Senior center Kristen Haley is a major reason that the York College women’s basketball team is undefeated so far this season. Haley, however, is
Senior center Kristen Haley is a major reason that the York College women's basketball team is undefeated so far this season. Haley, however, is dealing with both triumph and tragedy. Her mother is currently battling cancer. (BILL KALINA -- bkalina@yorkdispatch.com)

A night to recognize others for overcoming tragedy became tragic itself for York College's Kristen Haley back on Feb. 9.

Her women's basketball team shedded the green-and-white uniforms in favor of pink ones to raise breast cancer awareness, Haley was playing for her aunt, Trish Kepner, who was in her own battle with breast cancer at the time. Kepner cheered on the Spartans in their 30-point victory over visiting Wesley that night. But noticeably missing from the stands at the Grumbacher Center was Haley's mother, Sue, who tries to attend just about every York game within a reasonable driving distance from her home in Silver Springs, Md. Sue was supposed to make the hour-plus drive to York with her other sister to meet up with Kepner.

Kepner, knowing Sue Haley was in an emergency room at a Maryland hospital, kept quiet on Sue's absence until after Kristen was done posting another near double-double in points and rebounds.

"Trish, we told her what was happening but told her 'don't tell Kristen because I don't want to throw her game off,'" Sue Haley said in recounting the events. "I had a stomach virus and wasn't sure if I was gonna make it."

Sue Haley, 51, would remain in the hospital for another two days. But it would be another eight months and various tests later when it was confirmed. Sue Haley has an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"It's very surreal. There's still some days where I wake up and I'm like 'oh, my gosh. I have cancer.' It still doesn't seem real. You can't really believe it's happening."

Approach: The undefeated Spartans (8-0) just moved into d3hoops.com's Top 25 rankings for the first time this season following their win last Saturday over nationally-ranked Christopher Newport. So many signs point to this team potentially being the best of Coach Betsy Witman's highly successful 17-year tenure.

One of those signs is the approach that her players take to the game. York Catholic grad Brittany Hicks is the bruising forward with the mind-set of flipping a switch and taking over a game when needed. Aja Wallpher, the fearless point guard with a chip on her shoulder, leads by example in pushing her teammates to excel. And Kristen Haley, the imposing 6-footer in her fourth year as the Spartans' starting center, keeps the team level-headed with a calm demeanor in the most strenuous moments. As a result, Haley seems equipped to handle the weight of a parent having cancer.

"I've always been told I'm the young old person on this team," Haley said. "I'm like the mother of the team."

A senior nursing major who has taught swim classes to youngsters for most of her life and aspires to work in pediatric care, Haley has always been mature for her age.

"They've been through a lot," Sue Haley said of her three children. "Growing up with different families at our church, there were mothers who died of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. They seem to handle it very well because of that exposure. It's sad they were exposed to that at such a young age, but it's good because it's helped them dealing with tragedy."

Plus, it helps that Haley, a three-time All-Capital Athletic Conference selection who is currently averaging 15.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, has teammates to lean on for support. Those teammates have been through tough times as well. Like Wallpher, whose family was once evicted from its home when she was in high school. And Hicks, who has had two grandparents, two aunts and an uncle die from the time she was 15.

"I haven't outright told them 'hey, my mom has cancer.' But everyone has been supportive and encouraging in different ways," Kristen Haley said. "They took me out for a team dinner after a practice one night to cheer me up."

Example: A mother of three and wife of nearly 30 years, Sue Haley is currently undergoing six-hour-long chemotherapy treatments once every three weeks at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. The treatments leave her tired and nauseous, but doctors expect her to be cancer free sometime in the early part of 2014. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland graduate and former AAU basketball coach tries to keep life as normal as possible. She fits in part-time work as a bookkeeper at a sister-in-law's hair salon while her husband, Paul Haley, works full-time as vice president for a real estate developer in Maryland. Sue Haley also continues to try to make it to nearly every York game to watch the senior season of her youngest child.

"The thing with my kids seeing Trish beat (breast cancer), they're older and they saw her beat it and saw her positive attitude, I'm doing the same thing," Sue Haley said. "I'm just lucky there's a cure."

-- Reach John Walk at jwalk@yorkdispatch.com.