Late high school coach's perseverance, resilience live on in Sharkey
Adrenaline can usually get athletes through a game.
The heart pumps blood harder, respiration opens up, muscles contract and perspiration streams.
Adrenaline was pumping through Kristen Sharkey on Jan. 26, 2014, during the Buffalo women's basketball team's game against Ball State in Muncie, Ind. She was penetrating the lane, grabbing rebounds and scoring seemingly at will. She made 11 baskets that day. The rest of the team combined to make 12.
Sharkey did not feel she even had a right to be tired.
Throughout the game, her breath became labored. The ball felt heavier each time she went up and grabbed a rebound. But Sharkey didn't quit. She never went to the bench for a breather and played every single minute of the game.
Why would she stop?
Her high school coach, Kathy Snyder, hadn't stopped coaching the basketball and field hockey teams when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. Snyder was able to overcome cancer and go into remission. So, why wouldn't Sharkey be able to beat a defender in the lane? Why would she take a break?
"At field hockey she would go behind the dugout, throw up and come back and make sure no one saw her throw up," said Sharkey, a junior forward. "So, a person like that made me think, 'Who am I to get tired in a basketball game? Is this girl really going to stop me down low? Breast cancer couldn't even stop [Snyder].'"
Sharkey played the best game of her UB career against Ball State and finished with 36 points. Her adrenaline allowed her to finish the game, but her motivation to finish was that Snyder's heart had stopped pumping a little more than 48 hours prior.
Snyder died of a heart attack two days before the game against Ball State.
Her toughness in overcoming cancer is now present in Sharkey, whose resolve is evident on the court; she has become a physical presence around the basket and a leader for the Bulls in what could be a historic year, as the women's basketball team chases its first-ever conference title. It is that same fortitude that allowed her to play through Snyder's death and come back from an anterior cruciate ligament (ALC) tear.
Sharkey is a spark for the Bulls.
Her teammates often call her 'Spark' or 'Sparkey' because she's the one who jumpstarts the team when they need it. Her teammates rarely call her Kristen - they've given her more nicknames, like 'Shark,' 'Diesel' and 'Big Lovely.'
Those nicknames would have been useful on the Southern Regional High School (SRHS) girls' basketball team, on which three Sharkeys all played at the same time. Sharkey, her older sister Shannon and their cousin Meghan Sharkey were each separated by one class.
At first, Shannon was jealous that her freshman sister was starting on the varsity team with her. That changed when Shannon realized how lethal her sister was on the court, and the pair became a one-two punch for SRHS.
Shannon played guard while Sharkey played forward. Sharkey became her sister's "go-to-girl," according to Shannon, who credits Sharkey for getting her assists. The team's offensive strategy was to simply get the ball down low to Sharkey.
Sharkey, Shannon and Meghan ran plays they designed themselves. Shannon said they "read each other's minds" and each one of them knew where the other two were going to be on the court. Local papers called the trio 'The Shark Attack' and 'The Sharkey Show.'
The Sharkeys developed their chemistry on the court from years of playing together on the court of Sharkey's father's church.
Sharkey's father, Patrick, is a pastor. He built a gym in the King of Kings church in Manahawkin, N.J. Shannon said she and Sharkey were playing with basketballs in the gym "before they could even walk."
Patrick said Sharkey was a "gym rat" growing up. She and Shannon would spend hours practicing in the gym, sometimes even after their high school games.
Sharkey, who is the second-tallest player on the Bulls at 6-foot-1, was always taller than both the girls and boys in her classes growing up. The nickname 'Jolly Green Giant' stuck with her until eighth grade.
Her height gave her an advantage on the court from an early age. Before she left for her first day of kindergarten, Sharkey was in her backyard shooting baskets. Patrick said she made eight shots in a row her first day.
Sharkey did not become the versatile post player she is today until Snyder became her coach at SRHS.
"[Snyder] literally made me who I am," Sharkey said. "She was one of the toughest people you would ever meet. She just exuded confidence. She walked into a room and you knew that she was there. I think that helped me build confidence as a basketball player. She gave me the confidence to play college basketball and even be [at UB]."
Snyder coached the SRHS girls for 35 seasons, accruing 857 wins between coaching the basketball and field hockey teams. Sharkey also played goalie for Snyder on the field hockey team. Snyder saw Sharkey had potential to be a college basketball player and spent extra time working with her.
Snyder had assistant coach Candice Carmen play one-on-one with Sharkey. Carmen is an SRHS alumna who played forward at Georgia Tech from 1998 to 2000.
"[Sharkey] reminded me a lot of myself when I played," Carmen said. "Coach Snyder would throw me in the practice all the time just to kind of beat her up, which was the same thing they used to do when I used to practice."
Sharkey and Snyder's relationship went beyond player and coach; they were also friends. They had known each other since Sharkey was young. Meghan's mother, Sharkey's aunt, was one of Snyder's closest friends. Sharkey and Shannon used to go over to Snyder's house for what they called "Snyder swim dates."
Snyder and Sharkey remained in touch after Sharkey graduated and came to UB. Snyder would call Sharkey on the phone to check in on her. During Sharkey's freshman year, Snyder surprised her by bringing the entire SRHS girls basketball team on a bus to watch the Bulls' game at Temple.
Snyder was also her biggest critic.
She yelled and screamed at her players. Sharkey was intimidated by Snyder during her freshman year and became even more nervous to play well when Snyder stopped her in the hallway and told her, "Just so you know, you're playing varsity." But Sharkey realized Snyder was intense to make her players better.
"She was the type of coach who would yell at you, but it was because she wanted to get the best out of you," Sharkey said. "She was really hard on the outside, but when she needed to be soft, she was able to do that, too. She knew how to get the best out of people by pushing them."
Snyder was hard on Sharkey, but Sharkey says that is because she didn't want to her fail. And even if she did fail, Snyder pushed her until she succeeded.
During Sharkey's freshman year of high school, Snyder was diagnosed with breast cancer.
But Snyder never stopped coaching. She would go to her chemotherapy treatments during lunch breaks - Snyder also taught physical education at the high school - so she would not have to miss work.
"It taught me that even in the hardest time I have, I need to just keep going because if she was able to go through this, I can go through anything," Sharkey said. "She taught us all how to handle adversity and be powerful, strong women."
Snyder went in remission in 2007 and lived the rest of her life cancer free. Her resilience and ability to get past cancer has left a permanent mark on Sharkey. She embodies Snyder's toughness when she's attacking the rim and playing physical defense.
"I saw this lady walk behind dugouts and throw up from her treatments while no one was looking," Sharkey said. "I think her competiveness and toughness is something that's going to be engraved in me forever."
Sharkey makes her impact for the Bulls in the paint.
She maneuvers her way around large bodies, long arms and sharp elbows to fight for a rebound or get off a quick shot. She leads the team in rebounds (8.7) and has drawn the second most fouls on the team. She's also averaging 14.8 points per game.
She is successful because of her physicality, but it was a non-contact injury that ended her sophomore season.
During a practice on Halloween 2011 - two days before the Bulls' exhibition opener against Buffalo State - Sharkey's knee buckled while she was catching a pass. She fell to the ground in pain and let out a scream that echoed around Alumni Arena's Triple Gym. She couldn't get up.
Sharkey's injury had a particularly strong effect on one teammate: senior guard Margeaux Gupilan. Gupilan felt lost and behind the rest of the other girls on the team her freshman year. It was her classmate Sharkey who had encouraged her to keep going through practices.
"I saw her go down and immediately, I just felt my heart get heavy," Gupilan said. "At the time, it was three of us [in the same class] that came in as freshmen; that was a pack. If one of us went down, it felt like all of us did. When she went out, I felt like I lost a part of me."
Sharkey tore her ACL. The reality did not hit her at first - not until doctors told her she would miss the entire season. She knew ACL injuries were common, but she asked herself, "Why me?"
Gupilan said Sharkey never complained about her injury.
Sharkey stopped feeling sorry for herself and focused on rehabbing her knee and getting stronger every day. While the rest of the team practiced on the court, Sharkey was off to the side of the court or in the gym doing wall squats and leg raises.
The injury didn't get Sharkey down because Snyder had taught her how to be mentally tough.
"In my mind, it already didn't really affect me that much because I knew I was going to get back and it wouldn't tear me down too much," Sharkey said. "I already thought that way because of what [Snyder] taught me."
She first made it back onto the court was for a pickup game with her teammates in April 2012. It was only an hour of three-on-three, half-court basketball, but it was a big step to her.
"I don't think I was even supposed to be playing yet," Sharkey said. "It was like the best feeling in the whole world."
Patrick, her father, came to see the injury as "a blessing." By medically redshirting, Sharkey had three more seasons of eligibility at UB, and that meant three seasons to work with the Bulls' new head coach.
Former Buffalo head coach Linda Hill-MacDonald was fired at the end of the 2011-12 season after compiling a 75-137 record over seven seasons. New coach Felisha Legette-Jack's arrival offered a new opportunity for Sharkey, but it also meant she would have to prove herself all over again.
Legette-Jack did not know what kind of player Sharkey was before the ACL tear. Sharkey couldn't be timid about getting to the basket because of her knee, because if she did, Legette-Jack might think she was a soft player.
"It was nerve-wracking because I didn't want her to think of me as a weak link and that being her first impression of me," Sharkey said. "But I just worked every single day to make sure that that wasn't going to be her thought process of me as a player."
Sharkey was unsure if she would be able to run and jump like she used to, but she fought through it to prove to Legette-Jack she belonged on the team. Legette-Jack never doubted Sharkey would recover.
"I expected everything she had to offer," Legette-Jack said. "It's a situation where a kid that was eager for greatness met a coach that needed somebody to want that, so it was a great marriage."
Playing for a tough coach like Snyder prepared Sharkey to work with Legette-Jack, who has an intense personality herself. She often stands at the edge of the court yelling, "Hands up!" when the Bulls are on defense.
Sharkey's knee still held her back throughout her redshirt sophomore season in 2012-13. When she pivoted and attacked the rim, she was thinking about her knee. She averaged 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds.
In the Bulls' biggest game of the season, though, she had her breakthrough.
In the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals, she scored what was then a career-high 26 points and nearly led the Bulls to an upset victory over Akron. Sharkey's performance delivered a clear message to the rest of the MAC: She was past her injury and ready to dominate.
"I think that really just gave me confidence coming into this year," Sharkey said. "In that I do have the ability to put up points for our team against one of the better teams in conference."
Sharkey no longer worries about her knee. She's had seven games of 20 points or more this season. The black knee brace she wears every game is the only clue she has ever had a serious knee injury.
"I think this year, she's more sure of her body and more confident in her ability to make cuts and run up and down the floor," said sophomore guard Mackenzie Loesing. "She's physically stronger this year, but mentally she's overcome her injury more than last year."
Sharkey still rehabs her knee for an hour before every practice.
Snyder passed away from an unexpected heart attack in her sleep on the morning of Jan. 24.
Sharkey and the Bulls had just played at Northern Illinois the night before and were traveling to Ball State. The team is not allowed to have their cell phones on the road, so Shannon called the Bulls' coaching staff to tell them to let Sharkey know about Snyder's passing. Legette-Jack came into Sharkey's hotel room to bring her the news, but Sharkey had already heard it.
One of Sharkey's cousins had messaged Sharkey's iPad about Snyder's death so she would not have to find out the news on social media. Sharkey's teammates did their best to comfort her, but Sharkey was focused on the game.
"We were trying to console her, but it's like consoling a bear," Gupilan said. "We gave her the hugs, but she was trying to stay focused."
Legette-Jack said Sharkey is a private person and the team knew they had to give her space to grieve on her own. But the team did help Sharkey realize a way she could memorialize her coach.
Loesing said the team reminded Sharkey that every game she plays is a testament to Snyder. Without Snyder, Sharkey might have never made it to Division I college basketball.
"If you're crying and being sad, is that the expectations your coach would want from you?" Legette-Jack said. "Or do you go out there and celebrate her life by going out there and playing free?"
Sharkey chose the latter.
Just two days after Snyder's death, Sharkey scored a career-high 36 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while playing every minute against Ball State. Sharkey sacrificed her body in the paint and got fouled seven times, toughness reminiscent of her former coach. When she got tired, she thought about Snyder.
Sharkey went home to New Jersey for Snyder's memorial service after the game.
Just a few weeks later, during a Feb. 15 game against Northern Illinois, the Bulls held their annual 'Play 4 Kay' event at Alumni Arena. The purpose of the event: breast cancer awareness.
The Bulls wore pink jerseys in honor of former North Carolina State women's basketball head coach Kay Yow, who passed away from breast cancer in 2009. Sharkey led the team with 21 points and was a key figure in the Bulls' second-half comeback.
"As a woman, it has meaning for all of us because it probably hits home for almost every single one of us on the team," Sharkey said. "You definitely play a lot harder. There's just more meaning to it."
Sharkey is in her senior academic year and is applying to UB's Master of Business Administration program for next year. She wants to pursue sports marketing and management. She hopes to one day help women have the opportunity to play basketball overseas, similar to how Snyder helped her play Division I basketball.
Sharkey appreciates every minute she logs because she knows what it's like to watch from the sidelines. She gives her full effort because she knows she could be fighting a battle much harder than a basketball game.
"[Snyder] gave me confidence to make something of myself," Sharkey said. "It was her tough love and constant reminding that everything in life is hard work and no one is going to roll over and give you anything is what I think really drives me."
Sharkey's toughness and resiliency on the court come from her former coach's toughness and resiliency off of it. When Sharkey stands back up after getting fouled or elbowed - or even tearing an ACL - it's Snyder's toughness coming through her.
It's a permanent engraving.