Victories Beyond the Hardwood: Fordham Women’s B-Ball Stands With Coach Burke

Rams raise nearly $40,000 for assistant coach’s cancer treatments in chaotic 2020-21 season

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COURTESY OF FORDHAM ATHLETICS

Before taking time off to receive treatment for cancer, Sonia Burke established herself as a prominent figure in Fordham women’s basketball.

By PATRICK MOQUIN

A casual spectator watching the Fordham women’s basketball team’s final games of 2021 would likely conclude that the Rams’ season ended in an anticlimactic fashion on March 20. For a team with a stellar regular season record and tradition of success, it’s true that ending on three straight defeats would have been a disappointment in a normal year, but the problems weighing on the team since November have extended far beyond the boundaries of the Rose Hill Gymnasium.

In a very unusual year, players and coaches alike seemed to take every result, good or bad, in stride. As the COVID-19 pandemic affected millions of people around the globe, merely playing the game they loved became a privilege. But there was something even more personal driving the team to push on as victories off the court became more important. The team’s success was not dictated by conference standings or buzzer-beaters, but rather by the ringing of a bell and the gradual climb to an astounding fundraising goal for a loved one in need.

Two weeks ago, Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach Sonia Burke concluded chemotherapy treatment for a rare form of stomach cancer, ringing the ceremonial bell in the hospital to mark the end of another round in a grueling fight. She immediately sent the news to her players and fellow staff members, a group of people who have supported her unconditionally since she received the diagnosis shortly before Christmas last year.

“We all had things that we were battling with, and Coach Sonia was obviously one of those things that we were fighting for.” Kaitlyn Downey, GSBRH ’22

Kaitlyn Downey, Gabelli School of Business at Rose Hill ’22, has worked very closely with Burke over the last three years as the team’s starting forward. She described the excitement the team felt when Burke announced the end of her chemotherapy, as well as the impact the assistant coach’s perseverance had on the team’s season.

“Our team battled a lot of stressors that weren’t just coming from the basketball court,” Downey said. “We all had things that we were battling with, and Coach Sonia was obviously one of those things that we were fighting for.”

In 2017, Burke was hired by Fordham University to be the new assistant coach after spending nearly two decades as an assistant coach at Manhattan College. Before that, she had moved from her home country of Barbados to Mobile, Alabama, where she was a player herself at Spring Hill College from 1997 to 2001. She helped lead the Spring Hill Badgers to the Gulf Coast Conference Championship in 2000, and she also served as the captain of the Barbadian national team that took home gold at that year’s Caribbean Women’s Basketball Championship. 

At Fordham, Burke quickly became involved in the recruiting process and had a hand in convincing several current players, including Downey, to join the basketball team. When she had to step away from the sidelines this past season to receive treatment, her absence impacted everyone she worked with — from team members she had helped to develop into better players and people, to staff members who had vigorously worked alongside her.

One of these staff members, Allie Keller, the director of administration, described the team’s reaction when Burke first stepped away from the sidelines. The college basketball season was difficult for everyone, but Burke’s experience always inspired the program to continue moving forward.

“Having that mindset really pushed the team and put things in perspective,” Keller said. “You think this is hard? What do you think Sonia’s going through right now?”

Just as the team was beginning its season in earnest, Burke was preparing for chemotherapy, yet she still supported players and coaches with encouraging messages in group chats. Megan Jonassen, Fordham College at Rose Hill ’22, described Burke’s insistence on communicating with players remotely despite her personal struggles.

“You would never even know that she is battling cancer because of the contagious energy and smiles she brings to our team,” Jonassen said. “She consistently texted us, wishing us good luck before our games, and being the forwards coach, she continued to coach us bigs.”

The team dedicated the 2020-21 season to Burke and played every game in honor of her contributions and ongoing fight.

Despite Burke’s perseverance, there were times in the past season where she struggled to keep in touch with her team. She has good days, but she continues to have many bad days as well. Battling cancer is often seen as a lonely experience, but Burke’s players and colleagues did everything in their power to support their coach.

Even before Burke’s diagnosis, the Fordham women’s basketball team had great relationships with several cancer foundations. At least once a year, Fordham players wear yellow laces in an ongoing partnership with the Go4TheGoal foundation, which raises funds for pediatric cancer treatment and research. The team also wears pink alternate jerseys to raise money for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, which allocates funds to help those with breast cancer.

In addition to representing those causes this season, players and coaches also took up the new, more personal effort to support their assistant coach. The team dedicated the 2020-21 season to Burke and played every game in honor of her contributions and ongoing fight. 

“We told them that Coach Sonia was fine and we were just going on pause, and they celebrated. That’s the type of team that we have, and that’s what Coach Sonia means to us.” Nicole Munger, coordinator of recruiting and player development

To properly represent Burke during the season, the team took every precaution to stay on the court as the pandemic continued to rage around them. They diligently followed COVID-19 protocols and never received a positive test that would have resulted in postponements. On Feb. 14, though, current events finally took their toll.

That weekend, the COVID-19 case count on the Rose Hill campus surpassed 200, and New York state guidelines mandated that all university activities pause for two weeks. The women’s basketball team had done everything right, and despite the players never having tested positive, the Rams’ season was stunted and the quest for another Atlantic 10 (A10) Championship became much more difficult due to a lack of playing time. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, however, the team’s reaction took staff members by surprise.

According to Nicole Munger, the coordinator of recruiting and player development, coaches called the players together for an impromptu meeting at 11 p.m. on Feb. 13 to inform them about the pause before the official announcement. The staff expected an angry response to the news, but when they met with the players, they were surprised to see that some of them were already crying. They thought that something had happened to Burke. Frustration would set in later, but in that moment, the players were simply relieved to hear that their coach was safe.

“We told them that Coach Sonia was fine and we were just going on pause, and they celebrated,” Munger said. “That’s the type of team that we have, and that’s what Coach Sonia means to us.”

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During the pause, Head Coach Stephanie Gaitley commented on the struggles that the team was going through after being barred from competition. The players’ dedication to Burke was one of their primary concerns as they desperately tried to return to the court.

“It’s just a lot of mental health issues that they’re dealing with,” Gaitley said. “A lot of it was, like, they were playing for her, and they were gaining strength through that. So it’s just so many different variables involved, and that’s what makes it all so difficult.”

The team was disappointed and frustrated with an interruption beyond its control, but despite losing all momentum on the court in a season that mattered more than most, two staff members found an entirely new way to assist Burke in a time of need. On the same day that the two-week pause began, Keller and Munger started a GoFundMe page to help pay for Burke’s cancer treatments.

The two-week pause ended but the donations continued to roll in, and after three months, the team has raised $36,713.

With two weeks off, the entire program began a massive effort to contact every possible connection they could think of to raise money for Burke. Team members also kickstarted the fundraiser with a push-up challenge, where donors agreed to match a certain dollar amount for each push-up a member could complete. 

Fordham coaches, players’ parents, students, university officials and former colleagues of Burke began donating, often in great amounts. For many of them, the page either broke the news of Burke’s ailment or provided rare insight into a matter the coach kept private. The two-week pause ended but the donations continued to roll in, and after three months, the team has raised $36,713.

“On one hand, we were blown away by the response, and on the other hand, it was everything we expected because we knew how many people Sonia knew,” Keller said.

“It’s a victory just being able to play this game, so go enjoy it, leave it out there, and don’t have any doubts when you’re done.” Stephanie Gaitley, women’s basketball head coach

After two weeks of valuable fundraising work, the Rams returned to the court in early March but struggled to regain the spark that had propelled them to an 8-2 conference record in the regular season. In the quarterfinals of the A10 Tournament, the team was eliminated by the University of Massachusetts in an upset. The Rams earned an at-large bid to compete in the National Invitational Tournament but lost badly in two straight games to superior competitors.

Following the loss in the A10 Tournament, Gaitley managed to smile on several occasions during the press conference, a surprising sight for a championship-winning coach accustomed to success. But in a season riddled with adversity, Gaitley considered perseverance an accomplishment in itself for her team.

“We told them that the victory is playing the game,” Gaitley said. “Go have fun. It’s a victory just being able to play this game, so go enjoy it, leave it out there, and don’t have any doubts when you’re done.”

In a world that was already uncertain, the team was shaken by the news early in the season that its assistant coach would have to step away from the team. They dedicated every moment on the court to her, drawing strength from her relentless fight to defeat a life-threatening disease.

They did everything they could to stay on the court and play for her, and when they were forced to the sidelines, they redoubled their efforts and spent countless hours raising money to assist the coach that had already done so much to positively impact their lives. Three losses on the court could never negate such a successful season.

As the women’s basketball team settles into the offseason, Burke’s fight continues, and she has no intention of giving up. On April 3, the assistant coach underwent surgery and emerged in a secure but exhausted state. One of the messages she relayed to Munger before her operation was an apology to The Observer for a lack of availability in recent weeks. Even as she entered surgery, Burke’s commitment to the Fordham community persisted.

“She truly contributes so much to our program, and I am so extremely grateful that I have the privilege to be coached by her, not only in basketball but also in life.” Megan Jonassen, FCRH ’22

Burke’s future with Fordham women’s basketball is uncertain, but team members remain hopeful that she will return very soon. Jonassen could not imagine the team without her for long.

“She truly contributes so much to our program, and I am so extremely grateful that I have the privilege to be coached by her, not only in basketball but also in life,” Jonassen said.

As of this article’s publication, the GoFundMe page for Burke is still open. The team is less than $4,000 short of its goal to raise $40,000 for her various treatments. The money will never compensate for lost time, but to the team, it represents a meager attempt to reciprocate for someone who has never wavered in her support of Fordham women’s basketball and its many members.