by Megan DePrimio, Staff Writer
December 25, 2010 was no ordinary Christmas Day. On a day supposed to be filled with joy and happiness, sorrow quickly overwhelmed the Lady Bearcat basketball team and its staff as their coach and friend, Kristen Zawacki, was found dead in her apartment from a heart attack.
The days that followed were very difficult as the players returned from break to practice, only to resume play in an eerily quiet gym. Zawacki, who was only 52 years old, was the first and only women’s basketball coach after the program began for the 1983-84 season. Not only did Zawacki compile a record of 512 wins and 276 losses coaching basketball, but she also coached women’s softball and served as Associate Athletic Director and Senior Women’s Administrator. She spent 27 years at SVC, and in those years she affected the lives of many people.
While countless words can be written on Zawacki’s great achievements and records, it was her personality and genuine care that set her apart. This is evidenced by the fact that during her Memorial Mass held in the Basilica on December 30th, the entire church was packed with family, friends, and supporters who wanted to pay her the tribute she deserved.
Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, O.S.B., who celebrated Zawacki’s Mass, announced during his homily that he deemed her the first unofficial recipient of the Projektenmacher Award, a new annual award to distinguish creativity and honor and encourage the spirit of founder Archabbot Boniface Wimmer himself.
College president Br. Norman Hipps, O.S.B., seconded Archabbot Nowicki’s announcement and declared, “She will receive it posthumously,” in November during Founder’s Day. Also, a scholarship will be started in Zawacki’s name, so students possessing qualities like her have a chance to attend SVC.
Arriving at SVC in 1982 shortly after it became coeducational, Zawacki was a “symbolic presence,” according to Br. Norman. “[Zawacki] really did play an important role in the transition from an all male school,” Br. Norman said.
A person always committed to family, Zawacki lives on through her mother, Bridget Zawacki, brother, Terry Zawacki, several nieces and nephews, and numerous aunts and uncles. Bridget, who understandably took her daughter’s loss hard, wondered why Kristen was called to go before her. In a story reiterated in the Memorial Mass, Terry said Kristen’s call to heaven was like the NFL Draft; God wanted Kristen more than anyone else.
Terry, the older brother who coached under his little sister for a time, said one of his favorite things about her was that “she made everyone, including me, happy, always. She was very unselfish. I learned more from her than she did from me. It was an honor to coach with her.”
To those who are mourning her loss, Terry said that his sister would say, “Enough already. Move on. Live your life.” These words of advice sound like typical words spoken from a true coach after a loss.
In the homily given by Fr. Vincent Zidek, O.S.B., at Zawacki’s second Memorial Mass held in the student chapel, he stated, “Kristen had so much going for her and so much to live for. She had a good family and many friends; she was an admirable coach and administrator; she was pleasant; always smiling, and full of vitality. Yes, our hearts are broken and our spirits are crushed…It is our faith that will be our greatest source of consolation as we mourn the loss of Kristen.”
James Petruska, the newly announced interim women’s basketball coach, not only has to lead the Lady Bearcats through the rest of the season, but he too is still mourning the loss of a mentor and friend, as is Assistant Coach Mark Hozak. Coach Petruska said, “The biggest thing she taught me was to trust my gut. It’s an honor to be able to step in and follow what she has created. It has been hard and emotional, but it is a true honor.”
As for Coach Hozak, he said it was Zawacki’s “general care and concern about everyone” that was the most important thing he learned from her. Zawacki not only cared about her players, but about everyone she encountered. Zawacki’s pride in her graduation rate of 95% showed her utmost concern for the ladies who were entrusted to her tutelage.
A member of the women’s volleyball team, sophomore Jessica Covelli was likewise affected by Zawacki’s kindness, despite not being on the basketball team. “She didn’t just care about her players; she cared about all athletes and everyone in general. She had a good heart,” Covelli said.
Junior basketball captain Brittany Sedlock recounted the shock she experienced after she was notified of Zawacki’s passing: “When I first heard, I was shocked. I could not believe it. It seemed too unreal. I went upstairs to talk to my mom and I was too upset to even get the words out. It was a devastating and sad way to end Christmas.”
When asked what the biggest difference is in not having Zawacki around, Sedlock stated, “It is very weird to walk into the gym and not see her there. It almost just feels like she’s late. It’s really hard to play and not have her there. Practices are a lot quieter without her animated voice. We all miss her, but we know she is watching over us and coaching us from Heaven. It was an honor to get the privilege to play for her for three years. She has taught me a lot as a player and as a person. We are going to continue to play for her— to play how she would want us to.”
When asked how the team has handled the loss, Coach Petruska said, “If anything it has motivated the team more. I am totally blown away at the team’s ability to show up and focus.”
The 14-2 (7-1) Lady Bearcats want to continue their high standards as Coach Petruska stated, “We want to continue to do what we’re doing.” The team is working towards winning the President’s Athletic Conference and achieving a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Any player for Zawacki would know that her favorite phrase she would say in the locker room and time-outs on the bench would be: “If you want it, you got to get it…together.” This unity that she advocated is not only a testament to her values, but is motivation for the basketball team now to stay and work together to get through these trying times.
To help honor the memory of Zawacki, all ten teams from the PAC will wear a patch with the initials “KZ” on it for the remainder of the 2010-2011 basketball season. This act of remembrance goes to show the impact she had on fellow athletic directors and coaches.
As a coach, Zawacki achieved milestone after milestone including qualifying for post season play for 22 consecutive years, being elected into the SVC Hall of Fame in 1995, and gaining her 500th win just last February against a consensus top-ten team in the nation, PAC powerhouse Thomas More College. However, these are only several of her many accomplishments in her storied career. Yet, while she could boast whenever she wanted to of her records and glory, she did not. She was always humble, and always bestowed the recognition to her players, stating that her accomplishments occurred because of them.
At the conclusion of his homily, Fr. Vincent stated, “Kristen’s death takes away someone that we love. It interrupts our plans, terminates our relationships, it causes grief, and it breaks our hearts. Yet as Jesus’ followers, we must believe that death is not the end, but rather, it is merely the beginning of a new and more glorified life—not only for Jesus, but for Kristen, and all who would follow Him.”
Before the end of Zawacki’s second Memorial Mass, Athletic Director Rev. Myron Kirsch, O.S.B., eloquently spoke about Zawacki’s uniqueness and impact on SVC. He said, “Kristen had good values [God, family, community]…she was generous and sharing, thoughtful and caring, charitable and unselfish…The Saint Vincent community was important to Kristen. Saint Vincent really was like her second home. Kristen liked it here and she liked what she was doing here. She once said to me: ‘I think Saint Vincent is good for me’, and I responded: ‘and you, Coach, are good for Saint Vincent.’”