|Another season, another jersey patch in memoriam of a teammate gone too soon. Somehow, the Knights persevere.
SUNY-Geneseo Athletics photo
The night of December 20 was shaping up exactly as Scott Hemer planned. The Geneseo women's basketball coach had picked up dinner on the way home from campus, leaving enough time for some post-meal playtime with his two young sons before heading out for some local recruiting.
Just an average Tuesday night for a Division III basketball coach during the holiday break in the team's schedule. As Hemer dodged Nerf gun fire from his boys, he heard a news report on a serious car accident in Geneseo on the television. But between his sons causing a playful ruckus and his own scrambling to leave for the recruiting visit on time, Hemer didn't catch any of the details.
"Never would you think in 5,000 students that it would affect you again 11 months later," Hemer said.
- ATN: Geneseo forged by tragedy (March 2016)
- Hoopsville: Coach Hemer discusses Knights' season (December 2016)
- Top 25: Knights advance to No. 21
When Hemer checked his cell phone before heading out the door, he noticed missed calls and text messages from Geneseo's athletic director and dean of students. His heart sank.
For the second time in less than a calendar year, one of his players had been killed. Freshman forward Savannah Williams died after being struck by a tractor-trailer on her way home for the holiday break. Eleven months prior, on Jan. 17, 2016, senior guard Kelsey Annese was fatally stabbed, along with Geneseo hockey player Matthew Hutchinson, by her ex-boyfriend and former Geneseo student Colin Kingston, who committed suicide shortly afterward.
Hemer's first thoughts after learning of Williams' death focused on the loss of an inspirational young woman, one who beamed with pride at earning her way onto the team as a rare tryout player, and Williams' family, who was readying to welcome their daughter home from her first semester of college. As shock began to give way to grief, Hemer's thoughts drifted toward the rest of his players.
"My second thought was, 'Why us again?'" Hemer said.
"I remember thinking the first time this happened that I wouldn't wish this on anybody," Hemer added. "The fact that it was happening to us again was really quite devastating to me."
With finals wrapping up and Christmas just days away, most of Hemer's players were scattered across New York State on the way home to see their families. He called each of his 14 players as well as the team manager individually to share the heartbreaking news.
"All you know is that you don't have a choice but to try to help your players move forward every day," Hemer said. "There's no script."
Hemer held a conference call with his five senior captains -- guards Kayleigh Cavanaugh, Katie Durand and Kara Houppert, and forwards Katie Vienneau and Bridgit Ryan -- on Christmas Eve, and the entire team attended Williams' funeral in Norwich, N.Y., on Dec. 26. Three days later, the team reconvened on campus for its first post-break practice.
Cavanaugh said the seniors' focus was making sure their teammates, especially the three other first-year players in Williams' class, knew they had a support system.
"Some days will be easier than others, but they can't hold it in," Cavanaugh said. "If they need to talk to someone about it, they need to reach out to one of us. Even if they just want to text us to vent or talk about something else, that was really the point we tried to get across."
The team has honored Williams much in the same manner it did Annese last season. Annese's No. 32 jersey was kept on the bench during each game; Williams' No. 31 jersey is there this season. The players' sneakers have No. 31 written on them, along with No. 32 for the returners who played with Annese. A photo collage in memory of Annese hangs in the locker room, not far from Annese's former locker which, in an eerie coincidence, was the same locker Williams occupied this season.
The team has left Williams' locker largely untouched, as it did with Annese last season, while also adding memorial plaques and strands of blue lights. The players also recently got matching "Hakuna Matata" wrist bands, reflecting Williams' favorite saying.
"We turn those blue lights on before every home game to know that she's there with us," Cavanaugh said. "It's just a reminder that they may not be here in sight, but they're always here with us in spirit."
A banner with Annese's name, number, and years played hangs in Geneseo's gym. A banner with Williams' name, number, and year played will be added in a ceremony on Feb. 17. Two trees were planted outside the Geneseo athletic center in memory of Annese and Hutchinson. The plaque under Annese's tree includes a saying from the eulogy given by teammates last January, which Cavanaugh can recite by heart.
We may not remember every game, every win, every loss, but the moments we share together are unforgettable.
"You're not going to remember things in 20 years, like specifically game winners or when you lost a game, but you're going to remember the moments you had with each other in the locker room, on and off the court," Cavanaugh said. "That's what makes this team so special."
The circumstances of the deaths of Annese, at the time a senior captain, and Williams, a first-year walk-on, are radically different, but equally as tragic. There have been days filled with tears, anger, laughs and reflection in the time since their deaths for those that knew them. Their losses are felt every day, whether in the locker room, the dining hall or the daily practice ritual where the team sits in a circle on the court.
The Knights enter February as one of only eight remaining undefeated teams in Division III with an unblemished 20-0 record. It's the fifth straight season of 20-plus wins for Geneseo, a feat Hemer attributes not to height or shooting ability, but to trust and chemistry. It's been nothing short of remarkable considering what the team has faced in the last calendar year, a time period that doesn't even include the plight of former player Lea Sobieraski, who needed a liver transplant in 2013 after being diagnosed with a rare liver disease.
"The resiliency that they have shown is truly remarkable," Hemer said. "It's somewhat unexplainable unless you're able to observe every day."
"At this point, these young ladies are playing for each other and they're playing to make their lost friends proud," Hemer added. "As much as that can be very draining mentally and emotionally, it's what drives them."
Cavanaugh said the team strives to honor Williams and Annese in the best way it knows how -- by playing unselfish, hard-nosed, Geneseo-style basketball.
"We want to do this for Kelsey and Sav," Cavanaugh said. "They wouldn't want it any other way."
Skidmore rounding into form
After a stretch of two losses in three games back in early January, the Skidmore men's team has rattled off six straight wins to climb to the top of the Liberty League standings.
That's a familiar place for the Thoroughbreds (14-5, 9-1), who have won the regular-season title and conference tournament in each of the last two seasons. Skidmore handed St. Lawrence (16-3, 9-1) its first and only conference loss of the season in an 83-66 decision last Tuesday. Sophomore guard Chase Ta exploded for a career-high 27 points, more than doubling his previous high of 13.
Skidmore faces Bard and Vassar this coming weekend, two teams with a combined Liberty League record of 1-18, so the Thoroughbreds have a prime opportunity to extend the winning streak to eight.
Hartwick, Stevens set for key rematch
As we prepare to turn the calendars to February, the Empire 8 women's race is deadlocked at the top. Once February arrives on Wednesday, however, either Hartwick or Stevens will sit alone atop the standings.
The Ducks (9-8, 8-1) host the Hawks (12-6, 8-1) on Tuesday night in a pivotal conference matchup. Hartwick prevailed in the first meeting between the two teams back on Jan. 10, 56-40 in Oneonta, N.Y. Sophomore guard Carly Johnson led all players with 18 points, while classmate Caitlin Corbett added 10 points in a defensive battle that featured 44 combined turnovers between the two teams.
Ithaca (15-3, 7-2) sits one game back in the Empire 8 standings, but has lost to both Hartwick and Stevens this season. With three weeks still remaining in the regular season, plenty is left to be decided. But Tuesday night's outcome will put either Hartwick or Stevens in a position to control its own destiny for the regular-season title and conference tournament top seed.
Top 25 roundup: Rochester moves into top five
Rochester climbed two spots to No. 5 in this week's D3hoops.com men's Top 25 poll. The Yellowjackets have now been ranked among the top 10 teams in seven consecutive polls. St. Lawrence, Oswego State and Brockport also received votes this week.
In the women's poll, Geneseo moved up two spots to No. 21, while Rochester continued to draw votes.
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