By Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun
5:37 PM EDT, October 24, 2012
A buzz spread among the North Carroll field hockey players as they gathered just inside the gate to their playing field and looked toward the parking lot.
"Is she here? Is she coming?"
They're all dressed in black shirts with the words "Team Heinle" printed across their backs. Each letter in "Heinle" has a word descending from it — Hope. Enthusiastic. Inspiring. Noble. Love. Extraordinary.
All words that apply to Laura Heinle, the North Carroll varsity assistant coach who has coached most of them since they reached the school's junior varsity squad and who is now recovering from bone cancer.
Heinle, 43, was diagnosed with the disease on May 14, the day after Mother's Day, and doctors amputated her left leg just above the knee in early August.
Even though they just saw her the night before at their game against Winters Mill, the Panthers were excited as they saw Heinle heading toward the field in head coach Denean Koontz's golf cart.
"It was horrible when we heard about her illness," junior goalie Melanie Martin said.
"Knowing how she wouldn't be here every day to coach, it was so different," junior defender Delaney Roper added.
The cart arrived and Heinle grabbed her crutches, swung her sweatpants-clad legs around — with one pant leg tied off just below where her knee should be — and slid out of the cart. A white baseball cap with sunglasses on top covered the soft, blond fuzz starting to grow back on her head.
"The moment we walk on the field, she's in our thoughts and she's the inspiration for our season," junior midfielder Samantha Stout said.
Once she gained her balance, the North Carroll players surrounded Heinle.
"Her spirit and enthusiasm have been tremendous," Koontz said as she watched the scene. "This season has been all about watching a person persevere. She's been a role model and we've learned a lot from her. And the girls just love to see her."
Heinle sends messages to the players on a daily basis to encourage them. When they played Carroll County rival Francis Scott Key, whose mascot is an eagle, she told Koontz to tell them, "Panthers eat eagle meat."
North Carroll will host Brunswick Thursday in the Class 1A West regional quarterfinals.
Heinle and Koontz became friends when they were 6 years old. They both graduated from North Carroll, then went separate ways for college — Koontz to Virginia Commonwealth and Heinle to Towson State. They both eventually returned and, for the past 15 years, they've coached together at their alma mater.
Three years ago, when Koontz was diagnosed with Stage II melanoma, a skin cancer in the back of her leg, Heinle was there to support her.
Now, the longtime junior varsity coach, who also teaches special education at Shiloh Middle in Hampstead, is having that support returned. One of the things Koontz did this season was add Heinle as a varsity assistant coach to make it easier for her to participate when she can.
"I made it to practice the week after my Aug. 7 surgery, and I made it for picture day," Heinle said. "I was in a wheelchair then, but we used hockey sticks for support and I leaned on our goalkeeper. She's my other crutch."
Heinle's prognosis is good. Her last round of chemotherapy is scheduled for early November. Then she's supposed to get her new artificial leg, and start tackling her goals. She wants to be back at work by the end of December. She wants to get back to snowboarding, one of her favorite activities, soon, too. And she wants to hike the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail.
"My permanent [leg] should be here in six months," she said. "I hope by next summer I'll be proficient at using it, and we can go on a real vacation. That's a goal."
As Heinle continued talking, her daughter Sydney, 19 and a sophomore at Carroll Community College, arrived. Sydney and her 16-year-old brother Aaron, a junior at North Carroll and a member of the football team, along with their father, Larry, have been on call to help Heinle when needed.
"That's been the hardest part, not having my independence," Heinle said. "My son and my daughter are driving me around, and they say I'll owe them when I get my leg. They also say if I make anyone mad, they'll hide it from me."
Heinle laughed. Humor is part of what has gotten her through the last five months.
"The day I told my husband about the surgery, he said, 'Ask the doctor if we can keep your leg. Maybe we can make a lamp out of it,'" she said, still laughing at the joke.
"She's probably the strongest woman I know," Sydney said. "I couldn't do what she's doing. And she says things in public I can't believe. Like [recently], we were at the team's game and someone hit the ball where her leg would have been if she still had one and she yelled, 'Oh, you knocked my leg off!' I couldn't believe she said that."
But Heinle said a good attitude is important, and she noted that cancer
can change a person's perspective mightily.
"Little things don't matter anymore," she said. "Big questions like 'Am I going to get to see my kids graduate?' matter."
And setting an example for a high school field hockey team matters, too.
"I have the games I can be at on my cell phone calendar," she said. "This is a great bunch of kids, a special bunch because they've gone through this with me. I want them to understand that sometimes things don't go your way, but that doesn't mean you quit.
"They're so young and have so far to go. Life is difficult, but if you keep working hard, you'll get through it and things will come out fine. The harder you work, the more you'll get out of life. They need to see and know that."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun