TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Kim Evans took off her Auburn baseball cap and bowed her head slightly so a reporter could run a few fingers through her short gray, curly hair. New hair is significant on many levels, and the fact that it came in looking so different than what was there before was not lost.
“I am changed,” Evans said as she watched senior Marta Sanz wrap up play for Auburn on the 18th hole Thursday at SouthWood Golf Club.
This week’s NCAA East Regional marks the one-year anniversary of Evans’ ovarian-cancer diagnosis. As Evans walked a seven-mile course on a toasty day in Tallahassee, she noted that May 8 is World Ovarian Cancer Day.
Last October, Evans was declared cancer-free.
“She stared down death,” Vanderbilt head coach Greg Allen said.
It was a glorious victory. And then, a few months later, tragedy struck again as she buried one of her own. Danielle Downey, the former Tigers standout who stepped in during Evans’ illness and led the Tigers to a berth in the NCAA Championship and a heroic effort at the finals, died in a car crash last January.
For Evans, the accident, at times, feels as if it were just yesterday. She still can hear a helicopter flying over her home and the images of Downey at the hospital.
For a player such as Sanz, a senior from Madrid, Spain, the college experience at Auburn has been tragic as well as wonderfully rich. She grew up fast.
“Coach says these things happen to the people who can take it,” Sanz said.
These Tigers, led by Evans, are a special kind of tough.
“If there’s anyone you’d want to lead you through the desert,” Allen said, “it’s her.”
In some ways Evans feels like a new coach. Over the summer the 20-year veteran handed over the reins to Andrew Pratt, who left Tulane to come aboard as an associate coach.
After Downey died, Evans amped up her schedule to try to make things are normal as possible for her team. The day after they celebrated Downey at a memorial service in Auburn, Evans and the team flew to Puerto Rico.
“We just kind of wandered around,” Evans said of the weeks that followed Downey’s death. “What do you do?”
Cancer taught Evans the importance of life balance and listening to her body. There are days she takes it easy, filling the reserves for a big trip. Sometimes she goes to bed early and wakes up at 3 a.m. She’ll get up, run the dogs and make a cup of coffee. Evans goes to sleep at night rarin’ to get the next day started.
“Your appreciation level goes to the moon,” she said.
Auburn got off to a slow Thursday, finishing 5 over on a day made for birdies.
But players such as Sanz and Victoria Trapani know better than to wallow in their frustrations. They’ve been taught to fight, not complain.
Trapani’s mother, a breast-cancer survivor, now battles the same type of cancer in her lungs. Kim Trapani faces long odds with her cancer, but she recently finished a nine-month trial treatment that, so far, has stopped the cancer from spreading.
The night before the first round at the SEC Championship, Victoria found out that her 22-year-old cousin suddenly had died. The way the team rallied around her that night, Trapani said, they grew even closer.
“We’re going to come back tomorrow,” Trapani said. “Just like we came back from the rest.”
This team will fight to make the top 8 this week and qualify for the May 20-23 NCAA Championship in memory of Downey, who taught them what it meant to have a winning attitude. Trapani said they climbed from last to sixth at the 2013 NCAA Championship because Downey believed in them.
Evans did, too.
“We’ll never lose the family we have created with this team,” Sanz said.
They’ve been through too much.