American women soared on the wings of their youngest Eagle

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Just after her seventh birthday, Kayla was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer called ependymoma. Doctors removed a tumor from her cranial cavity and followed up the procedure with chemotherapy and a special type of radiation called proton therapy. The ordeal saved Kayla’s life but damaged parts of her brain that control balance and motor skills.

“I sort of think of it like steering a boat,” Kayla’s father explained. “When she was in water, she had time to catch herself and she could kind of rebound, but on land she would fall very quickly.”

Despite her physical challenges, Kayla’s mental ability was never affected. Sharp and inquisitive, she was a straight-A student at Pyle Middle School. It didn’t take long for her to memorize the names of every player on the AU team, and she graduated elementary school on time despite spending large chunks of first, second and third grade in the hospital.

Kayla attended her first game Dec. 21, a nonconference win over Loyola. While Corkery was addressing the media, she already was in the locker room, sitting comfortably between George and sophomore Sarah Kiely. Kayla remembered every player who had fallen over the course of the game and approached them as they passed by. “Are you OK?” she asked. “That looked really bad. Are you all right?”

The players talked briefly about the game before asking Kayla about her day. She always impressed them with something new — usually nail polish — and was a prolific shopper. She also was a big fan of the popular mobile game Fruit Ninja, which George downloaded to her iPhone to give them something in common.

“Whenever I’d text her I’d just be like ‘Hey, got a new high score on Fruit Ninja,’ ” George said with a smile. “She knew crazy fruit facts, like the banana is a plant, it is not a fruit. I learned that from Kayla, and she learned that from Fruit Ninja.”

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Game days at Bender Arena soon became routine. Kayla usually donned a blue AU jersey and “Go Eagles!” foam finger. She immersed herself in the games, a temporary escape from the physical limitations that kept her bound to a wheelchair. As the season progressed, she also developed close relationships with some of the players.

“It just felt like we picked up another branch of our family,” her father said. “There was all of a sudden this group of people that really cared about Kayla and cared about her well-being, and it gave her something really fun to look forward to and to think about.”

The games brought out Kayla’s competitive nature, and American’s success became her success. A family friend asked her how she was helping the team get all these wins. Kayla simply replied, “commitment. It’s just about commitment.”

It’s impossible to measure Kayla’s impact on the team, but there’s no denying that the impact was there. The proof was in the results.

“She was so proud of that jersey,” George said, “and we wanted to give her a reason to be proud of it, and so we worked as hard as we could on the court for her.”

Strack added: “Knowing Kayla’s there, seeing her after the game always lightens everyone’s mood, no matter the outcome of the game. Her effect on us was past basketball.”

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The Eagles played host to Holy Cross in the Patriot League semifinals March 5. During warm-ups, several players looked over to Kayla’s usual spot and saw only empty chairs. Her condition had grown worse, and she had been taken to the hospital.

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