By John D’Abruzzo
There hasn’t been a bigger story this season in college basketball than the one surrounding Lauren Hill.
A 19-year-old freshman member of Mount Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball team, Hill was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer – Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) – last year. Doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor and gave her only months to live.
They didn’t expect her to make it past December.
Nevertheless, Hill decided she wanted to fulfill her dream of playing college basketball and was able to accomplish that goal on Nov. 2. Against fellow NCAA Division III member Hiram College, Hill took the court for the first time at Xavier University’s Cintas Center. She scored her first collegiate basket when she sank an uncontested layup in front of more than 10,000 fans.
“The look on her face was priceless,” Hiram coach Emily Hays told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “She had that big smile. I’m like, ‘That’s why we’re here.’”
A graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, Hays was the 2009 Presidents’ Athletic Conference Player of the Year and is in her first season as Hiram’s head coach.
“It’s more emotional now than it was even at the game,” Hays said. “It kind of hits you even more when you’re looking back at it.”
Hill went on to face Presidents’ Athletic Conference member Bethany College during her second game on Nov. 21 in the Baldwin Wallace University Invitational. She also scored a basket against the Bison.
“Obviously, we were all very excited to have the opportunity to be part of such an amazing story, even on this very small level,” Bethany head women’s coach Rebecca Upton said. “When we found out that Lauren would be making the trip, the girls were so excited about the prospect of meeting someone who has had such an inspirational impact on the sport of basketball.”
More players, coaches and fans from throughout the PAC have been captivated by Hill’s story.
“When Lauren was first brought to my attention by one of my players, I wanted to know more,” Waynesburg University head women’s basketball coach Sam Jones said. “Considering I work with young ladies like Lauren, her story hit home.
“It was almost impossible not to cry when she was interviewed on TV.”
Waynesburg as well as women’s basketball programs from Bethany, Chatham University, Grove City College, Saint Vincent College, Thomas More College and Thiel College have all helped raise money and awareness in Hill’s honor.
Those PAC teams, as well as more than 300 college, high school and professional basketball teams all donated No. 22 jerseys – the same number Hill wears – to her charity, layup4lauren.org.
“When the story first broke national news, our team decided we wanted to support her,” Chatham head coach Sandra Rectenwald said. “Since we didn’t have a No. 22, we sent in a No. 22 soccer jersey. We also sent her 30 to 40 good luck cards from members of our basketball teams, soccer players, coaches and a few others from around the school who wanted to participate.”
All those jerseys donated were sent to Hill to be autographed and then put up on an online auction. The two-week long charity event raised $64,040. A second auction began Dec. 11 and will last until Dec. 21.
“It was important for our girls to participate and it was something they wanted to do,” said Jones, whose team sent Hill a set of Waynesburg home and away jerseys for the auction. “It’s such a great story. With Lauren’s perseverance, it just reminds you to enjoy life because it really is so special and fragile.”
On Dec. 3, every women’s basketball team across the PAC wore warm-up tee-shirts with a No. 22 and the hashtag, #Layup4Lauren, on the back to help raise money in honor of Hill.
“The conference wanted to show solidarity for Lauren so we bought the Layup4Lauren shirts and backed her 100 percent,” Rectenwald said. “Lauren’s situation is so severe and random. It could happen to any of us at any time. We were all moved by the story.
“My team wanted to encourage her because it really hit close to them. This was athletes supporting another athlete.”
Hill’s story has helped to raise more than $600,000 for cancer research and treatment.
“It says so much about her character,” Rectenwald said. “She is an inspiration to all of us not to complain so much, and to enjoy playing sports because we love it and because it can be taken away at any moment.”
In the past few weeks, Hill has moved back home near Cincinnati and began living under hospice care. She, however, suited up for Mount Saint Joseph’s first home game Dec. 13 against Franklin College.
“Our team is so inspired by Lauren’s journey,” Upton said. “It is amazing the courage she has displayed and the positive energy she exudes.
“I can’t imagine being in her shoes and am so happy that she has gotten to have so many of her dreams come true over the last few months. We wish her all the best and our thoughts and prayers will always be with her and her family.”