Fullerton women return following tragic week

FULLERTON, Calif. — A group of young women stood in a line facing the far side of Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Gymnasium. All wearing matching orange shirts and white shorts, all ready to take the court. They bowed their heads and gripped one another’s hands, silent in a moment of reflection.

Hailey King, close to the end of the line, let go of her teammates’ hands. She used the collar of her warm-up shirt to dry her tears. Cameras flickered on King and the cry-stained faces of her teammates and coaches, with one noticeably absent.

The Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball team was set to face UC Riverside in the first game since the tragic death of assistant coach Monica Quan last Sunday, Feb. 3, and a Riverside police officer on Thursday. The team played with heavy hearts for “Coach Mo” Saturday afternoon in a Big West Conference game.

The final score — a 64-45 loss — held significantly less meaning than usual. What was important was that for 40 minutes, the team was able to channel its grief, shock and confusion on the hardwood, all the while honoring Quan through its play.

“I can’t begin to tell you what it feels like to function without your family,” Titans head coach Marcia Foster said while holding back tears. “We want to do our best as the season goes on to honor Monica Quan.”

The Titans played the game against a backdrop of a story that has gripped the nation all week. A manhunt for Christopher Dorner, a former Navy-reservist and LAPD officer accused of killing Quan, her fiancé Keith Lawrence and an LAPD officer, wages on for a fourth day in the snowy Big Bear Lake mountains, his whereabouts still unknown.

Quan’s father Randal, a former LAPD captain and lawyer, represented Dorner in a hearing that ultimately led to his dismissal from the force. In an online manifesto posted the day after the murders of Quan and Lawrence, it was revealed that Randal Quan and members of his family were some of Dorner’s targets.

It has become a twisted saga that seems more like a Hollywood script than real life. While the focus of the story continues to shift as the details unfold, in Fullerton, the reality is just starting to sink in.

“It doesn’t make sense to any of us,” Foster said. “She was a rising star and that’s what’s so hard about it all. There was so much life for her to live.”

Alex Thomas, a junior team captain, felt the depth of the devastating loss during the pregame moment of silence.

“Not being able to look down the line and see her with the other coaches, I know for me that was really difficult,” Thomas said. “It was harder than I thought. There were a lot of emotions.”

College sports are true, family units. Athletes reach beyond their respective teams and study together, hang out together and most importantly look out for one another. A team is only a more nuclear family tree. Players spend most of their time outside of class with their teammates and coaches — practicing, traveling, watching film and even eating their meals together.

Assistant coaches often take on the role of older siblings. Quan was no different.

“She’s someone we all looked up to,” Thomas said. “It’s nice because she was so young. She was someone that we could talk to and go to, we could talk about things other than basketball. …

“I think sometimes you take for granted the little conversations that you have with people.”

Athletic Director Jim Donovan, the patriarch of the Cal State Fullerton sports family, has been tasked with keeping his grieving players together during this trying time.

“I’m 53 years old and I can’t explain why these things happen, why somebody gets torn away from you like this at such a young age, that’s got so much of their life to live,” Donovan said. “It’s really difficult for student-athletes (aged) 17-22, to try and understand that.”

Donovan said he has done his best to let his staff and athletes know that they are supported through this time. The AD stressed the need for family support to the entire Titans program. He has been impressed with the way each team has come together in support of the women’s basketball program.

Several Cal State Fullerton athletes were in attendance at Saturday’s game, with the men’s basketball team even staying for the first half before having to board a bus to their evening game at Riverside.  

“You try to help them get through this grieving process that may take the rest of people’s lives,” Donovan said. “It’s going to take a very long time, if ever, that people are healed because Monica was such a nice person. She was so well-loved and just to have it happen the way that it did, it’s just hard for people to grasp.”

Quan left a lasting impression to all that she coached. She was a coach on the rise, one that Foster had kept an eye on for years before she offered her a position with her team. A defensive-minded and detail-oriented coach who stressed boxing out and crashing the boards as much as getting good grades and being a good person.

She was private and professional. She kept much of the details of her relationship with Lawrence to herself, preferring to focus more on the team. Foster had a feeling that Quan and Lawrence were nearing engagement, and was elated for the couple when they finally shared the news. Quan wanted to tell the team herself but didn’t do so until a few days later, forcing Foster to keep the secret.

“I couldn’t tell anyone, which was the hardest thing for me to do,” Foster said. “I was so happy and I wanted to pass the news along to everybody.”

The Titans are still reeling. This loss on the court was their fourth in a row, and their loss off the court coupled with the growing national attention to the tragedy has felt somewhat overwhelming to a team that just wants to heal.

The healing really hasn’t started yet, and the Titans know it will take time.

“It’s like somebody told me earlier today, each day will be a better crappy day than the one before,” Foster said. “I don’t think anyone feels like they’re healing right now. We’re just showing up.”

Until that day finally comes, the Titans will continue to box out and pay attention to the details, exactly how coach Mo would have wanted them to.

“We’re definitely using it as fuel, we’re definitely using it as motivation,” Thomas said. “We’re going to keep trying to honor her the way we should.”