Describing your team as family is one of the go-to cliches in the world of sports. The idea is that a tight-knit group, one which cares about each member individually on and off the court, will excel collectively.
But for the Medaille women's basketball team, the notion of a community goes beyond a few perfunctory bars of "we are family."
It's become part of who they are, by choice and by life circumstances.
The Lady Mavericks have survived one of the toughest early-season schedules in their recent history and landed in the Division III Top 25 all while helping a teammate and an assistant coach through personal losses.
Medaille enters its exam and holiday break at 7-1, on a five-game win streak, and ranked No. 22 in the latest d3hoops.com poll. It beat Rochester, a team that went to the NCAA Final Four last year and entered the season ranked fifth in the country. Its only loss has been at NYU -- by a 67-63 margin with three starters missing.
"We played tough teams but I don't think anyone thought that we were going to go through a tough emotional first half of the season," senior guard Kacie Mills, from Kenmore East, said. "I think that has really helped us. It brought us together, made us stronger and gave us something to play for."
First came the news from senior Mame Yaa Ankoma-Mensa, a senior guard/forward from Brampton, Ont., that her 19-year old brother lost his battle with mesothelioma this fall. Then, assistant coach Bill Agronin lost his 3-year old grandson, who was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital condition where parts of the left side of the heart do not develop completely. Players went to both wakes, getting an early life lesson in perspective, adversity and family.
"They were touched by the whole thing and that has brought them closer together," seventh-year coach Pete Lonergan said. "They've looked at the tough schedule and thought, 'What's adversity? What does that really mean?'
"We're playing a basketball game and that's nothing compared to the life and death situations they've lived through already early in this season. We've gained some strength from that. We care about each other. We've learned to pick each other up, support each other through good times and tough times. That's been a life lesson."
The lesson has brought perspective to practices for the players, who watched how their teammate showed up, day after day, ready to play during her brother's illness, and how Agronin used his grandson as an example of how to live, no matter what the circumstances.
"Seeing her every day you would never know," senior Amanda Sahhar, a forward from Orchard Park, said of Ankoma-Mensa. "You would never know something this tragic happened to her. That gives us all strength. Knowing that she can go on the court every day and play her heart out and give it everything she has, it makes us say OK, we don't have any real issues. There's no reason why we shouldn't do the same.
"We've been on the team with [Agronin] for four years and every day he would come in and say 'my grandson has heart every day and he only has half a heart.' Those little inspirations really meant a lot to us. He didn't even get a chance to live so how can we throw opportunities like this away?"
As the team bonded and individuals began to have another take on their approach to basketball, the team began to excel on the court. Freshmen were able to step in and fill roles when starters were out with injury or with family. And the wins still came, thus creating a deeper bench for Medaille and giving the freshmen quality experience and a hearty round of confidence.
"It gave our bench experience they're going to need in the long run," Sahhar said. "They got into games that they otherwise might not have and because they did, when we go through our conference play and something happens, someone gets in foul trouble or gets hurt, we have people with that experience, who don't have to be nervous."
Medaille returns to action Dec. 30, hosting William Smith College in a non-conference game. The defending Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference champions are 3-0 in league play and return to AMCC games when they host Hilbert on Jan. 5.