Sports help cousins cope with loss

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Sports help cousins cope with loss

Story by Jenna Stanbrough

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When freshman Lucy Staats arrived on the Baker University campus in August, she was looking forward to getting away from her family and experiencing college life.

Lucy’s cousin, Alyssa Staats, was entering her final year of college at Baker hoping to make the most of opportunities the year would provide.

But what the year actually had in store brought them closer together and closer to their family than ever before.

Freshman Lucy Staats warms up during the Baker University softball team’s home opener on March 11.Laura PriceSenior Alyssa Staats, sophomore Erika Mallery and members of the Baker University dance team perform on March 11 in Collins Center.Tera Lyons

Despite facing three family deaths within five months, the Staats cousins have stayed focused on both their academics and athletics, using the adversity as motivation to succeed.

Unexpected loss

It began on Labor Day weekend, when Alyssa’s father, Doug, married her stepmother, Wendy. The couple then left on a motorcycle and headed to Minnesota for their honeymoon. On their way, they made a stop at a convenience store, where Wendy got “a blank stare on her face,” which Doug noticed was a symptom of a stroke. On Sept. 5, Alyssa’s new stepmother died.

“It was such a happy weekend, and then the next weekend she was gone,” Alyssa said.

Alyssa had found her “second mother” in Wendy. She wasn’t just a perfect fit for Doug or Alyssa, but for the entire family as well.

“I was in a long-term relationship and it ended, and she was like the only one ever there for me,” Lucy said. “I spent like every day with her. She was more of my best friend than my aunt. She fit perfectly in our family.”

About a month later, Lucy’s and Alyssa’s 84-year-old grandfather began to feel ill and requested he be taken to the hospital. After receiving a call that they were just going in for routine tests, Lucy soon found out it was much worse than that.

“I showed up just in time for him to be talking to the doctors and saying like, ‘if anything does happen, I do not want to be resuscitated, and I just want to go when it’s my time,’” Lucy said. “I was devastated when I heard him say he doesn’t want to be resuscitated.”

Lucy recalls she had to leave the hospital for a softball game against the University of Kansas that night. Although she wanted to stay by her grandfather’s side, he insisted she go. After a hug and exchange of “I love yous,” she took off for the game, but that was the last time she would get to see him. He died the next day.

Lucy and Alyssa’s grandmother and grandfather were married 62 years and had never spent a Valentine’s Day apart, which may explain why, Alyssa said, her grandmother began to feel ill in February.

“It was just really hard on her,” Alyssa said.

Two days before Valentine’s Day, their grandmother died.

“She slowly dissipated, and one day I got a call and they said she had 24 hours to live, just like I did with Wendy and Grandpa and now my Grandma,” Lucy said.

Finding relief

Within five months, the Staats family had lost three family members. Add the sadness and heartbreak on top of the stress of school and sports, and Alyssa and Lucy were both doing their best to stay afloat.

While it was difficult to be missing classes, BU professors made it easier for Lucy and Alyssa because of their understanding and sympathy.

Sitting through lectures can lead to a wandering mind, which often causes the sadness to resurface, Alyssa said. It’s the constant reminder of their presence, however, that keeps her motivated.

“They wouldn’t want us to sit here and sulk about it. We know they’re watching, we know they wouldn’t want to miss out on it, they would want us to do good,” Alyssa said. “Especially me, being my last year, I kind of use that to try to perform my best, and it’s really helped a lot having a close-knit family.”

Without a close relationship with each other, going through such difficult times would be much harder for both Alyssa and Lucy.

“We don’t think of ourselves as cousins, we kind of think of ourselves as sisters and best friends,” Alyssa said. “(We) do whatever we can to make each other feel better, because we know that we’re the only two people that are going through it. If we’re not close, then we’d be doing it by ourselves and that’s not something we want to do.”

In addition to each other, the two have turned to their respective sports to find comfort and a peace of mind. Lucy plays as an infielder for the softball team and Alyssa is a captain of the dance team.

The dance team placed third at the NAIA National Invitational March 14-15. Although Alyssa’s pain of knowing her stepmom wouldn’t be in the stands to watch her perform still lingered, coach Lynsey Payne and teammates were supportive from the beginning.

The day of her stepmom’s visitation, Alyssa had to miss practice, but when she turned around that day, she saw, to her surprise, her teammates there as well.

“I walked in actually and looked at the flowers and saw the flowers from my team,” Alyssa said. “Then I turned around and saw my whole entire team — knowing that Lynsey ended practice early and everyone drove 45 minutes from Baldwin (City) to Paola just to come be there for me.”

Senior teammate Maddie Kristoffersen said Alyssa always came to practice with a positive attitude and didn’t want to let her emotions affect her performance.

“We all knew she was having a rough time, but she didn’t want to let it show,” Kristoffersen said. “She worked so hard and was really focused at dance. She’s a really strong teammate and would be there for any of us just like we would always be there for her.”

Lucy has also experienced success on the softball field and attributes it to her three angels. After hitting three home runs at the Oklahoma Baptist University Spring Festival Feb. 21-22, she was named the Heart of America Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

“When I hit that first home run, it was like a relief for me. I knew there was a reason I hit that. And then when I hit the other two the same day, after the games, I was like, ‘whoa, I know why I hit those,'” Lucy said. “I felt them there, they were there. They were watching over me like it was meant to be. It was an absolute … unexplainable feeling. I was just overcome with such happiness, and I felt like I finally had a relief from all the hurt and everything.”

Head coach Jamie Stanclift said she understands that Lucy’s mind is heavily weighed down with these tribulations, but sees that the effort is always there.

“I would say that she makes an extra special effort every day to come to softball every day with a clear mind and comes prepared to really buy into what we’re doing at practice and work really hard to keep a positive mindset and focus on the task at hand,” Stanclift said. “That’s something that’s really hard for people to do is to set aside something that’s weighing so heavily on your mind and get the job done.”

Gone but not forgotten

Lucy’s home-run experience isn’t the only sign that their family members are with them. Little reminders, such as a beautiful sky or quirky phrases, let them know their angels are always with them, and their family is closer because of it.

“It just pulls me so much closer to my family and just makes me realize that sometimes the college life, the partying, whatever, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Lucy said. “There’s more to life than college. I mean, yeah the college experience is great, don’t get me wrong, but my family will be there forever.”

The realization that Lucy won’t get to see these smiling faces after a home run, or Alyssa won’t see them in the stands during a dance performance, is hard for the time being, but looking toward the future, there will be much more than just sports in life.

“They’re never going to get to see me or my cousins graduate college. They don’t get to see us get married. That’s a really tough thing to deal with. You imagine your whole entire family to be there and everyone that you love,” Alyssa said. “Just the realization that they’re not going to be there anymore, and that you don’t get to see them and you don’t get to share that special moment with them.”