They say she was larger than life.

And now, Lisa Panici's legacy will live on at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Panici, a Peotone resident who succumbed to brain cancer last December, only spent one semester on campus, playing for the school's volleyball team in 2010.

But on Oct. 11, the volleyball locker room was named the "Lisa Panici Locker Room" -- on a day a plaque that passionately describes Panici was unveiled, and various tributes to Panici throughout the ensuing match took place.

It's yet another testament to a 20-year-old woman whose vibrance and passion for life is still very much alive.

"They loved her," said Mary Panici, Lisa's mother.

Panici, known as an "irresistible force," was already making an impact on the volleyball team, even in her first year, Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Stacy Boudreau said.

"She was pushing a senior All-American," Boudreau said. "She was already encouraging teammates.

"She was just an amazing person."

All while a hidden secret was ready to alter the course of her life in the fall of 2010. And soon send her on a far different journey, not playing volleyball.

"She was playing with a tumor the size of a lemon," Boudreau said.

Now, the whole university, students old and new, will know about her, thanks to a tribute that has overwhelmed the Panicis. On a giant plaque is an image of her face, alongside a heartfelt description of her, noting how she loved to sweat. It was a motto the team adopted.

"It would be one of the hardest practices, and that girl would just have a big smile on her face," Boudreau said.

And Panici now dominates the locker room. Walls are adorned with images of her, including some from a "Dig Panici" match the team held for her while she fought cancer. Purple paper covered the locker room doors for that October dedication, and when they were unwrapped, and Mary walked in, she was blown away.

"You can almost hear her in there," Mary said.

It was a day all for Lisa, as passionate as the woman herself, but with emotions running the full gamut.

"It's an overwhelming sensation," said her father, Mike.

In just a few months, Panici left her mark forever on campus. And while she had to leave the team after falling ill, teammates took her with them. They would drape her jersey on chairs at matches. In volleyball, teams rotate benches throughout a contest.

Lisa's jersey went with.

"For those girls to carry her with them the way they did, you're just very humbled, very proud and very sad," Mary said, her voice choking up.

On Oct. 11, Wisconsin-Whitewater hosted Washington University, of St. Louis. And even during the match, the tributes continued. To celebrate Panici's No. 12, which is now retired by the program, the crowd stayed silent for the Warhawks' first and second points.

When the third came, the crowd "celebrated like crazy," Boudreau said.

"It was awesome," the coach added.

Wisconsin-Whitewater fell in five sets, in what would normally be a tough loss. But the team played songs from Lisa's funeral throughout the day, including a version of "Somewhere over the rainbow" after the match.

Boudreau turned to her assistants during that song: "I can't be mad."

Of course, Panici's legacy is strong as ever back home. The Peotone High School girls soccer team dedicated its season to her last spring.

And former volleyball teammate Kristin Heldt, who was a grade older than Panici, remembers her fondly.

"Everyone knew her as a person always smiling, always happy, would do anything for anybody," said Heldt, who teamed up with Lisa to earn the nickname "twin towers" from Mary.

And back in Whitewater, a young woman who wasn't even on campus for a year lives on. Her brothers, Alec and Michael, have the perfect spot to show just what their sister was like.

"My kids can take their kids and say, 'Look, this is your aunt Lisa,'" Mary said.

Boudreau only coached Panici a short time. But she was a player "who you just knew was going to do something great," Boudreau said.

As it turned out, she did.

"It was a privilege to be her dad," Mike said.


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