Coach's inspiration gives Loyola its heart

Sun Staff

The tributes to Diane Geppi-Aikens come in waves now.

Almost every time her Loyola women's lacrosse team takes the field, rival players wear Greyhounds green shoelaces or wrap rings of green tape around their sticks. Many players and coaches across the country wear pins with her initials on their team jackets.

On April 5 before a game at Curley Field, Loyola's crew christened its newest racing shell "Diane Geppi-Aikens." She did the honors from her wheelchair, pouring champagne over the hull.

All the well wishes come with hope that their collective energy can somehow infuse Geppi-Aikens with more strength to fight the brain-stem tumor that ravages her body yet spares her mind.

But for one of the sport's most dedicated coaches and perhaps its most tireless advocate, there can be no greater tribute than a Greyhounds team that plays every day with the kind of passion and verve that Geppi-Aikens, 40, has always brought to the game.

"Two years ago, she was sprinting down the field with me - beating me," Greyhounds senior Christy McNew said. "She puts the wind in our sails. We sometimes complain, 'Gosh, we have practice,' but look how she pushes herself. She's here for every game. She loves this game, and that's what pushes her."

The Greyhounds want nothing more than to win for their coach, especially to win a national championship - the only feat the two-time national Coach of the Year has not accomplished in her 15 years as Loyola's head coach.

Geppi-Aikens, who received the NCAA's Inspiration Award in January, has made no secret of how much she wants to win that elusive title, but she's asking no more of the Greyhounds than she ever did. She's not asking them to win the crown for her. She's asking them to pull together, to play their best and to have fun doing it.

"Do they want to win for me because I'm sick? They probably would say, 'Yeah,' but I don't want that on them," Geppi-Aikens said.

"I told them in the very first meeting [of the season] that if they put undue pressure on themselves to win because I'm sick, that's not going to get us where we want to get to. Our focus right now is to get better every day, and emotion plays a part in that."

Kerri Johnson, the Greyhounds' associate head coach, who handles the day-to-day operation of the program, said she and assistant coaches Krystin Porcella, Tom Ryan and Stacey Morlang and have tried hard to keep the season from becoming all about "winning for Diane."

The players, most of whom consider Geppi-Aikens a second mom, don't appear to let their emotions get the best of them. They balance their feelings and stay focused on the task at hand.

It's working. With Sunday's 14-8 win over Hofstra, the Greyhounds are 11-0. They've risen to No. 1 in the nation and have held that position four of the past five weeks. They next play host to William & Mary tomorrow at 1 p.m.

"If we got consumed with this thought that the end-all and be-all is to win it for her, then if we didn't win, it would be so devastating," said fifth-year player Suzanne Eyler.

Coping with adversity

Geppi-Aikens, a former All-America goalie who has spent her entire adult life with Loyola, has battled a recurring brain tumor since 1995.

Three times, surgery removed the tumor and Geppi-Aikens recovered quickly. But last spring more tumors were discovered, including the large one on her brain stem - this time inoperable and malignant.

She has been through chemotherapy and, most recently, radiation treatments that did not shrink the tumor as she had hoped, although it hasn't grown either. The tumor and the treatments have sapped most of her once-boundless energy. Steroids have swollen her once-trim body.

"It hit us harder this year," junior Jen Schuerholz said, "because it wasn't just her telling us. We can see the change in physical appearance. It's to a greater degree, and it's affected us a lot differently."

"It is an emotional roller coaster for us," McNew said. "We try to focus on all the positives and, in the back our heads, still be prepared at the same time. It's tough."

While the players say they have a great support system at Loyola's Charles Street campus - everyone from the coaching staff to professors to the administration to staff psychologists - they get the most help from Geppi-Aikens.

Through everything, she has maintained a positive attitude and a sense of humor. She has always been open with her players about her condition.

"She gives them permission to ask questions and to express some of their emotions that may be difficult to express otherwise," said Dr. Jason Parcover, a Loyola counseling center psychologist who works with the team.

"Not only is she allowing them, and helping them, to do what they need to do to take care of themselves as a team, but she's also helping them to maintain focus on academics and on doing what they need to do on the field. And she continues to challenge them to succeed in ways they've become accustomed to over the years."

On the field, the Greyhounds' ability to stay in the moment - one of many life lessons learned from Geppi-Aikens - keeps them running on an even keel, goal to goal and game to game.

"It's hard, but you do what you think she would want you to do," freshman goalie Cindy Nicolaus said. "Diane doesn't want us to be upset for her or sad. She doesn't want sympathy. She wants us to do our best and succeed."

So the Greyhounds go about their business as they always have for Geppi-Aikens, playing hard, but drawing extra resolve from her presence when they need it.

'A little extra something'

That kind of emotional surge lifted the Greyhounds to one of the most thrilling victories in school history - a 9-8 sudden-death upset of reigning national champion Princeton on March 9 in New Jersey.

Rachel Shuck, the junior playmaker who assisted Talia Shacklock's game-winning goal, said one glance to the sideline provided all the incentive necessary to upset the nation's No. 1 team on its home field.

"I know it's hard for Diane sitting in that wheelchair, but she's still so intense, so excited about everything," Shuck said. "She had us all give each other a hug right before the overtime. Things like that make you say, 'I want to win this for her.' She wants it so bad."

Every time the Tigers appeared ready to take control - building a three-goal lead early and tying the game with seconds to go in regulation and again in the first overtime - the Greyhounds found an answer.

"It was evident in that game that they had a little extra something," said Princeton coach Chris Sailer. "I remember walking off there feeling Diane definitely was the 13th person on the field and that team has something special about them, that they want to try to make such a great season for themselves and for Diane."

Although Geppi-Aikens has relinquished most of her responsiblities to Johnson, a former Loyola All-America midfielder, the transition appears seamless.

Geppi-Aikens doesn't make it to many practices, but she's still the coach at games, providing inspiration and instruction to both players and coaches. Everyone gets advice, high-fives and hugs.

"This isn't just about being No. 1 and winning. This is about having fun, and this team is having fun. We hug a lot. We kiss a lot," Geppi-Aikens said.

"We do play with a lot of emotion, but I don't know necessarily that that's tumor-based. Hopefully, I would have come with the intensity and the emotion anyway."

Geppi-Aikens will be putting it all out there as long as she can. And the Greyhounds will keep soaking up the lacrosse lessons and the life lessons she imparts.

"Diane always tells us, 'Have no regrets,' " Schuerholz said. "That's really important. That's the way she's always lived her life. As long as we play our best and do the best we can on that given day - as long as we don't have any regrets - I think it'll be all right."

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