March 9, 2005 - by
Florida State Women’s Basketball Among Comeback Award Finalists

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March 9, 2005

Cary, N.C. — The V Foundation for Cancer Research announced Tuesday that the 2004-05 Florida State women’s basketball team is among the finalists for the fifth annual V Foundation Comeback Award. The award is presented in partnership with ESPN and will be announced during ESPN’s basketball Final Four/NIT weekend coverage.

The annual award is open to men and women collegiate basketball student-athletes in all NCAA divisions. It is awarded to an individual or a team who has accomplished a personal triumph in the face of true adversity, be it in health, life or moral dilemma.

The award is presented in memory of Jim Valvano, the late basketball coach and ESPN commentator, whose personal battle with cancer inspired the creation of The V Foundation. In his memorable speech at ESPN’s inaugural ESPY Awards announcing the creation of The V Foundation, Valvano’s “Don’t Give Up. . .Don’t Ever Give Up!”® motto created a legacy from which the Comeback Award has been created.

The finalists are: Chante Bonds, Bentley College; Kayla Burt, Washington University: Darren Cooper; University of Portland; Grant Dykstra, Western Washington University; the Florida State University women’s basketball team; Cisti Greenwalt, Texas Tech University; Jeff Hemschoot, Fairleigh Dickinson University -Florham; Bernard Jackson, College of Charleston; Will Kimble, University of Texas – El Paso; Marsha Kinder, Bridgewater College; Brittney Kroon, Seattle Pacific University; Tyler McKinney, Creighton University; James Roberson, Bemidji State University; Sheray Thomas, University of Kentucky; Nicole Vlajkovich, Bethany College; Larry Welton, Aurora University; Amber Wheeler, Southwest Baptist University; and Kitus Witherspoon, Arkansas State University.

“Once again I am amazed at the incredible strength and resilience of the student-athletes who are nominated for The V Foundation Comeback Award,” said Foundation CEO Nick Valvano. “These young people are outstanding student-athletes who have faced tremendous adversity and challenges with incredible determination and strength.

“Every one of these finalists truly captures the spirit of The V Foundation,” Valvano continued. “They have embraced the `Never Give Up’ attitude as they have overcome great obstacles. I would be honored to have my brother’s name be remembered with each and every one of them.”

Past recipients of the award are Purdue’s Katie Douglas (2001), Western Michigan’s Kristin Koetsier (2002), Arizona State’s Justin Allen (2003) and Texas’ Jamie Carey (2004).

More than 50 student-athletes were nominated by their institutions for the 2005 V Foundation Comeback Award. The finalists represent a wide range of compelling stories of young men and women from all types of universities, basketball programs and personal challenges. The recipient will be selected by an eight-member sub-committee of The V Foundation Board of Directors.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research was founded in 1993 by ESPN and the late Jim Valvano, legendary NC State basketball coach and ESPN commentator. Since 1993 The Foundation has raised more than $45 million used to fund cancer research grants nationwide. The Foundation awards grants through a competitive awards process strictly supervised by a Scientific Review Committee of top doctor/scientists nationwide. The Foundation operates with a small staff, a nationwide volunteer network and an all-volunteer Board of Directors and Scientific Review Committee, assuring that over the past five years, an average of 83 cents of ever dollar raised has been available to fund cancer research. For more information visit The V Foundation for Cancer Research website at

2005 V Foundation Comeback Award Finalists

Florida State University Women’s Basketball Team The Florida State University women’s basketball team has overcome loss and sorrow. A year after their 29-year-old academic counselor passed away from an allergic reaction, the Seminoles suffered another tragic loss. Sophomore Ronalda Pierce, who was projected to start in 2004-05, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on June 8, 2004. FSU, without its top six scorers from last season, was picked to finish eighth in the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference poll. But the team pulled through its hard times together and posted a 23-6 regular season record to finish fourth in the conference. FSU matched its most ACC wins (9) and notched its first 20-win season since 1991.

Chante Bonds, Senior, Bentley College A product of a broken home, Chante Bonds’ mother is a drug user and her father has been in and out of jail for most of her life. With her family on welfare, Bonds used basketball and education as a means to escape from the cycle of poverty and addiction that is prevalent in her family and community. She earned a full scholarship to Bentley College, where she is a starter for a very strong NCAA Division II team. She will graduate in May with a degree in Information Design and Corporate Communication and plans to take in her younger sister and brother.

Kayla Burt, Redshirt Junior, University of Washington On New Year’s Eve, 2002, Kayla Burt suffered cardiac arrest while spending a quiet evening at home with seven of her teammates. After her teammates performed CPR to save her life, Burt was in a coma for 15 hours. Burt was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome, a rare genetic heart condition, and a defibrillator was implanted in her chest. After serving as a student assistant for the basketball team for a year and a half, Burt learned that she did not have Long QT Syndrome and was eventually cleared to play again. Burt returned to action this year and is leading the team in scoring, assists, steals and three-pointers while serving as a co-captain.

Darren Cooper, Redshirt Junior, University of Portland Darren Cooper has overcome numerous family tragedies. Cooper lost his father and uncle to cancer within a couple of years of each other, and his grandmother passed away shortly thereafter. Cooper, who played his freshman year at Eastern Washington University, soon learned that his mother, Carrie Green, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. He returned home to Portland to take care of his mom. He began working 30 hours a week and enrolled at Portland Community College (PCC), where he took a full load of classes. After earning an associate’s degree at PCC, Cooper enrolled at University of Portland and earned a scholarship. A starter for the Pilots, Cooper is second on the team with 11.0 points per game. Cooper cared for his mother throughout her illness and chemotherapy treatments. Green has since been declared cancer-free.

Grant Dykstra, Junior, Western Washington University A 2004 Comeback Award finalist, Grant Dykstra has had to overcome adversity since the age of two when his right arm was caught in a grain auger. Dykstra underwent 16 surgeries to save his arm and the natural right hander learned to play basketball left handed. He earned a scholarship to Western Washington, where he has started every game the last three years. A first-team All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference honoree and 2005 recipient of the United States Basketball Writers Association Most Courageous Award, Dykstra is averaging approximately 17 points, five rebounds and four assists per game.

Cisti Greenwalt, Senior, Texas Tech University After fracturing her ankle in February 2004, Cisti Greenwalt was diagnosed with melanoma in May. Right after completing a month of chemotherapy treatment, Greenwalt totaled her sports utility vehicle in a rollover car accident, suffering pulmonary contusions involving both lungs. Despite months of injuries and illness, Greenwalt was ready to go for the first day of practice. She leads Texas Tech in points, rebounds and blocked shots and received first-team All-Big 12 honors.

Jeff Hemschoot, Senior, Fairleigh Dickinson University Jeff Hemschoot was a freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson when his father was killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Despite the national tragedy and personal pain, Hemschoot remained focused on achieving the goals he had previously set for himself. Hemschoot, who scored his 1,000th career point this season, is averaging approximately 10 points and five rebounds per game and leads his team in blocked shots.

Bernard Jackson, Senior, College of Charleston Bernard Jackson has undergone seven knee operations. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, Jackson has earned degrees in Business Administration and Corporate Communications. After scoring just 186 points in his career entering this season, Jackson notched 294 points (10.9 ppg) this season. He started all but two of his team’s games and led the squad in rebounding and field goal percentage.

Will Kimble, Senior, University of Texas-El Paso Will Kimble played basketball for two years at Pepperdine before collapsing in a practice during the 2002-03 season. He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the same heart ailment that killed Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers in 1990. Kimble, who did not receive medical clearance to return to the court at Pepperdine, served as a manager and team captain before earning his degree last spring. With a defibrillator implanted in his chest and NCAA eligibility remaining, Kimble set out to return to basketball. After again being denied medical clearance to play at UC-Riverside, Kimble enrolled in the graduate program at Texas-El Paso and was cleared to play by team doctors and his mother, who is a physician. He leads the team in field goal percentage and is second in blocked shots while playing in all but two games this year.

Marsha Kinder, Junior, Bridgewater College Marsha Kinder has battled with and overcome severe anorexia and bulimia. After struggling with the eating disorders for five years, suffering through her father’s sudden death from a heart attack and her mother’s fall that resulted in a fractured skull, Kinder’s illness had nearly claimed her life. Kinder began her collegiate career at West Virginia before transferring to James Madison to be close to her family during such tragic times. Now, after undergoing intense rehabilitation for the eating disorders, she is a junior at Bridgewater College, where she is averaging approximately nine points per game and carrying a 4.00 grade point average.

Brittney Kroon, Junior, Seattle Pacific University A 2004 Comeback Award finalist, Brittney Kroon underwent a liver transplant in 2002 after being diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis (where the body’s immune system attacks its own liver). While still taking daily medication to aid in her ongoing recovery, Kroon is the starting center for one of the nation’s top NCAA Division II teams. She is averaging approximately 10 points and seven rebounds per game and leads the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in field goal percentage. Ranked among the top 10 in NCAA Division II in blocked shots, Kroon is already tied for the conference record for most blocked shots in a career.

Tyler McKinney, Senior, Creighton University After starting his first two seasons at Creighton, Tyler McKinney was diagnosed with a bacterial eye infection known as acanthamoeba in his right eye and his vision dropped to 20/300 early in his junior campaign. In March 2004, McKinney underwent a cornea transplant surgery. It was unsuccessful, so he underwent a second cornea transplant surgery in April to prevent permanent blindness in his right eye. In September, McKinney received medical permission to return to the court. McKinney, the only player on the Creighton roster to have started all 30 games this year, leads the Missouri Valley Conference with 165 assists.

James Roberson, Senior, Bemidji State University James Roberson was diagnosed with a brain tumor after suffering with headaches last spring. The brain tumor was successfully removed and Roberson returned to the court. He averaged 10.5 points while leading the team with 126 assists this season. Roberson has set Bemidji State’s single-game, single-season and career assists per game records, while dishing at least one assist in every game of his BSU career. He earned first-team All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference honors this year.

Sheray Thomas, Sophomore, University of Kentucky Sheray Thomas had surgery in October to remove a tennis-ball sized tumor on his adrenal gland and lost nearly 40 pounds due to post-surgery nausea. He was back on the court in December and has played in all but one game since his return.

Nicole Vlajkovich, Junior, Bethany College After watching her mother Connie’s year-long struggle with mental illness – which ended tragically when her mother committed suicide at the team hotel in November – Nicole Vlajkovich responded with strength and resilience. Just six days after her mother’s death, Vlajkovich returned to the basketball court, where she averaged 13 points and 16.5 rebounds over two days of action at the Bethany College Holiday Classic. A starter for Bethany, she averaged 7.3 points and a team-best 9.2 rebounds on the year.

Larry Welton, Redshirt Freshman, Aurora University During his junior year of high school, Larry Welton was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of bone cancer. Welton underwent chemotherapy treatments for about a year and a half, missing his senior high school basketball season. After spending his first year at Aurora continuing to recover from his treatments and regain his strength, Welton returned to the court this year. He has started every game for Aurora and leads his team in scoring (20.1 ppg), rebounding (7.6 rpg), blocked shots (41) and minutes played (31.0 pg).

Amber Wheeler, Junior, Southwest Baptist University Despite playing well enough to be named the MVP of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) in 2004, Amber Wheeler knew there was something wrong with her physically. After experiencing soreness and tingling in her left arm, Wheeler was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome – she had an extra rib above her first rib. She underwent a four-hour surgery in late August to remove the cervical and first ribs and started school nearly a month after her classmates. Many expected her to redshirt this year, but Wheeler was determined to return to the court. She did, averaging 11 points per game in 25 contests and earning All-MIAA honorable mention accolades.

Kitus Witherspoon, Junior, Arkansas State University Kitus Witherspoon was a top junior college prospect at Seminole Community College, but he struggled academically and lost his scholarship opportunities following his sophomore year. Witherspoon re-focused, took the year off from basketball and graduated with his associate’s degree from SCC in 2004. With his academics in order, Witherspoon returned to basketball at Arkansas State in the fall. While going for a run as part of his conditioning program, Witherspoon was hit by a car at 5:45 a.m. on September 15. The accident, which required stitches on a lacerated arm, forced Witherspoon to miss nearly all of the preseason conditioning. Nonetheless, he returned to the court and played in every game for Arkansas State.

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