This year, the annual Kay Yow Cancer Fund’s Play4Kay fundraiser had extra meaning for the Lehigh women’s basketball team.
The Mountain Hawks showed up in their vibrant pink uniforms in the Play4Kay National Free Throw Challenge match dedicated to Mariah Sexe’s mother, who lost her battle with cancer last November.
On Feb. 9, the team participated in the fundraiser to raise money and spread awareness about the fight against cancer.
Sexe’s mother, Angie Callahan, was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in October 2017. Sexe received the news about her mother’s cancer when she went home to Minnesota during pacing break her freshman year.
“It was the last thing I expected to hear,” Sexe said. “I was shocked and immediately terrified.”
As time went on, Callahan’s cancer continued to spread, reaching parts of her stomach. The doctors had found mesonephric cells, a rare form of cancer.
Callahan was sent to the hospital for complications in her liver two days before Thanksgiving. After battling the disease for over a year, she passed away the following week.
Head coach Sue Troyan soon received a phone call from Sexe’s father, who informed her of the devastating news. It was Troyan’s duty to relay the information to the team.
“I was in class and received the email from coach Troyan,” said junior forward Cameryn Benz. “It was a sort of numb feeling. We were all aware of the situation, and we knew we would get the news at some point, but you never expect it.”
The team had a game versus Cornell that night.
“It was tough,” said junior guard Hannah Hedstrom. “You wanted to focus on the game, but my mind was for sure in a different place.”
The Mountain Hawks had a stellar performance with a 67-54 win against the Big Red that night. Benz scored a career-high 23 points and a new season high for most points scored in a game by a Mountain Hawk. She also made 10 out of the 13 field goals attempts.
Benz said she was playing for Sexe and her mother that night.
Before that game, the team wrote Callahan’s initials and Sexe’s number on their shoes to represent who they were playing for. The coaches made wristbands for Callahan that read, “Angie’s Army.”
“When Mariah was gone from the team for a while, we had to make sure she was still there with us in some way,” Benz said.
Callahan’s funeral service was held in the family’s hometown in Woodbury, Minnesota. Eight of Sexe’s teammates and three of her coaches made the six-hour trip.
“The support blew me away,” Sexe said. “It meant not only the world to me, but to my family.”
After witnessing the support system that followed Sexe home, her family felt comfortable knowing what she was going back to at Lehigh — family and friends that would do anything for her.
After Callahan’s passing, Sexe finished out her fall semester in Minnesota. Sexe was nervous to return to Lehigh, but ultimately knew it was the right step for her to take in her emotional recovery.
Despite her hesitation, Sexe came back to Lehigh only to find a team who had been waiting eagerly for her return.
“Everyone is so excited to have her back on the court but more importantly to just have her energy around us,” Hedstrom said. “We’ve rallied around her in being a support system while she’s away from home.”
Sexe emphasized her teammates as great support during this time. Whether it be checking in on her, offering her a familiar face to talk to or not talk to, Sexe said she appreciates the respect and care her teammates have for her.
The team raised money for the Play4Kay Foundation through February. For every free throw they made, a sponsor donated money to the program.
With the support of her teammates and the attendance of her brother and father, Sexe started and played in the Play4Kay game against Boston University.
“My mom always told me to have fun, not to put too much pressure on myself and not be too hard on myself when it came to basketball so that’s what I tried to do,” Sexe said.
Sexe made a free throw and an assist during the game, but the Mountain Hawks fell short to the Terriers.
The Mountain Hawks are second on the leader board for the Play4Kay Free Throw Challenge with $8,594, already surpassing their original goal of $7,000. With 69 pledgers, each free throw is worth $85.94.
“A huge part of it is that they are not just my teammates, they are truly my closest friends,” Sexe said. “My mom was someone who deserved the consequence of cancer and death the least. She was my best friend and the best person I knew. She impacted the lives of everyone she met. She will be so unbelievably missed by many, and I will think of her every single day for the rest of my life.”