CUMBERLAND – Instruction on the volleyball court at Greely High this fall has focused on getting back to basics.

The Rangers have won seven straight state titles but are younger this year and learning day by day.

Saturday they will take a moment for their veteran coach.

Bruce Churchill, a longtime assistant for the Rangers, has been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, since 2007.

On Saturday, he will be surrounded by his players and hundreds of supporters for the annual Walk to Defeat ALS, put on by the Northern New England Chapter of the ALS Association.

The walk begins at 10:30 a.m. at Payson Park and goes around Baxter Boulevard. It raises money to fight the disease.

“Last year I looked like Santa Claus, with everyone standing in line to see me,” said Churchill, a retired physician. “They’ll come up and say things like, ‘You delivered me in 1994.’

“What we really want to do is get people educated.”

Churchill has lost use of his legs and uses an electronic wheelchair. He stopped working as an obstetrician this summer, a difficult decision. He tires easily and is not nimble.

He has, however, been able to make every volleyball practice and game since the season started just a few weeks ago.

Greely has long been the marquee program in Maine.

“He’s doing an awesome job,” said Coach Kelvin Hasch. “The kids really respect him. They want him there. He will do it as long as he’s able.”

The walk, said Churchill’s wife Cynthia, is a tangible way for friends, family and former patients to show their support.

The volleyball team will be wearing T-shirts reading: Churchill’s Champions.

“I think he just appreciates that people care about what’s been happening to him,” said Cynthia Churchill. “You almost just assume you’ll be immediately forgotten when you’re out of the picture. It makes him feel good that he’s got people who still love him even though he can’t see them on a regular basis as their doctor.”

His family will be there — the youngest, Leah, who just started college; Tessa, a neuroscience major at Brown University; and Cristina, his oldest, in medical school. Each plans to bring home friends with them.

“It’s a way to focus our inability to do anything else,” said his wife. “He needs to know there’s this day where he sees all these people he cares about and loves. It’s something to look forward to.”

It will also be a way to support the brother of Greely junior Emily Sampson.

Her brother Josh, 33, an Iraq War veteran, recently was diagnosed with ALS.

“It hit too close and too hard,” said Churchill.

Churchill has been dealing with the changes he’s gone through by writing a blog and getting support from his family.

He’s tried to educate people about the disease. Many patients he’s told along the way did not understand ALS is terminal.

“My patients would say ‘You’re going to be OK though, right?’” said Churchill. “I shake my head and tell them no.

“I’ve written some things down about my life, what I’ve done along the way.”

He also has been preparing to lose his ability to speak. He is working on recording sounds and words with software that will eventually be able to synthesize his voice.

On the court, he is motivated by teaching the game he loves to so many young players.

“I can’t physically expend as much as I once could,” he said. “I feel like I don’t have as much energy or as much to give.”

He’s not sure how this year’s team will fare. He knows it will contend.

And he knows the lessons learned along the way will be what matters.

“Being in stressful situations makes you mature,” he said. “Growing as people and learning as people is truly what we’re here for.”

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

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