UCCS freshman Wolfinger plays through her grief

February 8, 2010
photo - Lauren Wolfinger, shown working at a recent practice, has played her freshman season at UCCS having lost her mother, Leigh, the day after her first game. Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE
Lauren Wolfinger, shown working at a recent practice, has played her freshman season at UCCS having lost her mother, Leigh, the day after her first game. Photo by KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE 

Colorado-Colorado Springs was 13 seconds from an amazing comeback win against Western State when Mountain Lions freshman Lauren Wolfinger was fouled. Western State, which once led by 21 points and now trailed by two, called timeout to freeze Wolfinger before the free throws. 

Lauren’s father, Guy, laughed to himself in the stands, thinking Western State had no idea it fouled the wrong player.

Lauren wasn’t going to be affected by that moment. Don’t blame Western State’s coaches if they didn’t know Lauren had lost her mother. Leigh. to cancer less than three weeks earlier. Nobody would know about Leigh’s four-year battle with cancer by watching Lauren, who continued to play basketball with uncompromised joy.

Lauren Wolfinger hit both free throws, sealing UCCS’ win.

“She’s pretty unflappable,” Guy Wolfinger said.

That win against Western State was Nov. 24, which would have been Guy’s and Leigh’s 25th wedding anniversary. Lauren Wolfinger scored 14 of her game-high 18 points in the second half of the comeback win. She told her dad that was her anniversary present to them. It couldn’t have been more fitting.

Leigh Wolfinger’s battle with cancer started in December 2005 when what was thought to be a polyp was discovered in her sinus. Seven months later, doctors determined she had cancer. Leigh had surgery a month later, but the cancer returned in May 2007. She was free of cancer for another year, and then a third occurrence was found. The cancer also started to attack her liver.

Leigh Wolfinger battled cancer despite pain and complications, which were exacerbated by aggressive radiation treatments.

“It wasn’t like she was afraid to die,” Guy Wolfinger said. “She just wouldn’t give up.”

Leigh made the decision to stop treatment in October, but wanted to be at Lauren’s first college game. They had connected through basketball, with Leigh — who won 16 letters in high school — supporting Lauren from the time she started playing basketball in kindergarten.

“It was a way we related,” Lauren Wolfinger said. “She said how you play reflects how you are off the court. So I always have a smile on my face.”

For Lauren Wolfinger, the two hours on the court at practice or games was an escape.

“Certainly the tendency is to not want to continue with life and the things you normally do,” said Dan Kloster, Lauren’s coach at Silver Creek. “Lauren was the opposite. That’s a credit to her and her mother, who didn’t want her to give up those things.”

Lauren Wolfinger wasn’t much into the club sports scene, was a potential college soccer player as a standout goalkeeper and at times simply didn’t know if she wanted to play college basketball, so she wasn’t highly recruited. But Leigh Wolfinger kept telling her skeptical husband that one team would see their daughter play and offer a scholarship.

On a tip from a coach in Wolfinger’s conference, UCCS coach Stephen Kirkham attended Wolfinger’s final high school game, a playoff loss to Mesa Ridge in Colorado Springs. Wolfinger played a fantastic game despite the loss, and UCCS offered her the scholarship her mother always knew would come.

“She’s the type of kid that you want in your program,” Kirkham said. “That can have that kind of joy dealing with that situation.”

Leigh Wolfinger kept insisting she wanted to go to her daughter’s first game at UCCS, maintaining that desire after she was put into a hospice. Three days before Lauren’s first game, Leigh was put into a drug-induced coma. She had a fever and her heart raced like she had just finished sprints. But she somehow survived for Lauren’s first game.

Guy Wolfinger and his brother-in-law went to the game, an exhibition against Air Force. Leigh’s sister held a cell phone to Leigh’s ear so she could hear the running commentary, even though Leigh was unconscious.

There is a belief that comatose patients can still hear, and when Lauren hit the first 3-pointer of her college career, Leigh’s heart rate elevated.

“She was still there,” Lauren Wolfinger said.

Having made good on her promise to make it to Lauren’s first game, even if it wasn’t in person, Leigh passed away at 3 p.m. the next day.

Lauren Wolfinger is adjusting well to college. She is excelling on the court as point guard. Kirkham said in 17 years coaching on the NCAA level, Wolfinger is just the fifth freshman to start for him.

UCCS sophomore guard Payden Ackerman said although Wolfinger has expressed sadness over her mom not being there to watch her play, she has stayed focused with the help of her religious faith. Ackerman said Wolfinger is the “strongest girl I’ve known.”

“I try to put myself in that situation and I have a tough time believing I could be half as strong as she was,” Ackerman said. “You can tell the influence her mom had on her, and she knows her mom’s in a better place.”
Her father and others marvel at Lauren’s strength and focus throughout her mother’s battle. But, as anyone would figure, the ordeal has been difficult.

“When I had a good game, it was hard to come off the court and she wasn’t there to give her a hug, or when I had a bad game it was sad not to have her criticisms,” Lauren Wolfinger said. “That’s the sad part, just not having her there.”

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