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Coach Jo: A year removed from battling breast cancer, LaMay back leading UPS defense

It is a basketball coaching staff full of devoted achievers.

Coach Loree Payne runs the show at the University of Puget Sound. Her offense is shooter-friendly.

Assistant coach Brandon Huntley is great at drawing up winning late-game plays. Another assistant, Adam Washburn, is a voice for in-game adjustments.

And then there is Joleen LaMay, the longest-tenured assistant on the bench who also is a teacher at Sumner High School. LaMay has served as the voice for edgy defense, keeping track of the team’s “Hack Points.”

“If we fall off track,” UPS senior Alexis Noren said, “(LaMay) is the one that gets us back on it.”

Nobody ever questions the 47-year-old LaMay’s grit or toughness — especially after her courageous battle against breast cancer a season ago.

In August 2015, LaMay was at home when she noticed that a huge mass had suddenly formed in her left breast.

“It came out of nowhere,” LaMay said.

She was immediately sent to the Carol Milgard Breast Center in Tacoma for an ultrasound. A mass was confirmed. Two days later, she had a biopsy taken from it.

“I remember the nurse saying afterward, ‘This is not the news we wanted to share with you,’ ” LaMay said. “I was with my mom. I was bawling, ‘Oh my God, am I going to die?’ 

With months of chemotherapy ahead, LaMay had to inform the team — first starting with Payne.

“It’s not often when you are in your 30s, and you have a moment where mortality is staring at you,” Payne said. “It makes you reprioritize things in your own life. It makes you value relationships above all else.”

LaMay wanted to tell the players first at a preseason meeting at the end of August.

“She broke down. It was the first time I had seen her cry,” Noren said. “Then all of the returners started crying because the news had touched us. It was Coach Jo. She is tough. Nothing can break her.”

Cancer tried to, in a number of ways.

Her oncologist was Dr. Frank Senecal of the Franciscan Cancer Center, which is next to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma.

Senecal wanted to shrink the mass as much as possible, so he put LaMay through 15 rounds of intense chemotherapy.

For her appointments, she took days off from teaching at Sumner, but often showed up for practice and even games at UPS.

“In 17 years before that, I never missed a game,” LaMay said. “But last year, I missed eight games. I had to — I had no energy.”

LaMay went on one road trip during the Northwest Conference season to Eastern Washington. She flew to Spokane for the Whitworth game, then road the team bus to Whitman — and back home.

“It was a hard situation as far as the team went,” Payne said. “We told her, ‘We want you as involved as you can be or want to be.’ We left that door open, that if she felt great, and just wanted to sit on the bench and be somewhat active, it was on her to make that decision. There was no pressure.”

In late January, LaMay had a double mastectomy. Two 5-centimeter tumors were removed, as well as nine lymph nodes.

Then came the team’s “Pink Night” — a month later during a home game — to promote breast cancer awareness.

It was the first time LaMay removed “Winnie the Wig” off her head publicly.

“For her, I know losing her hair was a sign of the loss and the struggle she had with cancer,” Noren said. “But it was also as much of a sign of everything she had overcome.”

After the season, LaMay had 33 more rounds of radiation, ending in late April. Later that spring, she was declared cancer-free by her doctors.

And during the Loggers’ run to this season’s conference title, and the NCAA Division III tournament starting Friday at Memorial Fieldhouse, LaMay has returned to her normal lively way.

“This year has been great — I am back to being Coach Jo,” LaMay said with a smile. “Last year, I was not here. I would show up and be emotional, and not understand why.”

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