Sticking to her heart

Story by: Tyler Hotz, Senior Sports Reporter

Video by: Maleek Loyd, Video Editor

Before the women’s basketball season started in the High Country, headlines surrounding the team were everywhere, but not in the way that Angel Elderkin expected.

Elderkin, the third-year App State women’s basketball head coach, was in the middle of a fight against cancer. Even with her setback, she continued to coach team that she loved.

As her season finished up, her fight with cancer gave her a new perspective on basketball and her life off the court.

Though her fight has gained the attention of many, few know what brought Elderkin to Boone in the first place.

Fighting cancer is not where her story began. Instead, it began with the attitude and determination to use basketball as a way to work through challenges.

Section One: Only a mile away

Born in downtown East Providence, Rhode Island, Elderkin’s parents made a modest living. Her mother worked in the medical field and her father worked as a construction worker. Escaping the action on the busy streets, Elderkin and her older brother used sports as a release from the sounds of the city.

“It was a different era and we did a lot at the playground,” Elderkin said. “I used to go with my brother and he was into basketball so I would just follow him and dribble the ball, ride my bike and walk everywhere.”

Everywhere her brother went, Elderkin followed, emulating his passion for the game they both grew to love. Begging their parents to get them a hoop, the Elderkin’s pleas went unanswered.

Basketball hoops were hard to come by where Elderkin lived, and even after walking miles to find a hoop, she would often have to settle for a stop sign. Hitting that stop sign over and over again, she gained the diligence the game requires, recording points with every ping off the back of the red octagon.

“Basketball was more of an escape, and it was something that I loved at a young age,” Elderkin said. “It gave me involvement with other people and I enjoyed being a part of a team.”

Growing as a basketball player, Elderkin began to play the game in as many team settings as she could, wishing to someday play varsity basketball in high school.

Saving up their money, Elderkin’s parents were able to enroll her in St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. With the academy 15 minutes away from her home Elderkin had the opportunity to move outside her home community, thriving in the classroom and on the court.

Middle school extended until ninth grade at St. Raphael’s, and because of this, Elderkin got to play basketball all four years at the school. Picking up other sports, Elderkin also played softball for three years and ran cross-country for two years in Pawtucket.

“I had some good coaches and some people in the community that would pick me up and take me to practice, so the coaching along the way helped me,” Elderkin said. “I had some high school coaches that were really invested and they really helped me develop.”

Developing into a strong athlete, Elderkin received offers to play college basketball and softball at the University of Southern Maine. Known for their dominance of Division III basketball, the multi-sport athlete took the offer and began her college career in Portland.

Starting off, Elderkin found it hard to find playing time on an impressive roster, only playing in 17 games her freshman season. Aside from basketball, however, Elderkin excelled in softball, leading the Huskies in hitting her junior year which gained her all-conference honors.

Outside of sports, Elderkin excelled in the classroom, becoming a two-time winner of the William B. Wise Scholar-Athlete Award. This success, however, was disguised in uncertainty.

Throughout Elderkin’s college career, she changed her major three times, unable to find her exact path. Identifying her true passion was a mystery, but that all changed with a talk with her head coach, Gary Fifield.

Coaching for 27 years, Fifield compiled a 648-123 record, consistently making runs in the NCAA Division III tournament. Success at Southern Maine was second nature and the decorated head coach saw that one of his players had the intangibles to excel on the sidelines.

“My college coach brought me in for a meeting and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about coaching?’ and I said, ‘well not really,’” Elderkin said. “He always saw me at camp and heard me on the bench, and now that I was injured [my senior year] he thought I really should look into some graduate assistant positions, and I did.”

Stepping out of her college life in Portland, Elderkin relied on her resources to push her along. Luckily for her, the first steps into coaching became second nature, winning the respect of all who would listen.

Angel Elderkin and her University of Southern Maine teammates in 1997. Courtesy of University of Southern Maine

Section Two: Given the Chance

The coaching world is a tough place to belong, where finding the right job often is a dream in itself.

As Elderkin finished up her degree at Southern Maine, she took the advice of Fifield and chased a career in coaching. However, reality quickly revealed the difficulties of finding a hold on the coaching ladder.

Working in campus recreation at Southern Maine, Elderkin befriended the person who ran the entire operation. Ultimately, her friendship led her to gaining a graduate assistant position at East Tennessee State University.

While this gave her direction to life after college, initiative to break into the coaching game came from outside of her graduate assistant title. Instead of gaining a graduate assistant position for basketball, Elderkin worked for campus recreation, using her limited free time to make an impression on the basketball court.

“What people really don’t know is that I went to ETSU as a campus rec graduate assistant, and I hounded the basketball office every day to let me volunteer,” Elderkin said. “I would finish my 20 hours at campus rec and then would go to basketball and be constantly around and was probably annoying at the time, but how are you going to turn away free help?”

Through trial and error, Elderkin’s persistence paid off, earning her an assistant coaching position at Siena University in Missouri. Staying from 2001-2005, a golden opportunity from women’s basketball royalty came calling.

The opportunity came from the University of Tennessee, commanded by legendary head coach Pat Summitt. In her time, Summitt won eight national titles and set the pace for career victories, recording 1098 in her time with the Lady Vols.

Claiming she at times was “too big for her own britches,” Elderkin used her three years at Tennessee to actively learn from some of the game’s brightest minds. 

“I took what I learned from coach Summitt and her staff and I took a piece of them and fused them with my own style,” Elderkin said. “That’s when I really became a good assistant coach.” 

Growing as a basketball coach, Elderkin’s role elevated from a graduate assistant in her first year in Knoxville to acting as the video coordinator in her final year, helping the Lady Vols capture a national championship in 2007. 

“Angel has a great knowledge of the game and watches tape,” then-assistant coach and current Tennessee women’s head basketball coach Holly Warlick said. “Angel is just good at her job; it wasn’t crazy. She was an MVP, but honestly she loved doing her job and did it well.”

Winding down, Elderkin’s skills at Tennessee were noticed, especially from former Virginia head coach Debbie Ryan. Given a significant salary increase from the Cavaliers, Elderkin found it hard to say no, even with Summitt offering to up her pay.

At Virginia, Elderkin started work under a new title: recruiting coordinator. Identifying with high school athletes, the new member of the Virginia coaching staff enjoyed forming bonds with developing basketball players.

In 2011, after over four years in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ryan unexpectedly stepped down, surprising Elderkin and prompting her to make a move. This time she would return to the job of video coordinator, but instead at Louisiana State.

Following a quick year in Baton Rouge, Elderkin made her way back up north, taking a job at St. Johns. Casting doubts to the side, her work with the Red Storm gave her confidence to run a program on her own.

“When I went to work with Joe Tartamella at St. Johns in his first year as a head coach, I realized that I could do this,” Elderkin said. “We had had a year together, and it was his first year being a head coach and I was his right hand person. It made me realize and have the confidence to be like ‘Okay, I’m ready do this.’”

Returning to Louisiana State for the 2013-14 season, Elderkin signed with an agent to finally take on the load of being in charge of her own team.

Getting various job offers, one place in particular stood out to Elderkin: Boone, North Carolina. Oddly enough, the first time she felt that way was in May 2014 when she was interviewing for another school’s head coaching vacancy.

“I signed with an agent and when I signed with him he gives you a sheet, and the sheet has a bunch of questions, but one of them tells you to list your dream job,” Elderkin said. “App State was on that list, and I don’t think a lot of coaches can really say that. I walked around and I said ‘Man, if this job ever opens, I’m going to be interested.’”

The setting of App State’s campus piqued Elderkin’s interest, resembling the campus of where she took some of her first steps into coaching. Months passed, but the prospective head coach was still on the hunt.

Driving back to Baton Rouge from Rhode Island after a family visit, Elderkin received an unexpected call from her agent, and the news turned out to be one of the best birthday presents she had ever received. On August 18, 2014, the day of her 37th birthday, news broke that the Mountaineer job had become available, prompting her to quickly apply.

Less than two months later, Elderkin accepted her dream job, earning an offer and signing on to become the next head coach for App State. While the butterflies of coaching were massive, adjusting to life in her new home stretched further than the hardwood.

“You put in your time because you want to make sure you get it right and find the right fit,” Warlick said. “For Angel, she had opportunities but didn’t take them, and it has always been about the right fit. At Appalachian State, she saw a program that had the potential to be special and that could win.”

Section Three: Running the show

Coming into a new job can be challenging, especially if the people you are in charge of have barely heard of you.

Elderkin had taken over the App State program one month before the regular season began, giving her a disadvantage in her first head coaching position. Her celebration was short-lived as she had little over a month to get her new team ready for a game in Lexington, Kentucky against the Kentucky Wildcats.

Taking over in October, Elderkin knew there would be added challenges to make sure her team was ready to go.

“It was exciting for me because I realized that this was my show, but it was also scary,” Elderkin said. “I had just met these players two days ago, and now I am walking in and trying to coach them. To me, it was how am I going to show to these players that I care about them when I just got here two days ago? It was more than just basketball when I first got here, and I had to get to know the players.” 

Elderkin running a practice.

Starting off, Elderkin tried to strike a balance between her 30 allotted practices and getting to know each one of her players individually. Assessing their goals, she knew that understanding her players would help her ease a challenging situation.

“Of course there was going to be a transition of power, but there also was a transition of trust too,” senior guard Bria Carter said. “She really wants to get to know all of us individually and get to know us on and off the court.”

Pushing through the first few months of practice, Elderkin saw her team start strong, winning three of their first five games. Although finishing 14-16 on the season, the success of her first few months helped her gain the trust of her players. 

On the other side of the Mountaineer program, another narrative was forming. First year head coach Jim Fox had taken over the App State men’s basketball program in the same year, but he was brought in six months earlier than his counterpart Elderkin.

“Angel deals with the same thing, and we are trying to develop that culture and support system,” Fox said. “People want to follow winners, and we need to win.”

Falling in line with that, Elderkin has looked to assemble a coaching staff that emulates her values and expectations. Winning basketball games was one thing, but winning off the court was also of keen interest.

Looking back to her days as a college athlete, Elderkin’s impact off the court matched her on-court performance. Her former experiences as high school class president and college camp leader also molded her perspectives, rubbing off into her coaching style and focus.

“I wanted people who were passionate about basketball and passionate about developing young women because that’s really what we do,”  Elderkin said. “I wanted hard workers who could develop relationships because that is so much of recruiting, and [I wanted to find] the right people who were going to be loyal and have my back.”

Leaving her former assistant coaching job at Elon, assistant coach Kate Dempsey thought that her days in basketball had passed. The former standout Wofford post player had played four years in college while also playing a year abroad in Portugal.

Reaching out in December of her first year, Elderkin asked Dempsey to return to basketball but this time behind the scenes. For her first year Dempsey spent time as the director of basketball operations, easing her way back into the work she left just months ago.

“Getting an opportunity to work with coach Angel and to provide some of the support for the program starting off was intriguing for me,” Dempsey said. “It was an interesting challenge.”

Accepting that challenge, the Mountaineer program saw struggles in the win column, collecting only 10 wins in Elderkin’s second season.

Elderkin drawing up a play for the team.

Delving into the X’s and O’s in the offseason, Elderkin had much to look forward to. The team returned four seniors, all of which had played influential minutes in the previous season.

With life on the court trending upwards, life outside the hardwood came face to face with a past reality, which began the uphill struggle that Elderkin knew she could overcome.

Section Four: An Unseen Battle

The past has always been involved in Elderkin’s life, stemming mostly through her family’s challenges.

Her family faced adversity, but the largest battle was unseen until a trip to the doctor’s office. Elderkin’s mother, Carolyn, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, which ultimately claimed her life in 2014 at age 61 after years of fighting. The future App State head coach was only 36 at the time of her mother’s death.

In May 2015, the past had returned, but this time, it impacted Elderkin directly. During the week of final exams in the spring semester, Elderkin went to the doctor for a normal checkup, but the results she received were unexpected.

Elderkin was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, which begins in a layer of cells that line the uterus. Most cases usually originate over the age of 50, making the coach’s diagnosis rarer than most.

With most of her student-athletes leaving Boone for their respective homes, Elderkin decided to keep her diagnosis mostly to herself. As they returned months later for summer workouts, they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

“They thought they were walking into the first team meeting of the summer, and here I was telling them about my diagnosis,” Elderkin said. “Originally, we weren’t going to tell anybody and keep it in house. When I started to lose my hair, we were realized we had to do something.”

Handling the pressures of losing her hair, Elderkin knew that she had to go public with her diagnosis, which immediately brought loads of support from inside and outside of the App State community.

Overwhelmed with the support, Elderkin wanted to do her best to keep the basketball environment as natural as possible. Enlisting her closest associate, Elderkin reached out to her next-door neighbor in the basketball office.

“She gave me my job, which was to keep things as normal as possible,” Fox said. “When it happened, I wanted to respect her privacy but as a friend I am here to do anything she needs me to do. What happened to her in terms of her illness had nothing to do with how our players see her, and our players always admired the passion that she put into her job.”

Removing the cancerous tissue, doctors quickly worked to get Elderkin on the road to treatment. When Elderkin woke up from her operation, Sylvia Hatchell, the North Carolina women’s basketball coach who had her own fight with cancer in 2013, was at her side. 

Elderkin and Sylvia Hatchell after Elderkin’s hospital visit.

Hatchell, a leukemia survivor, visited Elderkin following her surgery, bringing along with her a book titled “Fight! Fight! Discovering Your Inner Strength When Blindsided by Life.” An avid bookworm, Elderkin appreciated the book, but what came next was even more extraordinary.   

Helping Elderkin, Hatchell connected the App State coach with the cancer treatment center in Chapel Hill. With a schedule set, Elderkin got back to what she did best: planning.

“When I got diagnosed, very similar to how I coached my team, I got a calendar and put it on the table and I was like ‘treatment one, 21 days’ and ‘treatment two’ and within that I would look and see how I could move it around,” Elderkin said.

Taking the fight with cancer directly, Elderkin took an unconventional approach to dealing with chemotherapy’s side effects. Conserving her energy, Elderkin used almost all of her time not in the treatment room resting up to tackle summer practices.

With the help of Fox and her assistant coaches, the women’s team had practices aligned to the best possible times for their head coach. Often, Elderkin would sleep almost all day, building up the necessary strength for a two hour summer practice.

“It shows how much she loves us and how dedicated she is to us,” junior guard Madi Story said. “She puts us ahead of her health sometimes, and that is not always good but it sets a really strong example for what we should do for our teammates.”

Inspiration to carry on this defiant attitude came from many places. A quick glance into her office revealed the important pieces of her life, including her battle with cancer.

On one shelf, a signed basketball from her championship year at Tennessee sits front and center. Across the room rests a mini-helmet signed by James Connor, the Pittsburgh University running back who pushed through Hodgkin’s lymphoma to return to the game he loved.

Outside the office, friends from the past began to show their support in their own ways. Like many, Warlick wasn’t aware of Elderkin’s diagnosis until June, and soon enough, she wished to show her support for her friend.

Returning from a recruiting trip in the northeast, Warlick found the perfect gift to show that she was also fighting for Elderkin.

“She’s from that area [Boston] and loves anything about the Red Sox and the Patriots,” Warlick said. “I saw that [Boston Strong] sweatshirt and immediately thought of Angel and just grabbed it for her. It was twofold for her to know that I was thinking about her and for her to understand that it takes a strong person to go what she’s going through.”

Even though she was aching, Elderkin continued to give her all at practice, resting the remainder of the day if it was necessary. As the summer winded down, the skills and lessons she had learned from basketball motivated her to exceed all lofty expectations.

Section Five: Defining the Moment

Entering her third year as head coach, Elderkin’s fight with cancer supplanted the expectations of her team. That focus, however, was only seen in the headlines.

For Elderkin, the desperation to lead her team was evident. Her doctors, her players and her family all knew she had one goal: coaching her team from game one onward.

As the season approached, treatments continued to intensify, yielding tougher mountains for Elderkin to climb. Getting to exhibitions against Coker and Lenoir-Rhyne in Boone were challenges on their own, but the next step Elderkin took was even more shocking.

Chicago marks the site of DePaul University, which happened to be the first road game for the Mountaineers. With her last round of treatment only three days away, many questioned whether Elderkin should join her team so far away.

As expected, she listened to her heart and made the over 600-mile trip to command her team from the sidelines.

“My aunt was here [in Boone] to take care of me, and she used to be so mad when I would leave the house and go to practice,” Elderkin said. “She was at DePaul, and she was so mad that I was coaching and questioning why I was doing it. It’s my journey, and no one can really be in your shoes during that moment.”

Finishing her final round of chemotherapy on Nov. 14, Elderkin then gutted out another road trip to Liberty University three days later, seeing her team capture a 66-57 victory.

Returning home, the end of her treatment was in sight. Keeping herself preoccupied with basketball, her cancer-associated timeline pushed forward, coinciding with a return to Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. 

On Dec. 14, Elderkin’s Mountaineer team entered Knoxville for a non-conference matchup against the Lady Vols. The former assistant has returned to Tennessee as an assistant for other coaching staffs, but this time was full of firsts, leading her team out of the tunnel against a team that no longer had Pat Summitt on the bench or in the crowd. 

For the current Lady Vols coach, the moment of seeing one of her former friends coaching against her was stunning on its own, coupled with Elderkin’s determination through her battle off the court.

“It’s gratifying to see Angel where she wants to be, so anybody that comes up the ranks and wants to be head coach is awesome,” Warlick said. “It brings a big smile to my face to think that not only is she coaching, but she’s doing it with a bigger cause of fighting cancer. That’s twofold for me.”

The next day, the Apps made their way back to Boone and Elderkin made her way to a CAT scan. Unaware to her at the time, the scan revealed that she was cancer free.

Days later, Elderkin’s doctors informed her she was in remission, giving her good news to share at the team’s Christmas party the same day.

Christmas also brought another present, which was something that was made even more special for its timing. Elderkin’s battle with cancer had been noticed outside of Boone, so much so that it earned her the USBWA Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award.

The presentation of the award was during the women’s Final Four in Dallas, Texas, on March 31. Elderkin was a co-recipient with ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe, who has also been fighting cancer.

On the court, the Mountaineers finished the season at 12-19, still two games under the mark Elderkin set in her first season with the team.

Marks that came up short on the stat sheet were frustrating but these shortcomings could not match what Elderkin learned about herself.

“Not that I take any loss not as hard this season, but having cancer has put a lot of things in perspective for me in terms of knowing that this is a game,” Elderkin said. “There are a lot of things in the course of a game that you have absolutely no control over, so as long as you control what you control, then you’re okay.”

For her players and coaches, the experience helped them put life in perspective outside of days in Holmes Convocation Center. Elderkin’s mid-season hire from 2014, Kate Dempsey, said that this year of coaching has been her most influential and that it will always impact her going forward.

Playing for a team during a season like this one, Elderkin’s players found a newfound level of respect for life, which would have been impossible without her attitude seen every day.

“It makes you re-evaluate a lot of things, and it brought us closer together,” Story said. “It made me re-examine my life and my motivations that I thought were difficulties in my life, and it gave me a new perspective.”

As this chapter closes for her time at App State, a new season offers bountiful opportunities. Returning is Story, the Mountaineers leading scorer, alongside Katelyn Doub and Kaila Craven, two Mountaineer veterans who missed all or almost the entirety of season due to injury.

Chasing her first winning season in Boone, Elderkin realizes that her battle is not over. Yet with baselines calling, she awaits the next time she gets to hassle her players from the sidelines.

Identifying with cancer in the only way she can, she copes with the disease in terms of the game she loves. Basketball equipped her with will to keep going, competitively surpassing each and every goal.

“For anybody who would be diagnosed with cancer, no matter what it is that you love don’t stop doing what you love because it will take everything from you only if you let it,” Elderkin said. “I certainly didn’t let cancer take coaching from me or even stop me. That gave me the power to fight, every time I went in and got another round I would tell my team that we won.”

“I’m competitive, and I don’t know if every person who gets diagnosed thinks of it as a basketball game, but luckily I’ve had this game and it’s taught me and prepared me to win and fight, so I felt more equipped,” Elderkin said. “I’m hoping that once I get past this season then I can talk to people and say ‘This is how to approach it.’ They may not know anything about basketball, but maybe I could teach them how to fight and use basketball as just a reference point.”

As this season’s campaign came to a close, Elderkin stuck to her heart, coaching all 31 games on the Mountaineer sideline.

Going forward, each hour spent inside and outside of the gym will carry new significance: an idea of life’s importance that started before her fight, yet realized in a season that brought everything together.

Leave a reply

** *

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*