All-too-familiar tragedy for Cowgirls

A decade removed from the worst day of her life, there is one detail of the ordeal Karen Hancock does not recall.

On Jan. 27, 2001, a plane carrying members of the Oklahoma State men's basketball traveling party home crashed in a snowstorm. Among the 10 people killed that night was Will Hancock, a member of the Cowboys' media relations staff, whose wife, Karen, had three months earlier finished her fifth season as the founding coach of Oklahoma State's soccer team and who had only two months earlier given birth to the couple's first child, Andrea.

"I can't tell you if we won or lost that game that day," Karen said. "I'd have to go look it up in the stat book somewhere. But I always know that I lost my husband that night, and we lost 10 people that night. That never goes away."

Lost that game. Lost her husband. Rarely does the English language fail so completely as in allowing the same word to appear in each of those thoughts. The games we play are distractions from life and death, not substitutes for them.

Yet for the current Oklahoma State women's soccer team, a weekend of all-too-familiar tragedy offered a chance to celebrate life.

And a chance to honor lives lost.

Early Friday morning, little more than 12 hours before the Cowgirls soccer team for which she's now an assistant coach was to take the field for an NCAA tournament second-round game against Illinois, Hancock found Oklahoma State's director of counseling, Suzanne Burks, at her door. The two had become friends in the aftermath of Will's death, and Burks wanted Hancock to hear this news from her before it had a chance to ambush her on campus.

There had been another plane crash involving members of the university and athletic department family, Burks told her. Women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna, along with two others, had perished.

Hancock understands why people have questions for her in the wake of last week's crash; the connection to 2001 inevitable. She understands why Burks wanted to break the news to her in person Friday morning, why soccer coach Colin Carmichael, to whom she turned over control of the program she built from scratch, wanted to know how she was doing that morning, and why more than a few players followed suit. But the story, she insists, isn't about her. It's about Shelley Budke, Kurt's wife, their three children and all those who lost not just co-workers, but a husband, father, son or daughter when the plane crashed in Arkansas on Thursday night.

They are the ones whose worlds were turned upside down and for whom time has stopped, at least for now.

The clock couldn't stop for the women's soccer team in the hours after the news broke. Carmichael said the game that night would have been postponed had it been the regular season, but with three other teams in Stillwater to play out that portion of the bracket, school administrators and the NCAA decided to forge ahead as scheduled. Athletic director Mike Holder spoke to the team in the locker room before it played Illinois, asking them to represent the school and take minds off the tragedy, however briefly.

Oklahoma State's Annika Niemeier scored in the 25th minute and All-American goalkeeper Adrianna Franch made it stand up with seven saves in a 1-0 win.

"The emotion level on Friday, even though everyone is trying to keep it in check, it was off the charts," Hancock said. "No one would talk about it, no one really wanted to say it out loud, but everyone felt it. That day was so hard, everything was so emotionally draining. And for our players to come out that Friday and play as well as they did against a very good Illinois team, we were so proud of them. I'll tell you what, in the last 20 minutes, they were running on fumes, they were gassed. I'm not so sure it was a physical thing, although I'll give Illinois credit, they did a great job attacking us and coming at us. But I think a lot of it was just emotional. It was a hard day. A hard day."

The whole campus mourned, but there were connections between the basketball and soccer programs beyond just the horrific coincidence of Hancock's loss. Franch grew up in Budke's hometown of Salina, Kan., and attended the coach's basketball camps in Stillwater. Franch's high school basketball coach, Bruce Erickson, eventually took a job on Budke's staff at Oklahoma State and encouraged his former pupil and the soccer staff to seek each other out. Still at least part basketball junkie, Franch is close to many of the players on the Cowgirls basketball team, members of which showed up for Sunday's game against Maryland and joined their soccer counterparts in a pregame prayer on the field.

"That's the great thing about OSU is we're family," Franch said. "They realized that we were playing for them and supporting them all the way through this. And they came out and still supported us when it was cold and they were still grieving."

Senior defender Melinda Mercado was a two-sport athlete as a freshman and played one season for Budke. She originally committed to TCU to play soccer, but changed her mind late in the process. Oklahoma State's soccer program had almost no scholarship money left at the time but mentioned her to Budke and Serna. A talented basketball player who was part of a high school state championship team in Oklahoma, she wasn't part of their recruiting plan but also wasn't out of her depth as a Big 12 project. When the basketball team ended up with an open scholarship the summer before Mercado's freshman year, Budke took her on, allowing her to finish the soccer season before joining his team.

"He was very much like a father figure to the girls on the team," Mercado said. "He was very calm, very approachable. I don't even know how else to describe him -- he was a role model for all of us. He was the nicest man. "

As a coach, perhaps he saw a diamond in the rough in the 5-foot-10, defensively inclined Mercado. More likely, he just saw an opportunity to help a fellow coach and help a kid.

"He allowed that for me," Mercado said. "He just had a really big heart. He didn't have to do that."

Oklahoma State players wore orange ribbons during the weekend games to honor the victims but also added their own tribute, orange wristbands with "Cowgirl Family" on them. It is not the same as real family -- as Hancock put it, there is an altogether different level of agony that comes with hearing your husband is dead. But it is a family.

"One thing about Miranda Serna is she was the person who you wouldn't just pass in the hallway; she would come out of her way, go down your hallway to your office to see how you were doing," Hancock said. "She was that person who was just always so positive. Her energy was noticeable physically -- she was that girl who was always bouncing up and down off the walls, just very excited about life. Every day. Any time you lose somebody like that, it's a loss to everybody on this planet."

Serna probably would have been one of the people who checked in on Hancock after news of another plane crash. She definitely would have appreciated the effort the soccer team put forth in following up Friday's result with another 1-0 win against Maryland in the Sweet 16, following up the first quarterfinal appearance in program history a year ago with a second consecutive trip and a chance to reach a first College Cup when the Cowgirls play Stanford on Friday.

Very little fame and no riches are available in the corner of college sports Serna occupied alongside Karen Hancock. It doesn't make them saints in death any more than in life. It just makes them people who believe there is something sports can provide that goes beyond wins and losses.

For Hancock, healing after losing her husband and Andrea's father in such a traumatic manner wasn't a linear process. There was no slow-but-steady progress, she said, just a roller coaster of emotions in which good days, good hours or even good minutes could vanish in a surge of grief that brought her to her knees. Relief came through soccer. Citing the demands of being a single mother among other things, she eventually gave up the top job, sharing co-coaching duties with Carmichael for one season in 2006 and then taking on her current role as an assistant. But from those earliest days of grief, when she was in what she called "emotional survival mode," soccer was a refuge.

"Immediately," Hancock said. "It was an immediate reaction for me that as much as I love the sport, I love the players more. I love the relationships more. The people are more important than the sport. These young people's lives are more important than the games they play. I really just started feeling like you have an opportunity in coaching to get to know some extraordinary young people. I thought I really needed to pay more attention to that and make sure I wasn't missing the boat on that."

What does one weekend of soccer success represent in the context of lives lost and families ripped asunder?

Nothing at all to those for whom a husband or daughter never came home.

And yet also everything for those who devote their lives to watching young people succeed. People like Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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