MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Auburn women's golf team had to overcome far more than the normal highs and lows of the sport to make the NCAA championships.
Coach Kim Evans was diagnosed with clear cell ovarian cancer May 7. One of the Tigers' top players, Victoria Trapani, missed much of the spring after doctors found her mother's breast cancer had returned in December.
Assistant coach Margaret Shirley left in February because she couldn't travel with the team during her own bout with health issues.
The Tigers barely managed to advance to the championships starting Tuesday in Athens, Ga., with an eighth-place regional finish on their home course. Only the top eight teams qualify for the 24-team field. Student assistant Danielle Downey coached the team at regionals while Evans recuperated from surgery to remove an ovary.
"We proved a lot to ourselves," Trapani said. "We kind of lost it in ourselves after constantly having bad news. Literally it was like one thing after another. We're young and we shouldn't have to be faced with all the things we've been through. Ultimately we've grown as people and as a team and it showed after our performance at regionals."
Evans managed to watch the Tigers tee off on the final day and returned for the finish after rebuilding strength with a long nap.
Evans, who starts chemotherapy five days after the championships end, received her doctor's blessing Wednesday to make the trip to Athens. She's already discussed the course with her team because she doesn't expect to be able to make the practice round.
The "kooky," fun-loving players who have been through so much make Evans chuckle.
"I love this team. It's a gutsy little team, and they're a lot of fun," said Evans, who started feeling fatigued in February. "For me, it's more of a celebration. I get to go over there and watch them do their thing and see a lot of amazing coaches that reached out to me over the last few weeks and kind of enjoy myself for a couple of days. Then be able to come back here and get ready for this battle I have."
It seemed unlikely the Tigers would make it this far.
They finished last in back-to-back tournaments after a strong start in the fall, but earned a No. 14 seed in the regional after a resurgence at the Bryan National Collegiate in Greensboro, N.C., and the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Trapani's return provided a morale boost.
She remained in school during the spring but mostly took a break from golf amid the burden of her mother's own cancer fight. Kim Trapani had been diagnosed with breast cancer when Victoria was in high school.
Doctors found that it had returned right before finals in December and that the cancer had metastasized into her lungs.
Some good news finally came after spring break because the cancer hadn't spread in the previous few months. Victoria Trapani returned to the course.
"I told her that if she tries to beat this and changes her diet and does certain things then I'll get back out on the golf course and try to make our lives as normal as possible," the sophomore said. "We made kind of a deal. That's when I started back playing golf."
Shirley now works for Atlanta Junior Golf, where she got her own start as a youngster. She was diagnosed with low blood pressure after she had passed out several times, including once at Auburn's football national championship game in January 2011. She took much of November and December off, and doctors placed her on travel restrictions until May.
Shirley, who played for Evans, said she's fine now. She showed up for part of the Friday round during regionals to cheer on her former team and said what they accomplished "brought me to tears."
"They just kind of had that look in their eye," Shirley said. "They're fighters. They've had to be this year. There's only one way to do it. You could tell they were playing for Coach just from the minute they walked out on that golf course."
Evans has her own take on what the Tigers have endured this season. It's the highs and lows of life, not just golf.
"It's been a year of life, is what it's been," she said. "We've all kind of had a little chapter in it. I couldn't be more proud of them to just keep on keeping on. They're taking it as they come. The good times, too. We've had some great times.
"They're just going to keep on keeping on."