Courtney Wagner wanted to play soccer in college. It was one of her dreams and while cancer prevented her from actually stepping onto the field, the 18-year-old Canandaigua Academy graduate who died Monday did help a team win an NCAA title.
“She had a huge role in us winning and I don’t know if she realized that,” said Kara Shue, a William Smith College midfielder/forward from Fairport who was a freshman on the Herons’ 2013 Division III national championship team. “The whole thing about never giving up, we live by that motto because of her.”
Thanks to Team IMPACT, a nonprofit agency that helps children facing life-threatening illness by pairing them with sports teams, Wagner was on the bench and in the Herons’ huddles in San Antonio, Texas, when they won the crown on Dec. 7, 2013, by downing Trinity, 2-0. “That wide-eyed wonder and excitement Courtney had infected our team,” recalled longtime William Smith coach Aliceann Wilber. “As much as we may have given to her, she gave back to us tenfold.”
Courtney Wagner lost her battle with cancer, but won so many others along the way. We’ll never forget her spirit. ellen.tv/1LSZgCf
Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) October 27, 2015
And that’s exactly why people were so drawn to Wagner, rooted for her and wanted to help her during her up-and-down, four-year fight against cancer. Despite the long odds she was given from her first MRI in September 2011 and so many painful treatments that followed, the former high school soccer and basketball player didn’t sulk or complain. She stayed positive.
“Courtney was a symbol of everything we teach: Hard work, perseverance, never giving up, showing character. She was a role model for all of us – teachers, coaches, administrators, students,” Canandaigua Academy athletic director Jim Simmons said on Tuesday.
The mood at school on Tuesday was somber, he said. Wagner died at home at 5:30 p.m. Monday. She was surrounded by family. Her mother, Jamie Wagner, said details on funeral services for Courtney should be finalized Wednesday. Some Canandaigua students wore purple, Courtney’s favorite color, Simmons said. Grief counselors were made available.
“It’s sad,” Simmons said. “People are sad.”
Courtney Wagner, 18, dies of cancer after 4-year fight
Wagner’s story reached thousands starting last February and March when she was honored at Canandaigua basketball’s “Senior Night,” and despite her weakened condition was allowed to make the first basket of the game. Then a social media surge helped land her on the TV set of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres was Courtney’s favorite comedian and she surprised her during the March 3 taping by being invited on stage and interviewed by the star.
Wagner called it a dream come true.
“Look at any of the appearances she did, she always had a smile on her face. That’s just how she was when she was a healthy student-athlete. She was positive, engaging, friendly. That’s what people loved about her,” Simmons said. “That never wavered, whatever she faced.”
Mike Brennan, the Canandaigua basketball coach who set up Wagner’s “Senior Night” moment against Brighton, carries a picture of him and Wagner together in his pocket. Madi Sears, another senior on that team, gave it to Brennan not long after that night.
“It’s a lot of different emotions tugging in a lot of different directions,” Brennan, 34, said about Wagner’s passing. “There’s extreme sadness. But as a father, there’s extreme fear. Then as a community member, there’s pride in the way the people in community and school responded. There are purple ribbons on people’s streets.”
Former basketball coach Bob Guy, a veteran who was also a successful college coach at SUNY Geneseo, brought Wagner up to varsity as a freshman. She was still strong enough after initial treatments. Soccer was her best sport, though.
“The first couple games her freshman year before everything happened we thought she’d end up being our MVP that season,” said Kim Condon, who has coached girls varsity soccer there for 23 years. “She was always talkative, very composed, very knowledgeable.”
Condon played her at center back, on defense, where coaches usually need one of their best. Wagner’s sophomore and junior season’s were incomplete because of her illness, but she started every match as a senior last fall. Condon considers Wagner among the best players she’s ever coached.
“Everybody respected her. She was a leader, worked twice as hard as everyone else,” Condon said. “And she’d never let (her illness) get to her and never let it get to others. She was never going to play the cancer card.”
Condon said Wagner would have played college soccer. Instead, Wagner only made it through a few days of classes last month before she became too ill. Even though they knew she probably was never going to be well enough to play at William Smith, the college and team made her part of the squad, listed her on the website.
“She just had this incredible spirit and it showed through,” said Wilber, who is in her 36th season as coach and has a team that’s 11-0-1.
Courtney Wagner stays positive despite setback
Her 2013 national champions went 23-1 (21 shutouts). Wagner’s relationship with the Herons started in the spring of 2013. It was Wagner’s sophomore year and she was about 18 months removed from surgery to remove one tumor in the back of her head and from the start of treatments to shrink another golf-ball sized tumor in her head.
Jamie Wagner said the average life expectancy for people with her daughter’s condition was 14 months.
“There was a resiliency about Courtney and a beauty,” Wilber said.
From 2013 on, Wagner and her family would attend as many William Smith matches in nearby Geneva as Courtney could. She was also honored the following summer, in 2014, as an honorary captain for the Western New York Flash women’s soccer team for a match against Sky Blue FC. United States national team stars Abby Wambach, the Pittsford native, and Carli Lloyd were on the Flash. Wagner met the team beforehand, walked out with them during starting lineups and sat on the bench.
That was set up through the Austen Everett Foundation run by former Rochester Rhinos player, Matt Luzunaris.
Wilber admired not only the bravery shown by Wagner but also her family and in particular, her mother. Those who met Jamie Wagner during her daughter’s illness understood very quickly that she wouldn’t let the gloom and doom of cancer define the family.
“I think we all wonder: What if it were me? Could I have done that? Probably not as well as Courtney,” Wilber said. “And as a mom, could I have managed this with the eloquence and strength of Jamie Wagner?”
In an essay for her application for William Smith’s Presidential Scholarship, Courtney conveyed that her fortitude was a learned behavior.
“If it was not for the enormous love and support from all of those who have walked with me through my journey, I would not have the positive outlook that I do today. My soccer teammates, both on my high school team and my adopted college team, have shown me what teammates should be,” she wrote. “My sincere hope is that I have been to them what they have been to me. I will continue to work from here forward to make each day matter, as each day is a gift.”
That’s how many felt about Wagner’s impact on them.