Kris Keppel is never one to give up.
Always a fighter in his 20 years as a coach of the Land O’ Lakes High School cross-country team, he now is facing an even tougher battle — pancreatic cancer — and his team, school and community are rallying around him to notch yet another big win.
“Life has definitely turned on a dime,” said Karen DeHaas, the coach of the Gators’ girls’ cross-country team. Better known as “Mima” to the runners because of her granddaughter’s influence on the team, DeHaas was one of the first to find out about Keppel’s diagnosis just a little more than two weeks ago.
“I cried so much,” DeHaas said. “You don’t know how much I cried. I’d be lost without him.”
Breaking the news to the rest of the team was hard, especially when Keppel could not be at his first cross-country event in the two decades he’s been a coach. But he was still there, thanks to technology, as he watched the first runners cross the finish line thanks to a FaceTime video feed from someone’s smart phone.
The runners, who have never felt abandoned by Keppel over all these years, were going to stand by him, too.
Two of DeHaas’ runners, Carolyn Estrella and Mary-Kathryn Guenette, got together and designed “I run for Keppel” T-shirts. Complete with a purple ribbon, representative of those who are fighting pancreatic cancer, the girls have already raised more than $1,000 for Keppel’s family. And they plan to add even more.
“Coach Keppel always cancelled doctor’s appointments in the past just so he doesn’t miss practice, so when he didn’t cancel one appointment for a practice, we knew something was wrong,” said Estrella, a junior at Land O’ Lakes High School. “The next day after that missed practice, we found out he had cancer. It was hard for all of us.”
Estrella and Guenette had 100 shirts printed right away, which the entire cross-country team donned in his honor last Friday, and DeHaas is confident that the two can actually sell more than 1,000 after it’s all said and done. Each one costs $15, and the proceeds go to Keppel.
“There are so many coaches that have already stepped up,” DeHaas said. “We have this big invitational coming up, and I have had phone calls from coaches in Brandon, Tampa, Hernando, all the surrounding counties. I can’t believe all the compassion and support that I have received from all these coaches.”
For Guenette, the cancer diagnosis hit closer to home. Her younger brother, Spencer, battled brain cancer at a very young age. But he also proved that the fight is quite winnable, and now at 14, is in remission.
“I know what the Keppels are going through right now, and it’s a tough time,” Guenette said. “My parents were really proud that we stepped up and made a difference (for Keppel). It’s a good way of coping.”
There is no such thing as an “easy” cancer to be afflicted with, but pancreatic cancer is aggressive. In 2013, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 45,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, evenly split between men and women. Treatment ranges from chemotherapy and radiation to surgery.
All of that will require a lot of attention and energy on Keppel’s part, but DeHaas knows that he’ll still find a way to influence the runners he has led for so many years.
“He’s hoping that even if he has to be pushed in a wheelchair, he’s going to be out there watching regionals,” DeHaas said. “I told him he could use my chair, which has a big umbrella on it to protect him from the sun. Either way, if there is any chance he can make it out there, he’ll be there.”
The “I run for Keppel” shirts are available to the general public as well, with proceeds benefitting the Keppel family. To order, email — that’s “carolyn” followed by a zero, two ones and “jr” — or visit the athletics department social media page at Facebook.com/lolhsgators.