Geneva Reuniting with its Coach to ‘Wynn the Battle’

By Justin Zackal

Geneva head coach Lori Wynn.

Many coaches don’t have to be up in players’ faces to influence their teams. Some don’t have to constantly shout instructions from the bench. The head coach for the Geneva women’s basketball team doesn’t even have to be in the same state. She’s been in her players’ heads, in their hearts and even on their feet.

“Even though I can’t audibly hear her, I hear her,” said senior forward Rachel Larson. “She’s in my head. There are a lot of times when I’m doing something and I can hear her like, ‘Oh, Larson, don’t make that pass!’”

They’ve needed reminders, though. Like the time their assistant-turned-interim head coach demanded they look at their socks to find inspiration to overcome a quarter-long lapse.

That will change Saturday.

Lori Wynn will be there, in real life.

The Geneva head coach’s real-life battle against ovarian cancer has prevented her from joining her team at games so far during her sixth season as coach, rendering her to working remotely from North Carolina since her diagnosis seven months ago. Finally having the strength to travel, and adequate time between chemotherapy treatments, Wynn plans to be with her team for three games, beginning Saturday when Geneva hosts Saint Vincent. The game will be streamed live on the PAC Sports Network beginning at 4 p.m.

“I’ll be excited to be back, sad that I had to miss so much, but grateful for where I am in the journey and how things are looking,” said Wynn, who indicated by phone Sunday that her blood cell counts “are looking pretty good right now,” enough that Feb. 9 will be her final chemo treatment.

Rachel Larson’s teal socks the team has been wearing in support of Coach Lori Wynn.

“I’ve been counting down the days for some time,” said Larson, wearing the teal socks with teal ribbons that the team has been wearing to not only raise awareness for ovarian cancer but as a talisman. “She inspires us even in her absence, so I can’t imagine playing in front of her again.”

After her diagnosis in June, Wynn decided to live with her parents, Bob and Judy, in North Carolina so they can help her through treatments, which included surgery in early November. Her doctor in Pittsburgh also highly recommended cancer specialists at Duke Raleigh Hospital near her parents’ home.

Despite being able to run Geneva’s preseason practices for two weeks in October before her surgery, Wynn handed the whistle to her assistants, Patience Baker and Kendall Hunter, to pilot the Golden Tornadoes through the season.

“I knew Coach Wynn’s program and what she wanted,” said Baker, who was with the team last year before being elevated to interim associate head coach this season. “She made sure to tell me to bring your own personality. That’s what I’ve done. But our program has a foundation that we stand on from when Coach Wynn stepped in the door (six years ago). That doesn’t change.”

Baker is singing from the same hymnal, focusing on several of the program’s core values, just in a different tone.

“I tend to be pretty high-energy and intense and she’s a lot more soft-spoken that I am,” Wynn said. “She’s just done such a fantastic job. For me, it was never a question of who can fill that role.”

Baker, 28, previously a graduate assistant at PAC-school Waynesburg University, brings much-needed fresh ideas to the team, according to Wynn, who has been coaching for 23 years.

With Geneva now accustomed to Baker’s voice in the huddle, Wynn will sit on the bench in the role of an assistant coach when she returns Saturday.

“My desire to come back is to not disrupt what we’ve been doing but to add to it,” Wynn said. “Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll have the stamina to be that involved and active in a first game back.”

Recognizing Wynn’s influence, Baker is more than willing to abdicate the clipboard.

“You’re going to see me on the sideline, I’m going to be looking at her, because at the end of the day she’s still our head coach,” Baker said. “She’s still the top of our program. She’s still my mentor, my support system. I think Saturday is going to be very exciting. Just having her back.”

Geneva players and coaches won’t have to completely reacquaint themselves with their head coach. Players frequently talk on the phone, text message and use video conferencing through FaceTime to connect with their coach including a “thought of the day” that Wynn has contributed at least weekly. Interactions vary among individual players but Larson said they’ll communicate with Wynn about every other day when Wynn is feeling well. Wynn also watches game film and provides input for practice- and game-planning through Baker and Hunter.

“When you’re away from your team it’s super hard,” said Wynn, who also plans to return to the team for possibly two more games in February after her final chemo treatment. “I miss the day-to-day, I miss being in the gym with them, I just miss being around them and being able to connect with them.”

That lament should seem insignificant compared to cancer treatments, but for a coach who loves her job it can’t be understated. Throughout, Wynn has kept high spirits despite her struggle.

“It’s been a process that’s grown my faith,” Wynn said. “From the beginning, this was God’s plan and I didn’t understand it — I wasn’t thrilled about it — but I was never mad or asking ‘Why me?’ I learned a lot about God’s grace and the way He works.”

Her players also have the proper perspective. Geneva entered the week in last place in the PAC with a record of 1-9 and 4-13 overall. The players aren’t dwelling on games lost, but rather what they haven’t lost in Wynn’s absence.

“A big lesson that we’ve learned is working to maintain the culture that we’ve had under Coach Wynn and not lose that,” Larson said.

Although the players’ opponent is not cancer, every game brings a challenge that requires the fighting spirit of their coach.

“We’re battling as she battles,” Larson added.

On Saturday, they’ll battle together.