, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in February. Barbara’s husband, Mark, sat nearby. The family needed to stick together.
The doorbell rang at about 9:30. Mark trudged upstairs to answer the door, and Carolyn bolted off the couch at the sound of familiar voices. In walked Westfield Coach Starr Karl with five beaming field hockey players in tow. The triumphant entourage, gleeful in the wake of a 3-0 victory over Herndon, made its way downstairs, where Karl presented Carolyn, Michael and Barbara with a shiny piece of hardware.
“That’s your plaque,” she said. “That’s your district championship.”
Two weeks later a heftier prize rests on the Zieglers’ kitchen table. The 6A North Region trophy signifies the Bulldogs’ 1-0 overtime win over T.C. Williams on Nov. 5 , but a far more meaningful memento sits next to it.
It’s a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo “Team BZM.” The “B” stands for Barbara, and the pink circle surrounding the “Z” for Ziegler) represents her fight against breast cancer. The “M” stands for Michael, and the hat’s grey color symbolizes his bout with brain cancer.
Karl ordered the hats at the season’s outset and distributed them to every member of her team. She did the same with similarly designed wristbands, which the team wears to every practice and every game. The 2015 season belongs to Team Z, an enduring bond between a family that won’t give up and a team riding a 19-game winning streak heading into Friday’s Virginia 6A state semifinal against First Colonial in Virginia Beach.
“Before every game, we make sure to let everyone know we’re playing for them,” senior goalie Callie Rennyson said. “We need to fight in our game like Mike and Mrs. Ziegler fight every day.”
A broad support network
The Zieglers’ fight began April 24, 2014, when Mark and Barbara received a phone call while attending a Washington Nationals game. Their 23-year-old son, Michael, a 2013 West Point graduate, had collapsed during morning formation at his infantry training course in Fort Benning, Ga. He was taken to a local hospital for a CT scan, which revealed a swelling mass in the frontal lobe of his brain. After being transferred for more tests at another hospital, doctors diagnosed Michael with glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and malignant type of brain tumor.
Michael had surgery to remove the tumor in May, and he began regular radiation treatments that summer. Signs of progress were cast aside the following March, when doctors discovered a new tumor below his cerebellum.
“I think it’s always in the back of your mind that if I do everything right and I pray hard enough, my son will get well,” Barbara Ziegler said. “And that wasn’t quite the case.”
By that point Barbara was just coming to grips with her own health crisis. A small lump that she had noticed in recent weeks seemed to be growing, and doctors confirmed in February that breast cancer had already spread to her ribs, scapula, arm, shoulder blade and tailbone.
Barbara’s affliction proved relatively manageable with regular chemotherapy treatments. She and Michael accompanied one another to their appointments, holding each other’s hands when needles were prepped and insisting the ensuing injections didn’t hurt one bit even if they did. They teased each other about being “chemo buddies,” an unsettling oxymoron that somehow lent them encouragement.
“It wasn’t quite the activity you hope to have with your son, but I think having him there made it bearable,” Barbara said.
The intrepid duo’s support system doesn’t end there. Barbara and Mark have eight children — two are West Point graduates, and three attend West Point. Lauren, 27, went to George Mason, and Greg, 18, is attending Marion Military Institute with the intent of getting into West Point next year. They are all very busy people, but they flood their Centreville home with phone calls every day.
Carolyn, 16, is their youngest child, the only one left in the nest. She keeps her plate full with a heavy academic workload and too many extracurricular activities to list. More important than any of that, however, are the new familial duties she has embraced in helping her mother care for Michael: making sure he takes his pills in the morning and at bedtime, helping him swallow when he eats, helping him get around the house, accompanying them to chemo treatments at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Amid all of that, Carolyn somehow shows up to every field hockey practice with a smile on her face, leaving her teammates awestruck and prompting junior midfielder Lexi Theut to label her “the sunshine of our team.”
“I’ve had a different teenage high school life than all my siblings,” Carolyn said. “It can be hard a lot of times, but the support my teammates have given me and the little things people do have really helped my family get on with our lives. I just feel so grateful for that.”
A greater motivation
The Zieglers’ motivation hasn’t just imparted Westfield field hockey with valuable life lessons. It also has affected their win-loss record, and it may be the very thing that has kept them afloat this deep into the postseason.
No one was on their game in a mid-September matchup against Woodson that saw the Bulldogs trailing 1-0 late in the second half. Karl called a timeout with about 10 minutes to play and pointed to the stands, where Michael was in attendance for the only time this season. She reminded her girls who they were playing for. They won that game, 3-1.
Karl repeated that message at a similar juncture in the region final against T.C. Williams, a scoreless grind that eventually entailed sudden-victory overtime. After sophomore playmaker Mackenzie Karl fought off two defenders and slapped home the game winner, she sprinted over to Carolyn and said, “I did that for your family.”
Interest in the Bulldogs’ fate in Virginia Beach this weekend won’t be confined within state borders. Team Z thrives in other parts of the country as well, nowhere more so than West Point, N.Y. Missy Ziegler, a sophomore cadet and one of Karl’s favorite former players, will be staring at her phone Friday afternoon to monitor constant updates from her parents.
And even though Missy might be by herself in her dorm room at the time, she won’t be alone. Sitting prominently on the shelf above her desk, looming above all the other markings of her busy life, is a reminder of the widespread support that keeps her family grounded. It’s a grey baseball cap she’ll keep forever.