Coach ailing, Auburn rallies at East Regional

Auburn's Victoria Trapani

Auburn's Victoria Trapani

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AUBURN, Ala. – Kim Evans carries a Sprite can in front of her stomach to avoid full-on belly hugs. The Auburn coach was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three days ago, and understandably wants all that love and support coming in from the side. And rest assured, the side hugs are aplenty.

“I’m ready to fight it,” Evans said Friday morning while on her way to a full body scan in Birmingham. “I would strap myself up to (treatment) today if they’d let me.”

Evans, 54, said she has learned more in her 26th year of coaching than ever before. With Auburn playing host to this week’s NCAA East Regional, Evans knew she couldn’t keep silent about her illness. She called Danielle Downey, the former All-American and LPGA player who came back to Auburn last fall to finish her degree, and said simply: “I have cancer, buddy.”

They both cried.

Downey filled in as a student assistant earlier this spring when assistant coach Margaret Shirley had to return home to Atlanta after facing her own health issues. When the team came over to Evans’ home off College Street on Tuesday evening, Downey stayed behind. She didn’t want the girls to see her so emotional. Downey needed them to see her as a figure of strength.

As Evans went in for more testing, her resilient players tackled a course they could walk in their sleep – Auburn University Club – with renewed resolve. The 14th-seeded Tigers improved 15 strokes on Day 2 of regional action, carding a 4-under 284 to greatly improve their chances of finishing in the top eight. Marta Sanz fired a 4-under 68, and walk-on freshman Jamie Yun carded a career-best 73. Downey said qualifying Saturday would feel like winning the national championship.

“They can create their own destiny tomorrow,” Downey said.

Evans’ diagnosis was particularly tough for sophomore Victoria Trapani, whose mother Kim, a breast cancer survivor, now is battling cancer in her lungs. Kim Trapani walked 18 holes with Victoria, never leaving her side.

“Just to see the two most important women in my life facing what they don’t deserve is really hard,” said Victoria Trapani, who took off three months from golf this spring to deal with feelings of depression. Life took a scary turn for the team’s funny girl – and the hits keep coming.

Trapani returned to the lineup in late March, probably too early, because she couldn’t stand watching her team struggle. She tied for sixth at the SEC Championship.

Even on days when Trapani’s score doesn’t count – such as Friday – teammates say that her presence alone makes a difference. Knowing their No. 2 player is in the lineup relieves pressure.

Trapani stood off to the side of the ninth green as her teammates finished up their finest round of the year and spoke of struggles that 20-year-olds aren’t supposed to face. There was strength in her voice, but the feelings of fear, anger and sadness were unmistakeable.

“I’m still young,” Trapani said. “I don’t know how to deal with these things. I get angry. I don’t know how to put it on the shelf.”

Player after player said the same thing: It was Evans who was doing the comforting when the news of her diagnosis broke.

“She asked if I’d go to her head-shaving party,” said Shirley, who drove to Auburn today to give her team hugs.

Coaches from rival schools such as Alabama consider Evans a best friend and went to her home after the first round for a visit. Vanderbilt, playing in the West Regional, sent flowers. The text messages and phone calls are virtually unending.

Evans said she felt rundown this spring, and had complained of stomach pain. She had a small procedure done two days before SECs. Last Thursday, she had a cyst removed from her ovary. Then came the ovarian cancer discovery. Evans knows so little at this point that she’s afraid to say much in case it’s wrong. All she knows for sure is that she’s ready for battle – and that her players are tough.

“You don’t see it in the numbers,” Evans said, “but they’ve had a lot of growth.”

Hours later, they proved her right.

Evans graduated from Auburn in 1981 and is in her 19th year as head coach. Her legacy is such that she’s like family to those she has coached. Nicole Hage graduated in 2007 and not a week goes by that she doesn’t call Evans.

From an early age, Hage thought she was destined to be a Duke Blue Devil. Duke coach Dan Brooks, however, encouraged her to take campus visits to be certain. When Evans got word that she was making the rounds, she called Hage and invited her to Auburn.

“I’m not making any West Coast visits,” responded Hage, a South Florida native who was clueless about the location of Auburn's campus.

When Hage pulled into Auburn around midnight one day in April 2002, all she saw was a Waffle House and a WalMart. She might as well have entered the Twilight Zone.

Hage met Evans the next morning and felt an immediate connection. By day’s end, she had bought a Tigers head cover and towel in the campus bookstore. She’d bleed blue and orange.

Downey’s campus visit in the late 1990’s was equally memorable. She came down with mono during her visit and was confined to a dorm-room bed. Evans sat with her and brought soup. They watched movies. Downey called the day after she got home and told Evans she was coming to Auburn. A shocked Evans asked why.

“Because that was real life,” Downey replied. Now, she’s prepared to return the favor.

The way Evans sees it, she has two choices: faith or fear.

“I’m picking faith,” she said.

War Eagle.

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