Michael Casagrande

As her team runs practice drills in Diddle Arena, Cacie Pope can do little but observe from her perch on the press table.

Her team has limped to a disappointing 9-11 record in a season that began with lofty predictions, but she’s relegated to the sideline.

For Pope, her freshman season will not include a single minute of playing time. While her No. 54 jersey sits idle this season, she has already captured the most significant victory in her 18-year life.

The fact that Pope can even watch her team play means she has defied odds much greater than the Lady Toppers will ever face on the hardwood.

Coming out of Artesia High School in Lakewood, Calif., Pope was highly recruited while averaging a double-double her senior season.

As a high school senior she battled with making the correct college choice. But, as a college freshman, she battled brain cancer.

Assistant coach Kyra Elzy visited Pope on a recruiting trip and was impressed not only with her skill on the court, but her personality as well.

“She was one of the most laid back recruits that we’ve had,” Elzy said. “Her game was what drew us to her. Everything came easy to her; she has a natural talent. Her game spoke for itself.”

That laid back attitude would eventually help her through the most difficult semester of her life.

The Fall

Pope’s move from coveted recruit to a redshirt freshman began on Oct. 11 in Northeast Hall.

After visiting with her then boyfriend and former Topper basketball player Jamaal Brown, Pope collapsed.

She was suffering from a seizure. Brown called Elzy at home to tell her of the seizure and the assistant coach rushed to meet Pope at The Medical Center.

Lady Topper coach Mary Taylor Cowles was out of town with her kids.

The doctors at The Medical Center proceded to run tests, which exposed everyone’s fears.

The reason the healthy 18-year-old basketball talent collapsed: she had a brain tumor.

“I was shocked,” Pope said. “I had no reaction. I was like ‘Well, do what you have to do to get rid of it.'”

After Elzy relayed the news to Cowles, the coach rushed back to Bowling Green. The following day, Pope’s mother Cheryl and sister Corie flew to Bowling Green to be with Cacie.

The type of tumor, Ependyomona, is a very rare form of cancer for someone as young as Cacie. Typically, it is found in elderly patients, Cheryl Pope said.

While the team took the news hard, the Pope women remained unfazed. No tears fell.

“A lot of people thought we were crazy,” Cacie said. “My mother and I never cried. We never moped around and never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me. Basically, things happen. I felt like it wasn’t serious.”

Cheryl Pope said their spirituality got them through.

“When I got there, we prayed,” Cacie’s mother said. “We prayed to get through this. I have been praying all along. There is a certain kind of peace that came after prayer.”

Despite what Pope thought, the situation was serious. She returned to California eight days after the seizure on a medivac jet.

Pope’s date with the surgeon’s knife came Oct. 29. The tumor was removed from the back of her brain and she was conscious 40 minutes after the surgery ended.The surgery lasted about three hours in Lake View Kaiser Hospital in Anaheim Lakes, Calif.

A tearful reunion

Throughout her recovery, Pope disliked being separated from her basketball family that was 2,071 miles away. That distance was crossed over Thanksgiving weekend when the Lady Toppers traveled west to play in the Fresno State Classic.

While waiting at the airport for the team to arrive, Pope was anxious. Standing next to the baggage claim, Pope could not find her team. Then, from behind, came a surprise from her teammate Shardae Butler.

“I started walking real fast when I saw her back,” Butler said. “That’s when I ran up and gave her a hug.”

The teammates’ tears came again, but this time, they were tears of joy.

“That was a very emotional day,” Elzy said. “It is different talking to Cacie on the telephone, but to actually lay your eyes on her and to see that she’s back, she’s healthy, she looks good. It was a happy day for Lady Topper basketball.”

Another happy day for the Lady Toppers came on Jan. 11. Before Western’s 64-52 win over Illinois-Chicago, Pope was honored with a surprise tribute.

Just before the starting lineups were announced, Pope’s picture appeared on the PepsiVison screens around Diddle Arena. The 1,703 people in attendance rose to their feet and roared.

“I was blown away,” she said grinning. “I just thought I’d come back, sit on the bench and continue like nothing ever happened.”

Looking ahead

Today, Pope is cancer free. She is free from chemotherapy and radiation treatments and she couldn’t feel better.

“Physically, I feel fine,” Pope said. “The way I feel is like nothing happened.”

Every eight weeks, Pope will fly home to California for an MRI to make sure the tumor isn’t re-emerging.

Pope wishes she could be on the floor with the rest of the team, but her doctors want her to give her body a rest. The medical redshirt she received will allow her the full four years of eligibility.

While the medical ordeal is now in her past, Pope will take the lessons learned from her brush with mortality.

“It taught me not to take life for granted,” she said. “That could have been it for me, but it wasn’t.”

Pope’s attitude toward her life-threatening adversity is an inspiration the team has rallied around in the trying times this season has produced.

“She’s a fighter,” Cowles said. “Flat out, she’s a fighter. Now after seeing what she’s been through, I can see she’s a fighter in the game of life, not just in basketball.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].