Basketball tournament about more than just basketball for Owen

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

The concept behind the game of basketball is a relatively simple one; execute your team’s plan and get to the basket on the offensive side of the ball while defending your rim against the other team.

Most of the time the entire focus is on winning, but some games can be about much more.

On Saturday, Nov. 25 the girls and boys teams from Owen High School will lace up their sneakers in UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena for the 2017 Coaches vs. Cancer Shootout, an annual event sponsored by the NC Coaches Association, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the American Society and Krispy Kreme.

The Warhorses and Warlassies will play on behalf of the school’s longtime trainer Crystal Shirk, who was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer a little over a year ago. Getting motivated for the tournament won’t be a problem, according to Owen senior Kristyl Keeter.

Crystal Shirk helps an Owen soccer player stretch during  a home game on Nov. 1.

“She is a phenomenal woman,” Keeter said of Shirk, who she has known since she began playing sports at Owen as a freshman. “She shows us that anything is possible and you can overcome any obstacles in front of you.”

Owen senior Kristyl Keeter, who calls Crystal Shirk a "true hero," will play with the Warlassies in the Nov. 25 Coaches vs. Cancer Shootout in the Kimmel Arena.

Shirk, who is employed by Pardee Sports Medicine and serves as the regional manager for Buncombe and Haywood counties in addition to her duties as the head athletic trainer at Owen, was honored when she learned she’d be the “hero” the teams from the school would represent in the tournament the weekend after Thanksgiving. The support she received from the community in the school was when she was diagnosed on her 38th birthday last year.

“I’ll never forget that birthday,” Shirk said of Sept 30, 2016. “They called two days before and given me the biopsy results, but I was in the office on my birthday when they officially gave me the diagnosis.”

Shirk recalls being in a state of disbelief, considering she was a dedicated runner who ate “relatively healthy” and had a “perfect life” with her husband Conrad and sons Ian and Daniel.

"I asked the doctor 'Do I have to quit running?'" she said.

Shirk had been training for a Spartan Race with a group of friends that included Jenny Johnson, a former teacher and coach at Owen, Chasity Simpson, who works in the school's main office.

"We ran the Spartan Sprint about 10 days after my first treatment," Shirk said. "I also ran a half marathon that December. My goals going into these races was to just finish them, but I ended up being a little impressed with how well I managed each one."

However, treatment was never easy for Shirk.

"I went through six sets of what I call 'the bad chemo' three weeks apart from each other," she said "It has four medications, including two that cause people to get sick, make them lose hair and lowers their immune systems."

Shirk wasn't fearless, but she was determined.

"I can be a pretty stubborn person when I want things to be a certain way, so I knew I would push through" she said. "But the two times I was the most scared were when (Owen football head coach Nathan Padgett) said 'we have to tell the team,' and when I had to tell my family."

She wasn't sure what how the people closest to her would react to the news.

"It was very humbling to know how it affected everybody," she said. "The emotional support that I received from everyone at the school and my family was amazing."

As Shirk, a Black Mountain resident, was undergoing treatment she continued to come to work every day at Owen.

"She's not just just an athletic trainer," Keeter said. "She's like another mom to us. She's a person we can all talk to and count on."

Keeter's Warlassies teammate and fellow senior Dee Graves agrees.

"When you need someone to talk to Crystal is the person to go to," she said.

Shirk was comforted by the very student-athletes she is there to treat.

"I wanted to be there for them, through their ups and downs and support them at their games and all that," she said. "But being around them, the laughs, the giggles, the little things they all do, was something I really wanted to do."

Crystal Shirk cheers on the Owen Warhorse football team from the sideline on Nov. 1.

Shirk delivered the commencement speech last summer at Owen's graduation, where she encouraged the graduates to be positive, even in the face of adversity. That was the strategy that she had been employing up to that point all the way through her final radiation treatment just days before graduation.

Her trainer’s unrelenting positivity in the face of her battle with cancer makes Shirk a "real hero" to Keeter.

"I want to be like Crystal if anything like that happens to me," Keeter said. "I want to be able to be that positive. She really is an all-around great person."

The Owen teams were invited to participate in the year's Shootout over the summer. The games are preceded by a banquet, when schools will present money they've raised for the American Cancer Society.

Simpson, who is the assistant coach for the Warlassies and Shirk's friend, is heading the fundraising efforts for the Owen teams.

"We've done 50-50 ticket sales at football games and all of those proceeds are going to Coaches vs. Cancer," she said. "We had to have two business sponsors and we secured those. Any additional sponsors get recognized at the tournament but that money goes into our fundraising efforts. So if there's a business out there that wants to sponsor us, you're more than welcome to."

Businesses or individuals can sponsor Owen by contacting Simpson or Warhorse head coach Clint McElrath at the school.

This is the first year Owen has participated in the invitation-only tournament, according to Simpson, who said it's an "honor" for both teams.

"I'd really like to be able to show up and present a check for $5,000," she said. "Crystal has such close ties with our community and student athletes."

Shirk, who was initially worried about sharing her diagnosis with those around her, is now an "open book" about her experience.

"As more time passes I keep thinking there are so many people in every community who are going through something similar," she said. "But I'm very blessed to have these kids and this community here support me."