|Lea Sobieraski recovered from Wilson's disease and her contributions to the Knights are immeasurable.
Geneseo athletics photo
Lea Sobieraski knew something wasn't right.
The combined mental and physical toll of juggling a full schedule of classes with a job and daily practices or games had simply caught up to her, she thought. College students, particularly student-athletes, battle fatigue all the time. Still, the unfamiliar bloated feeling in her stomach was concerning.
Two hours after a walk-in visit to the campus health center, Sobieraski's cell phone began to ring repeatedly during an exam. It was the health center -- she needed to get to an emergency room as soon as possible. The bloated feeling was actually free-flowing fluid in her abdomen, eight pounds of excess fluid that would have to be drained. Sobrieraski had no idea on that Friday afternoon in December 2012, but she was about to lose a part of her life temporarily, and a part of her body permanently.
Sobieraski, then a junior at Geneseo in the Finger Lakes region of New York, immediately returned home to Lockport, N.Y., outside of Buffalo. At the hospital, doctors ordered a liver biopsy, after which they told the then-20-year-old Sobieraski that her liver "looked like that of a 60-year-old alcoholic." She was then referred to a specialist at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, who diagnosed Sobieraski with Wilson's disease, a rare genetic disease in which the liver operates without the protein needed to process copper.
It can often be treated with medication, but liver transplants are sometimes unavoidable. And in Sobieraski's case, a transplant would eventually be necessary because of the cirrhosis.
"Just hearing the word 'transplant' definitely is scary for anyone to hear," she said.
The next two months were long, painful, and uncertain. Her father, Michael, began the process of becoming a living donor. Essentially, Michael would have had half of his liver removed to be transplanted into Lea. The liver is the only organ in humans that can regenerate. But that procedure never came to pass.
Sobieraski was placed on the transplant list in late December, but it wasn't until she noticed yellowing in her eyes, a sign of jaundice and liver failure, that she was moved to the top of the list for her specific blood type. Days later, on March 2, 2013, Sobieraski was taken in for the procedure. The initial surgery took about six hours, followed by an additional procedure on an artery.
Sobieraski was, more or less, out of it for two days, but when she awoke, she had a new liver and a gnarly scar. More than 50 staples were required to close the incision and it left a peace sign-shaped mark from her chest down across her abdomen. Sobieraski said her parents jokingly refer to it as her "battle wound."
"I kind of like embrace it," Sobieraski said. "At first it definitely was weird. You look down and it's a constant reminder, but then it's also a constant reminder of how I'm here and how I'm able to do all of these things. ... I love showing it to people. I definitely embrace it and I'm confident about it because I just think it's pretty awesome."
Ten days after the transplant, Sobieraski was able to leave the hospital. Slowly but surely over the course of nearly a year, she began to work herself back into shape, both for school and basketball. Over the three-month period between the diagnosis in December and surgery in March, the 5-foot-11 Sobieraski lost nearly 40 pounds. But with the removal of the liver, she was rid of Wilson's disease. There would be new wrinkles to her new normal though -- anti-rejection medication in the morning and night for the rest of her life, regular blood work and checkups, and no alcohol or grapefruit juice (neither meshes well with the medication).
Of course, after facing down a disease that could have eventually led to death, those seem like small concessions to Sobieraski.
"That was the one thing that really kept me going," she said. "I always wanted to get back and play basketball again."
Sobieraski returned to the team last season with two years of eligibility still at her disposal. She played in 30 games (with five starts) and averaged just 3.3 points per game, but she was able to contribute to a 25-5 season that included a SUNYAC championship and NCAA tournament run to the Sweet 16. Her minutes (19.2) and points per game (4.3) are both up through seven games this season. But her impact goes far beyond box scores.
"Lea's legacy in our program is monumental," head coach Scott Hemer said. "When she was going through her ordeal and our team was contending for a conference championship, she would come back to campus for games, often needing to wear a breathing mask since her immune system was so weak. Imagine the motivation that had for one of the younger teams in the SUNYAC trying to find their way back towards another appearance in a championship game.
"Then last season, with all of those young kids back and a lot wiser, having her back to lead ... showing them how to enjoy every second of life and opportunity they have ... we couldn't help but bring our best effort every night. She made my job easy."
Hemer visited Sobieraski multiple times when she was hospitalized and he was not alone in doing so. Sobieraski said her parents, younger siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and teammates were all regulars at the hospital. And although the diagnosis came two weeks before her 21st birthday and she didn't get to graduate on time with many of her friends, Sobieraski has simply refused to let it all get her down.
"It changed my perspective on life and I had to grow up quickly," she said. "I appreciate things a lot more because of it."
In fact, Sobieraski has used her story as inspiration for others. She has previously interned at the Donate Life center in Buffalo and is currently interning with the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network in Rochester. She has spoken at high schools, helped organize local blood drives and received awards from both the NABC and the Chris Klug Foundation. The Allstate Good Works honor included a trip to the 2015 NCAA Women's Final Four in Tampa Bay, while the CKF honor came with a trip to Aspen.
"There's a reason I went through all of this," she said, "and it's to use my story to spread awareness and help save lives because of it. I've gotten to do pretty awesome things because of it all, because of my passion and dedication to use my story and my journey to help others."
Sobieraski has already completed her business administration degree, but is currently minoring in marketing. She hopes to continue work with an organization or non-profit that focuses on organ donation and recovery, as a way to continue to help and inspire others.
Count her head coach among those already impacted.
"Lea's story is a truly inspirational message about character and perseverance," Hemer said. "Too often media focuses on all the foolish behavior and decisions made by athletes at different levels. In Lea's case, she reveals a young lady who knocked on death's door, used her love of a team and passion for a sport as motivation to overcome incredible odds. Not only did she survive her biggest challenge, but she now utilizes her experience to inspire people of all ages to find selflessness in everything they do, whether motivated by a young student-athlete's life-altering experience or simply because it reminds them how to live.
"Everybody who has been a part of Lea's life is better for knowing her. The effect she's had on me will last long beyond the last game she plays in a Geneseo uniform."
Ithaca opens E8 play with 120-point explosion
The Bombers rang in 2016 with points, points, and more points this past weekend. They scored 120 of them, to be exact, in a 120-110 win over Empire 8 rival Stevens.
The box score for this one is loaded with monster numbers. Ithaca sophomore guard Joey Flanagan finished with a career-high 39 points on an almost-silly 17-for-21 shooting performance. Freshman forward Jake Mitchell added 23 points (on 10-of-12 shooting) off the bench. Ithaca shot 56 percent from the field, but an astounding 60 percent from 3-point range (15-of-25). All five Stevens starters scored in double digits, led by 25 points from senior forward Alex Lorenz.
The 120 points are the most for Ithaca since Feb. 15, 2015 against, you guessed it, Stevens. That game, however, went to double overtime.
NYU tops Middlebury, improves to 10-0
New year, same Violets. The No. 4-ranked NYU women celebrated the beginning of 2016 with a rout of Brooklyn on Dec. 30, followed by regional home wins against Kean and Middlebury over this past weekend.
Junior guard Kaitlyn Read has continued her superb all-around season. She tallied 16 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and five steals in the 73-68 win over Kean, and a game-high 25 points and nine rebounds in the 70-62 win over Middlebury.
The Violets kick off UAA play on Saturday when they host Brandeis.
Elmira's buzz-worthy buzzer beater
Did you happen to catch SportsCenter on the night of Dec. 30? If not, you missed a rare Division III college basketball sighting among the nightly Top 10 plays.
The Soaring Eagles scored six points over the final 10 seconds to rally back for a shocking 62-59 win over Endicott, but it was how they scored the final basket that will you have watching the clip repeatedly. After senior guard Gino Leonardi drained a 3-pointer to tie the game, fellow senior guard Justin Henderson stole the ball from Endicott and heaved a shot from the far free-throw line. It hit the back iron and rattled in just as time expired, giving Elmira the improbable win.
It's better seen than described. The school's official athletics Twitter account shared the clip from ESPN: https://twitter.com/ECSoaringEagles/status/682417704658202626.
Top 25 roundup: NYU men, women headline East teams
The NYU women (No. 4) and men (No. 14) are the top-ranked East region teams in this week's D3hoops.com Top 25 polls.
In the women's poll, Rochester is ranked 12th, while St. John Fisher also received votes.
In the men's poll, Oswego State moves up to the No. 20 spot. Lancaster Bible, Buffalo State and Geneseo State each received votes.
Have a story idea? A fun stat? Just want to talk some hoops? I'm always happy to hear from a fellow D-III fan. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @Andrew_Lovell.