CINCINNATI (AP) Hiram College women’s basketball coach Emily Hays was sitting in the gym at Reynoldsburg High School last month, watching potential recruits show what they can do. Another coach sat down behind her and struck up a conversation.
Mount St. Joseph coach Dan Benjamin quickly got past the chitchat and told her about Lauren Hill, his freshman player who has inoperable brain cancer.
He didn’t have to say much before both were blinking back tears.
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”He told me the story and I started choking up a little bit,” Hays said Wednesday in a phone interview from her northern Ohio school. ”It wasn’t what I was expecting him to talk about. I heard her story and I wanted to help with something in that situation, no matter what.”
With Hill’s coordination worsening because of the brain tumor, Hiram agreed to move up its season opener against Mount St. Joseph by two weeks. The NCAA approved of the move. Xavier University offered its 10,000-seat arena for the Division III school.
Now, Hiram College finds itself in the position of being the visiting team on Sunday for a sold-out game that’s all about one other player.
”It’s a little bit overwhelming,” Hays said. ”It’s something we’re not used to. Division III doesn’t get the big gym and a ton of fans. It’s just great to have that much support within basketball. Overall this story is getting so much attention. It’s an honor to her and everything she has to go through.”
Everyone will be rooting for Hill to make a basket on Sunday, which leaves Hiram in an awkward position. Do the Terriers ease up a bit, or do they play it straight-up?
”We’re definitely going to play to the best of our ability,” said Hays, in her first season as Hiram’s head coach. ”That’s what she loves – hard work and competition. That’s what she talks about. We’re just going to deal with the situation as best we can.
”We’re trying to look at the bigger picture and what this game stands for, not necessarily the wins and losses. It’s for everyone in basketball showing support for Lauren,” she said.
Her players know about Hill’s situation and will get a chance to talk to her before the game.
”When I told my team about it, they wanted to help her out and do something for her,” Hays said. ”We are very lucky. We’re going to meet Lauren before the game. We’re going to do something with the two teams together for her.”
Hays spent four years as an assistant coach. She’s never had to deal with anything as emotional as this game.
”It really hits you hard,” she said. ”When you’re a coach, it’s not all about winning and losing and how successful your team is. When you see a girl graduate and go on and be successful and have a family, that’s when it really when pays off be a coach.
”It’s heart-breaking to think that’s not going to happen for her, just so hard being in that situation,” Hays said. ”But she is so strong and inspiring. She doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.”
It’ll be one of two high-profile games in Cincinnati on Sunday. The Bengals host Jacksonville at Paul Brown Stadium, with the NFL kickoff coming an hour before tip-off to the basketball game.
Hill has started a layup challenge to try to raise money for research into her type of brain cancer so that others might have a better chance of beating the disease. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and left tackle Andrew Whitworth were among those she challenged.
The Bengals players made their layups on Tuesday.
”I’m glad a lot of people have caught on and understand what she’s going through,” Dalton said on Wednesday. ”I wish that we could be there, wish the game wasn’t at the same time that we’re playing. I’m glad there’s been a lot of support for her because it’s such an unfortunate situation, but they’re really making the most of it.”
Whitworth has written her No. 22 on his game gloves as a show of support.
”When I asked her what her passion is, she says that she wants the next person who has what (cancer) she has or people with it down the line to have better options than her and to have a better experience,” Whitworth said. ”It’s unbelievable.”