'Fighter from day one' — cancer survivor McKenna Sims now stars for state-bound South Sioux City

McKenna Sims, left, helped South Sioux City win the Class B state title last year. She’s averaging 17.1 points this season as the Cardinals are back in Lincoln looking to repeat as champions.

Molly Hornbeck can remember the day several years ago when a fundraiser was held for a little girl being treated for leukemia.

She didn’t know at the time that little girl would grow up to be a star basketball player for South Sioux City. And Hornbeck would be her coach.

That girl is McKenna Sims, who earned All-Nebraska honors last year after helping the Cardinals capture the Class B state title. It was quite an accomplishment for a sophomore, and an even greater one considering her medical history.

“I’m sure it was a scary thing for the family,” Hornbeck said. “To go through that when she was so young, but it’s pretty cool to see her now.”

Sims was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) when she was 4. She underwent two years and three months of chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha and has been cancer-free for almost 10 years.

“I was pretty little but I can kind of remember what was happening,” Sims said. “I do remember seeing doctors all the time.”

Someone who has a vivid memory of those difficult days is McKenna’s mother, Mindy, a dental hygienist who also helps Hornbeck coach the Cardinals.

McKenna’s mom knew her daughter wasn’t feeling well when she didn’t want to go trick-or-treating that Halloween in 2005. McKenna also seemed to be tired all of the time.

“She was running some low-grade fevers and at first the doctor thought it was just an ear infection,” Mindy Sims said. “But there were other signs, like a big bruise on her leg and some purple dots on her chest.”

McKenna was eventually admitted to Children’s Hospital, where the leukemia diagnosis was made in January 2006. Mindy, who was pregnant with her second child at the time, said it was a very difficult time for the family.

“To see your child go through all of the treatments and all of the spinal taps was tough,” she said. “But McKenna was a fighter from day one.”

It was shortly after that diagnosis that the fundraiser was held at South Sioux City High School. The former Molly Frank — later Molly Hornbeck — was attending college after a standout basketball career for the Cardinals.

“I just remember it was for a little girl who was sick,” Hornbeck said. “It was much later that I started putting the pieces together.”

Mindy credits the medical staff in the Children’s Hospital oncology department for the treatment McKenna received.

“The doctors and the nurses were all awesome,” she said. “We can’t really thank them enough for the care we got there.”

Mindy added that her daughter always has loved sports, especially basketball.

“It just seemed to come naturally to her,” she said. “I know she couldn’t wait to get back out there and start playing again.”

Given a clean bill of health, McKenna went back to her sports in grade school. She went on to make the South Sioux City varsity as a freshman, averaging 5.1 points.

The 5-foot-8 Sims had a breakout season last year as a sophomore, averaging 13.3 points and 5.1 rebounds. She also led the team in assists and steals and was second in blocks.

More important, McKenna led the Cardinals to their state-leading 12th championship and first since 2008.

Hornbeck said Sims has been even better this year, helping South Sioux return to state despite the graduation of five seniors.

“McKenna has taken her game to another level,” the coach said. “Offensively and defensively, she’s been the rock on our team.”

Sims is averaging 17.1 points and 5.1 assists for the Cardinals, who begin tourney play Thursday with a 7 p.m. game against Platteview at the Devaney Center.

Mindy Sims, herself a former state champion player for the Cardinals, said her daughter has moved on with her life since her leukemia treatment.

“It’s not something she hides because she knows it’s a part of who she is,” Mindy said. “I tell her all the time that God put her here for a reason, and I really believe that.”

Her high school hasn’t forgotten, either. Hornbeck said McKenna is honored as a survivor at the Cardinals’ annual pink-out game for cancer awareness.

“To know that McKenna will be 10 years in remission this month puts everything in perspective,” the coach said. “She’s a great athlete, a great student and a great person.”

McKenna, who is receiving collegiate recruiting interest from several schools, said she hopes others can draw strength from her story.

“I know that I didn’t have to survive,” she said. “I’ve been given another chance, and I hope to be a role model for people to never give up.”

Mike covers high school sports, primarily volleyball in the fall, girls basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer. He also reports on horse racing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @MPattersonOWH. Phone: 402-444-1350.

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