The first week Canandaigua senior Courtney Wagner spent in the hospital in 2011, she didn’t cry about the golf ball-sized tumor that was found in her brain or the smaller one in her neck.
“Once the neurosurgeon told her she’d be out six months at that point she was sad,” recalled her mother, Jamie Wagner. “She was more concerned about not playing sports than about being sick.”
They gave sports back to her Tuesday night.
After playing in a handful of soccer matches in the fall, Wagner’s conditioned has worsened. The 17-year-old hasn’t been well enough to even suit up for a basketball game or practice recently. But third-year Braves coach Mike Brennan wanted to make Senior Night a little more special for the player whose courage and optimism to keep fighting has inspired many.
“If we don’t do something a little extra for Courtney then I’ll regret it forever,” he thought.
So with the blessing of Brighton coach Sam Rizzo, Wagner’s only game this season included her only basket. The Barons let Canandaigua senior Alex Cecere win the opening tip, which she directed to Wagner. Four dribbles later, Courtney banked in a layup.
Everyone in the gym stood and cheered. The Braves let Brighton tie it at 2, then officials stopped the game and Wagner — with a smile as big as her heart — trotted to the bench and took a seat after slapping hands with Brennan and her teammates.
“Sports is the one thing that she’s been known for before she got sick and still during, too,” said Allie Wagner, 16, her sister and teammate in soccer and basketball. “I was real happy they could give her that again.”
A team or coach letting an opponent score a basket or touchdown is not an uncommon moment in sports these days. This was just Wagner’s moment and that’s what she and her family, including her mother and stepfather, Barry Clark, have learned to cherish — every moment.
The tumors in her spine, where they’d spread last year before she had radiation treatment and surgery, are back. Wagner is weaker than ever. Her voice is raspy. She looks frail.
“Her fatigue has increased from the radiation and chemo for almost three years. It’s taken a toll physically on her body,” Clark said.
“The disease is progressing and it’s kind of an uphill battle from here,” added her mother.
But they won’t give up, not after what Courtney has shown since being diagnosed two days into her freshman year.
“The average life expectancy for someone with her diagnosis is 14 months. That was 3 1/2 years ago,” Jamie Wagner said. “Now I think when we talk to her doctors about time, they factor in the Courtney factor.”
Her mother paused. “They’re surprised she’s still here.”
She was a can’t-miss kid, former Canandaigua coach Bob Guy said about a girl who was MVP of the junior-varsity soccer team as an eighth-grader and would have been a high school star in that and basketball as a point guard. At a young age, she loved playing and competing.
“She was driven. She never stopped,” her mother said, adding that they called her the Energizer Bunny. “She was the kid who even as a young girl when it would rain and they would cancel soccer practice, she would cry and say, ‘Soccer players play in the rain!’ “
Chemotherapy and radiation worked so well that Wagner was able to play sports as a sophomore. Soccer is her favorite sport. She’s a defender, her sister a goalie.
Pittsford’s Abby Wambach and fellow U.S. national team players Megan Rapinoe and Christie Rampone are among her favorite players. She met Wambach, 34, a couple years ago at the soccer star’s camp in Victor. She’s like Wambach in this respect: Neither is afraid of the big moments.
“Just the thrill of having one minute left and a tied game or down one,” Courtney said when asked what she likes about competing.
She’s a gamer, but a team player, too. Courtney was somewhat uneasy about what happened Tuesday. She hadn’t touched a basketball in six months and she’s weak. There was another reason.
“It’s Senior Night and she wants it to be about all the seniors. She doesn’t want it to be Courtney Night,” her mother said. “She’s a team player. That’s really what she wants her sports legacy to be.”
She’ll turn 18 on March 14. She plans to attend William Smith in the fall. She has inspired her friends.
“When a teammate’s sick and a friend especially, I think it really hits home,” said top scorer Mara Sindoni, a senior who scored her 1,000th career point in the second half of the Braves’ 55-45 win. “It makes you prioritize what’s really important in life.”
During the pre-game Senior Night ceremony, juniors Lindsay Lyke and Hanna Thomson spoke eloquently over the public-address system about Courtney after she’d been escorted to midcourt by her parents and joined by her sister. They spoke of her strength, optimism, inspiration and beauty.
“The impact that you have had on this team,” Lyke said, “is greater than anyone could imagine.”
They called her “unforgettable.”
Brennan, 33, said Courtney’s fight has shown her teammates life isn’t as hard as it might seem and not to take things for granted.
“I really don’t know how to say this,” her sister, Allie, said. “I feel like through all of the pain and all of the sadness our family has gone through we always find a way to find the glimmer of hope that’s still there.”