Cambrian: Sports

Coast Union High volleyball coach battles cancer, keeps coming back — for 29 years

Coast Union High School volleyball coach Pam Kenyon.
Coast Union High School volleyball coach Pam Kenyon.

The year was 1990. The price of a gallon of gas was $1.16, a first class postage stamp was $.25, and Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison after 27 years of incarceration.

It’s also when Pam Kenyon took over as the girls volleyball coach at Coast Union High School.

A Coast Union graduate (Class of 1981), Kenyon began a career that has been enormously successful — more productive than any head coach in any sport in the high school’s history. Impressive is an understatement when describing Kenyon’s team’s extraordinary 67-5 record in the Coast Valley League since 2012.

It’s even more remarkable knowing she has been battling colon cancer since 2013.

She has been declared “cancer-free” several times, but each time it seems that evil disease somehow finds a way to creep back in. Research reflects that upwards of 30% of patients who have had surgery (which Kenyon has certainly had) and/or chemotherapy to fight colon cancer will face the same battle again. Colon cancer does indeed return, and Kenyon knows all about those odds.

She shared “some very good news” with The Cambrian just this past spring. That positive news was that one of her doctors proclaimed she was “all clear with no sign of cancer,” she said.

However, in late July, she had another CT scan that — as so many scans in the past — searched for signs of the dreaded interloper.

“I have an appointment to give me the results of that test next week,” she said July 29. “It seems I am constantly taking tests and waiting for the results.”

It’s a pattern that reflects literally upon her health history since 2013, but she has never backed down or stopped coaching for more than a brief period.

Reflections on 29 years

As Kenyon prepares to launch her 29th year of coaching the Broncos volleyball team in September (she also teaches science and P.E.) she reflects on her career-choice decisions.

“My parents were both teachers. My mom taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the Ozark Mountains. My dad was a Cal Poly instructor teaching law. Mom played games at recess with students — their favorite game was a baseball type game called long ball,” she said. “I was the sixth of six children and we did not have a lot of money. But I was able to play volleyball and live at home while attending Cuesta College.”

In time, she traveled with an elite volleyball team to Europe; the coach of that team was from Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

“She recruited me to come and play for her... and I finished my education there and got my teaching credential,” she said. “I played volleyball for Westmont for two years and started coaching while at Westmont.”

‘So much fun’

Reagan Kniffen, who played volleyball at Coast Union all four years in high school, served under Kenyon as the junior varsity coach last school year.

“It is so much fun — so much fun,” she said. “She’s very good at being silly when the time is right but at the same time she’s able to kind of crack down on you. And it’s not like a shock when she cracks down. We know we need to get it together.”

Kniffen said she didn’t always look forward to practices in other sports she played at Coast.

“In volleyball, I never felt like that,” she said. “Our practices were always fun. We never dreaded going to practice.”

Over the summer, Kniffen has been volunteering to supervise the individual workouts of volleyball players in the weight room. Kenyon requires that each varsity player complete 21 workouts prior to the season, and Kniffen’s efforts have provided that opportunity for several players to meet that prerequisite.

Kenyon said she is available in the next month before the season for those players who had other responsibilities — jobs, showing animals at the California Mid-State Fair, etc. — and couldn’t complete the 21 workouts.

But there’s a noticeable different when Kenyon leads the workouts.

“It’s conditioning and rather difficult if I run the session, so they tend to want to get the workouts done during the summer,” she said.

The first home volleyball match of the season is set for 5 p.m. Sept. 19.

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