May 7, 2014

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Frozen's "Let It Go" Has A New Meaning for Drew

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter


On her women's lacrosse team, Drew coach Julia Steier said, "When I was falling apart, they were there to pick me back up." (Drew Athletics)

Mornings and nights are still the hardest parts, but for Julia Steier, sometimes, the days are okay. She has 21 women’s lacrosse players to thank for much of that.

Steier, the coach at Division III Drew University, lost her husband, George, to a rare form of liver cancer at the end of November. They had been married for just over two months. 

While the life she had planned unraveled, the 28-year-old coach made a decision. The season was too close. It would have been unfair to her players to bring in someone new. Steier may not have been completely there, but she went on coaching the Rangers as planned.

“It’s just this indescribable numbness,” Steier said. “Your world was just ripped from your hands. You’re alive, but you don’t feel alive. I was on autopilot. You just go. When the season started I was still kind of in that mode. Just wake up and go to the game. I think it’s a good thing that the team was there.”

What followed was a season of moments, as the Rangers were there for their coach through the grieving process with a little help from spin bikes, an ice princess, Bruno Mars and the Super Bowl.

***

George Kraynak was not a sports fan, but he was there every weekend, alongside Bodie the dog, selling raffle tickets for the Rangers and supporting the coach that he loved.

“He was the sweetest person,” Steier said. “He never could say anything bad about anyone. He was just a really funny, unique person. He kept me balanced. I can go from 1 to 100 in three seconds. He was always so good at saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, take it back a notch.’ He was everything I ever wanted.”

Kraynak had battled cancer for seven years, and he seemed to be improving over the summer. But when Steier came home from the first day of fall ball, George sat her down and told her that he wasn’t going to get better. 

As the weeks went on, and Kraynak's condition worsened, Steier made every effort to keep her private life separate from her team. But the players began to wonder where she was, and why assistant coach Rachel Peregrim was spending so much time running things. Steier called a team meeting in early December. The Rangers assumed it would be to receive their offseason workout plans. Instead Steier told them everything. The funeral was held the following day.

It was a slap of reality that left much of the team in tears. The coach is just six years older than many of her players.

No one quite knew what to say. Senior defender Kaitlyn Dalziel stood up. Little in her past had prepared her for the moment, but as the team captain, and its known center of optimism, Dalziel felt she needed to say something.

She found herself channeling David Wooderson.

“‘One thing I’ve learned is that you take life in moments,’” Dalziel began. “Then all of a sudden I quoted Matthew McConaughey in ‘Dazed and Confused.’ I said, ‘You just gotta keep livin. L-I-V-I-N.’ Everybody started laughing, even Coach Julia.’”

Dalziel inadvertently delivered the first big lesson of the season: It might still okay to laugh. As the season progressed, that became a theme. The Rangers realized what a big part of Steier’s life they were, and what kind of role they’d play during the toughest stretch of that life. The Rangers were 21 helpful distractions, a group that every day jumped at the chance to give their coach even a moment’s reprieve from grief.

The lacrosse team holds a Christmas cook off every December. Steier told them she wanted them to proceed with it as usual, but the players vowed to make it bigger and better than ever. After all, they thought, Steier and George had run a food blog together. Maybe the treats would make their coach feel better. They went all out. The juniors crafted a bicycle out of baked goods. But the big moment came later in the party, when one of the desserts toppled over. Again, laughter filled the room.

“I think then we just knew it was okay to laugh,” Dalziel said. “She wasn’t necessarily going to be happy, but she wanted to see happiness.”

***

The email popped into Steier's inbox sometime during the winter. She remembers looking at it, thinking, “Oh, that looks fun,” then retreating back into numbness. In a season of moments, one of the most memorable nearly never happened.

The Super Bowl was set to be held at nearby Metlife Stadium and the organizers were looking for local groups to rock out on the field during halftime. Despite the initial ambivalence, the Rangers would be one of those groups. Peregrin brought the idea back up and once the team captains were informed, their reaction made certain that the Rangers were going to the Super Bowl.

But that meant interrupting a week of preseason practices with halftime rehearsals. In the past that might have been enough to let the opportunity pass. But in light of all that had occurred, they just kind of figured, “Why not?"

The Rangers watched the first half at a nearby movie theater, then sped up to the Meadowlands with a police escort. They were led past the locker rooms, where Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson awaited the start of the second half. During halftime, the team was front and center, bouncing up and down and singing along at midfield as Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the hits.

On that football field, as Steier and Peregrim banged their heads to “Give it Away Now,” the Rangers were reminded of just how young their coaches still are. For a few minutes, on camera in front of millions of people around the world, Steier lost herself in a moment.

“We all turned and really looked at Coach Julia,” Dalziel  said. “She was just so happy. That was nice to see.”

***

The mornings and nights remain tough. You never get used to an empty apartment. And, it’s inevitable that sometimes Steier’s tough mornings carry over into the school day.

“Grief is weird,” Steier said. “I’m not sad all the time - there are good days and bad days. But with coaching, you have to worry about your players and can’t always worry about yourself. In a normal nine-to-five job, you can take a longer lunch break. I don’t have that luxury.”

Through it all, Steier showed up every day, coached the team and dealt with the sometimes sad reality that life does go on. She chronicled much of the process in heartbreaking detail on her blog, An Unwanted W

The Rangers did their best to help the process. Simple things like bringing Steier her favorite cup of coffee in the morning. She started keeping her office door open. Players popped in. Again, it was the little things that resonated. They told Steier they liked her earrings. They spent extended periods of time discussing sweet potatoes and Connecticut history. They told her of personal bests achieved at CrossFit and reminded her of the messages embedded in Disney movies.

Like the rest of America, the Rangers became a bit obsessed with the movie “Frozen” this winter. They finally convinced Steier to see it, and its Oscar-winning song became a mantra during the darkest days.

“She understands when we just say, ‘You gotta Let It Go,’” Dalziel said. “I think it really helps to have these little sayings. They’re not necessarily to bring her up to her happiest, just to see a little of her smile. That makes us feel reassured.”

***

Cycle for Survival is an indoor cycling fundraiser, in which 100 percent of the proceeds go toward research for rare forms of cancer. Steier had planned to participate with George again this year. In December, she asked the Rangers to join her. 

The team hoped to raise $7,000. They sent out their annual Christmas Card asking for donations and then players went directly to their friends, families and employers to ask for support. On the big day, wearing shirts that read “Team Kraynak,” they cycled for more than an hour. The Rangers ended up raising more than $11,000.

Charity and spinning continued as the year went on. Senior Jess Johnson went out and raised money for Relay for Life on her own. And Steier found a refuge in SoulCycle, a popular music-centric spin class. Sometimes her players went along with her.

There were times when Steier and Pergrin would call practice early, telling the team they had to go to “a meeting.”

“‘Don’t lie,’” Dalziel said. “‘We know you’re going to SoulCycle.’”

But the Rangers didn’t really mind.

***

Drew’s regular season ended last week in the pouring rain, with a tough Landmark Conference semifinal loss at Susquehanna, which went on to the NCAA tournament. It was an especially rough night for Steier, because Pennsylvania is where she met Kraynak while they were both graduate students at Wilkes. Anxiety crept in. She worried she’d cry before the game started.

The Rangers have learned to read their coach in those moments. They know when to give space and when to offer reassurance. They talk often about how much they love each other, how they’re a family, and what love and family mean. To them, love means togetherness. They hug a lot more than they used to. 

“Crazy as it sounds, if something like this ever happens to us, we’ll be ahead of the game,” Dalziel said. “It’s a lesson we’ve learned. We’ll be able to call each other up and say ‘Hey do you want to bake something? Or go to spin class? Or maybe find a Bruno Mars concert?’”

Their season is not over. Drew heads to Neumann for an ECAC tournament game on Wednesday night. At some point though, it will end and they’ll realize what a remarkable year it was. They’ve won 10 games so far, their highest total in three years.

“I think about that a lot,” Steier said. “How we actually had a really good season. Everyone says, ‘Oh my team is so close. We’re like best friends,’ but we’ve been through hell and back. When I was falling apart, they were there to pick me back up. I know they’re not the National Champions, but I honestly think this is the best team in Division III.”


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