Battle ends for courageous coach

Sun Staff

Diane Geppi-Aikens, the hometown girl who turned LoyolaCollege women's lacrosse into a national power and became one of the leading figures in Baltimore women's sports, died early yesterday morning at her home in Overlea after a long battle with brain cancer. She was 40.

With an inexhaustible enthusiasm for her family, her college and her sport, Geppi-Aikens inspired a generation of young women long before she faced her public battle with cancer in the courageous, determined manner that drew national media attention last spring.

A Parkville native and Loyola graduate, Geppi-Aikens won her third Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association national Coach of the Year award this past season after guiding the Greyhounds to a No. 1 ranking, a 17-2 season and the NCAA Division I final four.

"As a student, as a coach, as an administrator - Diane's life is a testament to the ideals of the college that she so proudly represented for more than 20 years," the Rev. Harold Ridley, president of LoyolaCollege, said in a statement. "Her relative youth makes this a terrible tragedy, but I know she lives on in the countless players she mentored and in all of us whom she inspired with her great spirit, compassion and courage."

The Greyhounds players rallied around Geppi-Aikens this spring as she continued to coach them from a wheelchair after the large tumor on her brain stem all but paralyzed her left side.

While dealing with her decline in health, she maintained her sense of humor and helped players cope with her illness. She asked them not to play for her but to play for themselves.

"Diane stood for so much," Suzanne Eyler, a Loyola fifth-year player, said last season. "She was just so full of integrity and heart and courage. It's so much more than wins and losses. She just had this aura about her. She talked about heart and pride and playing for Loyola. I just bought into it. I know she believed it, and it was so easy to follow her lead."

Geppi-Aikens took the helm of the Greyhounds' women's lacrosse team in 1989. The team went 9-10 that season, but it never again posted a losing record. The former All-America goalie compiled a 197-71 coaching record while leading Loyola to 10 appearances in the NCAA tournament and seven trips to the final four.

When the Greyhounds opened the season with 14 straight wins this spring, Geppi-Aikens drew widespread media attention to her battle with brain cancer.

Although she had fought recurring brain tumors since 1995, with three operations, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Geppi-Aikens saw the tumor return less than a year after her Jan. 29, 2002, operation. This time, it was inoperable.

The diagnosis last December was that the tumor was malignant and the cancer was terminal.

Even as the tumor grew, Geppi-Aikens refused to sit at home. With help from her father, John Geppi Jr., who took her wherever she wanted to go in his van, and other family members, she regularly attended Loyola basketball games during the winter and went to the Mercy-Institute of Notre Dame girls basketball game to watch her daughter, Jessica Aikens, perform with the Mercy pep squad.

She kept up her coaching duties as best she could and remained vocal. She often joked that even though some parts of her body didn't work any more, her mouth still did.

When the national media began showing up at Curley Field this spring, she diverted as much attention as possible to her players and their success.

With her charisma and contagious energy, Geppi-Aikens inspired many of her players to follow in her footsteps, including Johns Hopkins head coach Janine Tucker, UMBC head coach Monica Yeakel and her own associate head coach at Loyola, Kerri Johnson.

"Di was such an advocate for the sport and for women in general," said Johnson. "She cared about the sport of lacrosse and what direction it was going in, and she was a role model for strong, independent women who can raise a family. She showed that you can do it all. She was a superwoman."

Until the brain tumors began to slow her a few years ago, Geppi-Aikens easily juggled the demands of raising four children as a single mom with the more than full-time job of coaching a Division I lacrosse program.

With a level of stamina that would exhaust most people, she always seemed to find time for everything and everyone.

"I'm one of many people who can say Diane touched my life and she changed me," said Tucker. "When you go through life, you meet a lot of people and you have a lot of friends, but it's really amazing to have someone who has made such an impact on your life and made you a better person for it."

Another former Greyhound, Stacey Morlang, said Geppi-Aikens had a lot to do with her growing up when she came here as a 17-year-old from Australia.

"She shaped my life in more ways than I could possibly explain. Her most unique quality was putting everyone else before herself whether they deserved it or not," said Morlang, who stayed on as a student assistant coach last spring.

Geppi-Aikens fostered a family atmosphere around her team, and they knew her parents and children. Many players said they considered her a second mother.

"It's like Diane always said - we come in a girl and we leave a woman," said Christy McNew, a senior on this spring's team. "Diane taught us so many life lessons off the field along with on the field. She's taught us what life is about and how you're supposed to live and not take things for granted."

In January, the NCAA awarded Geppi-Aikens its Inspiration Award, and she flew to Anaheim, Calif., to accept it.

"She really fought for what's right, what the players and women's lacrosse deserve. She's always been that way," said Maryland coach Cindy Timchal.

Geppi-Aikens' resume lacked only one thing - a national championship. She came closest in 1997, when her team lost to Maryland, 8-7, in the national collegiate final.

In May, the Greyhounds were back in the semifinals, but it was not to be for the sentimental favorites, as they fell to eventual champion Princeton, 5-3.

After the game at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., Geppi-Aikens stressed only the positives.

"We had a great year, and I'm so proud of my team," Geppi-Aikens said. "I can't be disappointed in going undefeated for as long as we did and with as much adversity as this team had to deal with all season."

Geppi-Aikens played volleyball, basketball and lacrosse at Parkville High School. Once she arrived at Loyola as an undergraduate, she never left.

Playing four years of lacrosse and volleyball, she earned All-America status as a lacrosse goalie and still holds the school record for highest save percentage in a season, .749, set in 1983.

A two-time national team goalie, she began her coaching career as the Greyhounds' volleyball coach and their assistant lacrosse coach. She also spent five years as an assistant athletic director.

Geppi-Aikens also served on the NCAA Lacrosse Committee and was inducted into the Loyola Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991 and the US Lacrosse Greater Baltimore Chapter Hall of Fame in 2001.

Her marriage to Robert Aikens ended in divorce.

Viewing will be Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home. A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered Thursday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen at a time to be determined.

Donations may be made to the Aikens Children's Trust Fund, c/o John Geppi Jr., 1363 Deanwood Road, Baltimore, MD 21234.

In addition to her father and daughter, Geppi-Aikens is survived by her son Michael Aikens, daughters Melissa Aikens and Shannon Aikens, all of Overlea; her mother, Katherine Geppi; sisters Patricia Gorsuch and Carolyn Geppi; grandmother Marie Meyers; and partner Andrea Borowsky.

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