UW-Whitewater women's team feels presence of former teammate as magical season unfolds
WHITEWATER Alex Scarbro was looking forward to the trip to Holland, Mich., from the moment it was scheduled.
She would be a sophomore on the UW-Whitewater women's basketball team when it traveled to play highly-ranked Hope College. Scarbro had played on the same floor as lifelong friend Rebekah Llorens in more than 350 games, and they would have a chance to face each other in an anticipated NCAA Division III matchup.
Scarbro never made it to Holland.
In what became somewhat of a memorial game Dec. 15, the Warhawks lost to the Flying Dutch, 63-52.
Don't fret, Dave Scarbro told Whitewater head coach Keri Carollo. Alex's father had a feeling the Warhawks would see Hope again.
"Sure enough, we play them again, on our floor," Carollo said. "It's such a crazy thing; it gives me goose bumps."
On Saturday, UW-W raced out to an early double-digit lead and held on to beat Hope 65-60. The victory propelled the Warhawks to the D-III Final Four, which in a twist of fate takes place at Hope College beginning today.
'She had no biases'
Friends and family remember Alex Scarbro as a young woman who could be friends with anyone—as long as you were on her team.
"When she played against you, she was against you," Dave Scarbro said. "But once she was your teammate, they'd go play on an AAU team together, and they'd be best friends."
Alex starred at Grayslake (Ill.) Central High School and chose to continue her career at UW-Whitewater because of a family atmosphere that closely resembled the spirit of her high school team.
Teammates are reminded of the happy-go-lucky player whenever they step into Kachel Gym. A small warped spot away from the playing court reminds them of the time Scarbro spilled a water jug in a freshman moment.
As is typical of many first-year players, Scarbro took time to adjust to the rigors of playing collegiate athletics. She played in 14 games as a freshman, scoring 21 points.
"She just was a charismatic kid," said Carollo, the Warhawks' 11th-year coach. "Everybody loved her. She befriended everybody; she had no biases."
Behind the scenes, however, Scarbro suffered through bouts of depression. She had lost one of her twin half-sisters, Sheronda Edwards, to suicide the summer before her freshman year.
"She was really, really fine until her sister passed away," Dave Scarbro said. "You look back and hindsight is 20-20, and you recognize things. You think they're just in college.
"I didn't recognize it because Alex was such a happy person."
'Thank God that we had basketball'
Dave Scarbro said his daughter's schoolwork slipped a bit during her second semester at UW-W. Alex enrolled in summer school in hopes of righting the ship heading into her sophomore year.
But a mix-up that Scarbro referred to as a "paper snafu" left Alex without financial aid for summer classes. When the fall semester rolled around, she owed the university money and was not allowed to re-enroll.
The would-be sophomore flirted with playing for her hometown junior college but eventually decided she would work to pay off her bill at UW-W and return to the Warhawks for the spring semester. Scarbro could have returned to the basketball court for the 2013-14 season.
That plan seemed to be on track.
"It was a matter of weeks before she would be back," Carollo said.
"She said, 'I'm going to go back there and play for three more years,'" Dave Scarbro said. "She said, 'Those girls are my family. My team is up there.'"
At 9 a.m. Nov. 24, Carollo called her players in for an unscheduled meeting.
With UW-Whitewater set to host Edgewood in an early-season nonconference game that night, the phone call immediately signaled that something was amiss.
Soon after, the players learned Alex Scarbro had committed suicide.
"I think for all of us it was really surprising because we thought—and obviously not—but we felt she was really in a good place and moving forward and getting ready to come back," Carollo said.
"The coaches let us decide if we wanted to play that day or not," Whitewater junior Mary Merg said.
"We decided to play for Alex. And then it was just a very emotional day."
The Warhawks cruised to victory in honor of Alex, but it was just the first step in a long grieving process.
"It definitely hit us pretty hard," senior Cortney Kumerow said. "But thank God that we had basketball. If it wasn't for basketball and this team and the coaches, I don't know how we would've got through that."
'She's our basketball angel'
Counseling became the next step for the Warhawks.
"We really sat down again and decided we needed some help," Merg said. "It's a lot to deal with. So we had a couple sessions together, and I think that drew us together, made us heal together."
Clearly, "together" became a key term.
It took time, but the tragedy of losing a former and future teammate brought an already tight-knit group even closer.
"We saw each other in this weak spot," Merg said. "Even the freshmen, they were in pain. Some of them never met Alex, but they saw us, and they were always there for us, too. We kind of just came together, not just the team, but the coaching staff, too."
The players decided they would wear patches on their jerseys to honor Alex. A simple black patch with the white letters "AS" has adorned the left shoulder of each player's uniform ever since.
"She's our basketball angel," Kumerow said. "We have our angel on our shoulder while we're playing, and I feel like she helps us out a little bit sometimes."
'Her presence is everywhere'
The reunion at Hope went on, despite heavy hearts and one key face missing.
Dave Scarbro remains as close as ever with the Llorens family—they helped him with arrangements after Alex's death—but he sat behind the bench of Alex's Whitewater family that December night in Holland, Mich.
"A lot of people talk about family in their programs," Scarbro said. "I can't describe it to people who aren't around it. All I know is that when the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater women talk about family being their program, it truly is."
He has been a frequent figure in the stands at Warhawks games ever since, making the 90-minute drive to nearly every home game.
"As good as I make them feel, they make me feel good, seeing them there," Scarbro said. "We've mutually bonded over this situation. They like the fact that they can see my daughter in me, and I can see her in all of them."
Several UW-W players have told him they feel his daughter with them at moments when they're on the court.
And when quirky things happened on the court that benefited the Warhawks—he remembers a point-blank missed layup at a crucial moment in one game, and a guard dribbling the ball off her foot in another—Scarbro turns to other players' family members and shares a smile.
"They definitely have some mojo or something definitely going on, where something magical is happening," he said.
The Warhawks hope that magic continues in the Final Four today, where they face Amherst in a national semifinal game. A victory would allow them to play for the program's first NCAA national championship.
And it all takes place back in Holland.
"Going back and playing there in the Final Four, it's like it was meant to be," Kumerow said. "Her presence is everywhere. It helps keep her alive. We feel her."
Living in the hearts and minds of the Warhawks players, coaches and families, Alex Scarbro has arrived in Holland.