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Manteca game benefits Ripon 9-year-old

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Riley Simmons poses with the Manteca High girls soccer team. Manteca High will donate all the proceeds from its “Kicking for a Cure” game on April 19 to Simmons, who is battling brain cancer.


POSTED April 11, 2013 1:56 a.m.

Justin Coenenberg knew only what he had gathered second-hand – that Riley Simmons was a first-rate 9-year-old.

That her spirit and optimism could lift a heavy heart or dry a leaky eye.

And that she was hypnotized by the game of soccer, drawing strength from it as she battled brain cancer.

“I followed her story,” said Coenenberg, the head coach of the Manteca boys and girls soccer programs. “She’s an amazing young girl.”

And then, when given the chance to meet Riley, Coenenberg peered in for a closer look. Past the white cap that protected her beautiful bald head. Past the physical toll months of radiation and chemotherapy had taken on her tiny frame.

He remembered that twinkle in her eye. That smile on her face. She had been here before, toe-tapping a ball on his soccer field.

Riley was recently invited to meet Coenenberg and the Manteca girls soccer team. She stayed only for a few minutes, just long enough to take a photo with the team and a buddy picture with captains Sialei Manuleleua and Sammie Morris.

Manteca wore a special kit that afternoon – white socks and shorts, and a pink jersey with a cancer awareness ribbon dressing the Block M.

Just like that, the Buffaloes’ annual mission to raise money and awareness for a cure had a new benefactor.

It was Riley, the inspirational fourth grader from Colony Oak Elementary in Ripon.

Manteca High’s “Kicking for a Cure” game will be played on Friday, April 19, against Sonora at Guss Schmiedt Field.

The game will feature a 50/50 raffle and silent auction, and all proceeds will be donated to the Simmons family to help with Riley’s mounting medical debt and cost of living.

The Manteca High girls soccer program has donated nearly $8,000 to the American Cancer Association in the first two years of the game.

“She could only stay for a few minutes,” Coenenberg said. “When we got back into the classroom, all the girls were like ‘Ah, why couldn’t she stay longer?’ “

But they had met before.

Coenenberg didn’t put it together until that afternoon. Riley had played in a mini-game with the Manteca Futbol Club during halftime of last year’s “Kicking for a Cure” event and then stayed to shag balls.

Now she is its star.

Coenenberg had always intended to donate the money to a local cause or charity, but hadn’t found a candidate until he happened by Riley’s story.

Her involvement with the team has brought out the best in the Buffaloes. Coenenberg says his girls seems more attentive to the cause. No doubt they will miss Riley when they take the pitch against the Wildcats.

She can’t make the game.

She’ll be in San Francisco undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

“I believe it’s not just my job to teach or coach soccer but to teach these girls about giving back to the community,” Coenenberg said. “Every year, I try to get the girls a little more involved. It’s my hope that by participating they go on and pay it forward and get involved with other charities.”

The support is appreciated by the Simmons family, whose livelihoods have been turned upside down by cancer.

Rick recently returned to work as a real estate appraiser on a part-time basis, but his chief concern remains Riley.

Her recovery from medulloblastoma has become a full-time job.

Riley recently began a new cycle of chemotherapy treatment at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. It’s the heavy dose, Rick says, which means Riley’s chemo cocktail keeps her hospitalized for close supervision for a week every four to six weeks.

On top of all of that, she receives physical, speech and occupational therapy. A teacher meets with her at their home or hospital for an hour each day, leaving assignments for Riley and her parents to complete.

When she has time and the energy, she and Rick will knock the soccer ball around in the yard.

“The community has played such a huge role in her recovery. It’s hard to put into words how appreciative we are,” Rick said.

“For Manteca High to put this game on in her honor – for it to be the game that she loves – it’s such a wonderful thing they’re doing. The community support has allowed us to focus on her. I just recently went back to work, but ...

“Riley comes first.”

Coenenberg and the Manteca High girls soccer program agree.

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