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Shawnee State basketball rallies around coach

July 25, 2011

Kansas City, Mo. - Shawnee State (Ohio) head women's basketball coach Robin Hagen-Smith is one of the most storied coaches in the NAIA.  She became the head coach at the age of 22 and posted a 76-52 record in her first five years.  In 1988, Shawnee State became a four-year school and Hagen-Smith has recorded an overall record of 590-146 ever since.  The record ranks sixth all-time among NAIA Division I and II women's basketball coaches. 

She has made 15 trips to the Division II Women's Basketball National Championship, including a 1999 National Championship title, and has coached 10 All-Americans. 

In 2011, she took the Bears to their first Division I Women's Basketball National Championship and advanced to the semifinals.  Hagen-Smith has earned national recognition as she has twice been named to Shawnee State's athletic Hall of Fame, once in 2000 and again in 2009.  She was also inducted into the Ohio State Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

However, something changed in Coach Hagen-Smith's life that she will never forget.  On Dec. 7, 2009, doctors told her that she had been diagnosed with stage one breast cancer right in the heart of basketball season.

Although it was hard news to process, Hagen-Smith was not hesitant in contacting her family.  The first people she spoke to were her two sisters on the phone who lived just an hour away from her.  Each one was very supportive and shocked to hear the information.  She then spoke to her husband Gregg, who is also her assistant coach.

"My neighbor watched our two children so he and I could sit down and decipher the information," Hagen-Smith said.

The next day, she broke the news to her team.  It was an off day for the Bears and the coach led her team down into the locker room.  As the players sat up against the lockers, Hagen-Smith told them she had been diagnosed with cancer.  She was going to do everything to keep daily life as normal as possible and get through the season.

Shawnee State guard Abby Ballman was a sophomore at the time and was heartbroken.

"I was shocked and couldn't believe it," Ballman said.  "It was upsetting and she was the first person close to me that I knew had cancer.  I was curious to know if she would be able to coach us at all."

Jill Cropper, who played center, remembered being in tears as it was a very emotional moment for her and the rest of the team.

"She was like family to all of us," Cropper said.  "The news was like extra motivation for us because we wanted to work extra hard.  We wanted her to worry about beating the cancer and take care of herself."

The Bears traveled to Barbourville, Ky., on Dec. 9 for the Union College Lady Bulldog Baymont Inn Classic hosted by Union (Ky).  Before their game against Berea (Ky.), the team wanted to pay tribute to Coach Hagen-Smith.  Each one of the players decided to wear pink shoelaces.  Hagen-Smith even received a pink-colored scrapbook from one of the parents that read, ‘breast cancer,' with written words of encouragement from every player.  The players also wore T-shirts and bracelets with the team's motto, ‘We Believe' on the back.

During the course of the season, Hagen-Smith would only miss one game, which came on Dec. 18 against NAIA Division I No. 3-ranked Campbellsville (Ky.) due to a radiation treatment appointment.  The No. 4-ranked Bears lost 83-66 and it was only their second defeat of the season. 

Hagen-Smith's dedication to her team was unwavering.  On March 6, 2010, her doctors gave her radiation treatment so that a day later she could travel to Sioux City, Iowa, on the bus with the team for the State Farm-NAIA Division II Women's Basketball National Championship. 

Shawnee State went on to finish as the 2010 NAIA Division II National Championship runner-up.  The Bears had earned a spot in the championship game after erasing a seven-point deficit at halftime for a 55-54 victory over Indiana Wesleyan.  Shawnee State was down by one point when freshman center Catrice Mitchell hit a 3-point shot with four seconds left.

"That game was an amazing comeback," Hagen-Smith said.  "I remember Ballman intercepting the pass with four seconds left before the clock ran out.  It was an emotional finish filled with drama because you didn't know who was going to win the game."

 The Bears then faced Northwestern (Iowa) for the title, falling 85-66.  They capped off their season with a record of 29-7.

"The season was incredible and it's hard to put into words because this team was special in quality as far as student-athletes go," Hagen-Smith said.  "The first comment one of them said to me was, ‘we have your back.'  From the surgery, to the radiation, and the way it ended, it was a special season for sure.  They overachieved and reached their full potential.  It was a miracle for me to be on the sidelines coaching at that time."

It would have been hard to believe that Hagen-Smith had been dealing with a horrible disease by the way she carried herself on and off the court.

"You would have never guessed she had cancer by the way she coached," Ballman recalled.

During her long and tough battle, Hagen-Smith looked up to former North Carolina State women's basketball coach Kay Yow as she was a big influence in her coaching career.  She even received a book authored by Yow from two of her former players during radiation treatment.

"You seem to gravitate more to her story," Hagen-Smith said.  "I watched how she fought and went through so much.  She is the inspiration to so many women, whether they are involved in coaching or not."

Hagen-Smith has had a lot of support from family during her battle with cancer.  She has received cards and emails encouraging her to keep fighting.  Now that basketball is in the offseason, she feels strong and can spend more time with her family and the people who mean the most to her.  She is currently 90 percent cancer free.

One of her biggest motivations has been her two daughters, Ali and Aliza, who Gregg and her adopted from Guatemala.

Hagen-Smith aspires to watch both of them grow up because their presence pushes her every day.  The battle is mentally challenging for her and she can worry more about it, but tries not to. 

These daily trials only bring more meaning for Hagen-Smith to have close-knit family time with her husband and daughters.  The family vacations and time she spends with Gregg on the court are some of the best times of her life.

"We've been coaching together for 27 years and we work with young people on a daily basis," Hagen-Smith said.  "He's been very supportive to me and I'm fortunate to balance coaching and family life."

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