Loyola Coach Is Honored For Courage Beyond The Field

By Nelson Coffin

Under almost any other circumstances, the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association luncheon last week in Baltimore would have been an altogether happy occasion. And to be sure, there were plenty of smiles to go around for many of the coaches, guests and honorees at the Sheraton Renaissance Hotel, such as Division III Coach of the Year Missy Foote of two-time defending champion Middlebury, Division II winner Janet Grubbs of Longwood College, Division I's Jenny Graap from national semifinalist Cornell and Karen Brine for her years of contribution to the sport's growth with Brine Lacrosse. It's just that when one of your own is struggling against a disease as relentless as brain cancer, it's tough not to think about it. Diane Geppi-Aikens, the popular Loyola College Coach suffering with the acute illness, was on everybody's mind before, during and after plaques were handed out and speeches given.

Geppi-Akins with assistants Kerri Johnson and Tom Ryan

Geppi-Akins' condition has worsened to the point where it's said that surgery will no longer stop the growths on her brain stem. Radical radiation therapy is the mother of four's last hope of survival, according to several of her friends. With that specter hanging over the gathering, people still carried on. Geppi-Aikens was seated near the front of the room in a wheelchair, welcoming well-wishers who flocked to trade pleasantries and share a hug. Then came the awards, speeches and acknowledgement of a colleague in distress.

Tear ducts were put on full alert when Foote told a story about the first time she had guided Middlebury into the playoffs, only to get waxed by the College of New Jersey at the University of Maryland. As she tried to shake off the loss, Foote found a new friend for consolation and consultation in College Park that day. "Here I was walking around after the game, trying to figure out how to get over such a devastating loss, and Diane came up to me," Foote said. "She took me under her wing and we hung out for awhile, with her kids playing with my kids. I thought how great it was for a Division I coach to take me under her wing like that."

Another speaker, Harvard's Carole Kleinfelder, chimed in with words about how much Geppi-Aikens has meant to the sport. "She's strong-willed and passionate about the game and about her family," said Kleinfelder, second in wins (249) among the top 20 in total games coached. "All of us who ever coached against her know that what you're dealing with is a motivator who could take good players and make them play out of their cotton pickin' minds. The Greyhounds are very lucky to have her as a coach. She gives them her spirit and her passion."

The national coach of the year in 1996 and 1997 also gave the 'Hounds a very good chance of winning, as a career 180-69 (72%) record at Loyola indicates. Off the field, Geppi-Aikens' game-plan was almost as effective in turning acquaintances into confidantes with an irresistible brand of enthusiasm. "She's a friend and a drinking buddy who introduced me to crabs and beer in Baltimore," said Kleinfelder, drawing laughter from the crowd.

When it was Geppi-Aikens' turn to speak, she cut to the chase like a go-getter goaltender (which she was at Loyola before graduating in 1984) bolting the crease on a fastbreak. "As you all know, I've been dealing with this tumor since 1995," she said to the hushed crowd, her voice cracking at times. "I feel fortunate just to be here today. I have an appreciation for every day I have left. And I want to thank you all for being here today. But you know I'm still going to try to kick your asses out on the field if I have the chance."

After the laughter from Geppi-Aikens' final remark subsided, the events' most prestigious piece of hardware - the IWLCA Lifetime Achievement Award - was handed out after it was given a new name. Henceforth, it will be known as the Diane Geppi-Aikens Lifetime Achievement Award. The 2003 recipient was Old Dominion's Sue Stahl, who also talked about her longtime rival. "The award is obviously special now that her name is on it," said Stahl, referring to her stricken colleague. "And it is even more special that she was here to give it to me."

A website (www.caringbridge.org/md/aikens) has been set up by another of Geppi-Aikens' closest pals, Johns Hopkins women's Coach Janine Tucker. The Blue Jay boss said that the website will be updated frequently and that visitors are encouraged to leave messages for Geppi-Aikens, who just returned from California after receiving the NCAA inspiration Award given to a person who has overcome a life-altering situation to become a role model for others. Few could beef with the selection, considering Geppi-Aikens' record since first being diagnosed is a remarkable 100-28 with seven consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.

Photos by John Strohsacker

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