(Story by Evan O’Kelly, MSUB Athletics)
BILLINGS – Let Vanessa Stavish talk to you about bravery.
Bravery is believing in somebody when they’re up against the toughest fight of their life.
Bravery is coping with the reality of something invaluable and irreplaceable being taken away from you.
Bravery is parting with your family to come back to your team because it’s the only thing you can do.
Give Vanessa Stavish an hour of your time and it’ll shift your perspective on what it means to be brave.
Life isn’t a math equation; there is no solution that works perfectly for it. Life doesn’t make it easy for you to thrive. Neither does basketball. It wouldn’t be fun or rewarding if it was easy.
Vanessa Stavish’s story is one about basketball, and it’s one about life. It’s one about loss and grieving, and hope and believing. It’s a story about being tough and brave enough to overcome, persevere, and live every moment with a purpose.
This weekend the Montana State University Billings senior will play the final two games of her collegiate career when the Yellowjacket women’s basketball team hosts Western Washington University on Thursday and Simon Fraser University on Saturday. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. each night, with Saturday evening being Senior Night at Alterowitz Gym.
Stavish has played in 121 games in her four-year career at MSUB, the third most in program history. Her 151 career made 3-pointers are eighth most, and she has racked up 875 total points.
“It has definitely been a humbling experience,” the Frenchtown native said. “Coming from a small town to Billings, I never guessed that I’d be where I am at right now in my athletic career. When I finally realized I could play college ball, I believed that everything I worked for was going to come true.”
Stavish has endured unthinkable tribulation, losing her mother Lori to cancer in the midst of her junior season. Now Stavish carries a reminder each time she steps on the court, in the form of an eloquently etched tattoo on her inner right wrist. ‘Be Brave,’ it reads. “She used to tell me, ‘every time you shoot, I want you to remember to be brave,’” Stavish said.
In a way, it is a phrase that has come to define her.
DOING THE MATH
“When I was little she made me go outside every night and shoot a thousand shots before I could come back in. She was very motivated in everything that she did. She was competitive in a way, and went above and beyond. Her employers would say that she did her job and three other peoples’ jobs.” – Vanessa Stavish on her mother’s work ethic.
Stavish’s story begins in her mother’s car as a six-year-old with her older sister Tori.
“Six plus two,” Lori’s voice calls out.
“Eight,” report her daughters.
“Seven minus four,” she tests.
“Three,” says Vanessa.
It’s no wonder how Stavish wound up in her current major of math education, as numbers have been an interest for as long as she can remember. “Every time we were in the car my mom would give us two numbers that we had to add,” Stavish recalled. “As we got older it turned into multiplication and division.”
A talented three-sport athlete at Frenchtown High School, Stavish’s shooting ability was a major factor in landing her on the Yellowjackets’ recruiting map. “I heard there was a really good player over in Frenchtown, who could shoot the ball well,” said MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin. “I was able to attend a game early in her senior season at Anaconda High School, and she didn’t even know I was there. She scored close to 30 points, both inside and outside, and after that I stepped up the recruiting process.”
Though Stavish had a handful of collegiate offers, Billings was close to home and she had a familiarity with many of the players on the roster. “When I met coach, I liked what he stood for and I also realized I had played against a bunch of the girls on the team previously,” said Stavish. “I knew Quinn (Peoples) and Alisha (Breen), but I didn’t know much about MSUB or the D2 level. I thought it was pretty cool.”
Stavish had an immediate impact on a team that was fresh off a run to the NCAA D2 west region title game. In just her second collegiate game she had what stands as one of her best performances, with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting including a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point range. “I thought she had a chance to help us right away,” Woodin said. “Adjusting to the college game is very hard, but with her skillset in our offense there was an opportunity for her to be effective. We had a good team coming back and playing time was limited early, but I knew that her skills were eventually going to help our team a lot.”
Stavish played in all 28 games in the 2014-15 season, gaining valuable experience that led to a productive sophomore campaign. Lori never missed a home game that year, taking her post in the top row of the seats behind MSUB’s bench and wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt along with her husband Greg. “Both my parents loved that I played sports,” Stavish said. “They never forced me or my sister to play, and they were level headed about everything. They let us decide for ourselves what we wanted to do.”
More than doubling her point production in 2015-16, Stavish averaged 5.4 while shooting 36.6 percent from beyond the arc and once again playing every game of the 32-game season. Fueled by a disappointing playoff miss from the previous year, the ‘Jackets advanced to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships title game and made an appearance in the regional tournament for Stavish’s first taste of postseason action. “We had that feeling in our stomachs that we were going to get to the tournament no matter what,” Stavish said. “When you go to the NCAA tournament for the first time, you feel like you’re big time.”
“My mom always joked that she was going to follow me to college since I was the baby of the family. We had sleepovers in my dorm room my freshman year. We were definitely best friends.” – Vanessa Stavish on her mother.
“Eight times seven,” Lori quizzes to her now-teenage daughters.
“Fifty-six,” a casual yet considerate reply follows.
As her children grew older, back-seat addition turned into multiplication tables and eventually into algebraic equations. Tori, now 24, is in Bend, Oregon completing her residency towards a Ph.D. in pharmaceuticals. Vanessa is student teaching at Billings Senior High School this semester, the final step in completing her undergraduate degree.
Lori was first diagnosed with cancer in May of 2015, and began treatment while Stavish was home for the summer. While things appeared to be improving, and Stavish returned to Billings for her sophomore year, it took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2016. “That summer is when we realized (the cancer) came back in three different places,” Stavish said. “That summer was really hard. My mom was not the type of person to want you to ever feel sorry for her, and she worked up until the moment that she couldn’t anymore.”
Stavish initially decided to begin her junior year of classes, and found herself making the five-hour drive home every weekend in the fall of 2016. Eventually, school and basketball became secondary, and Stavish put everything on hold to be with her family in December. Lori passed away on December 16. “I will never forget that my mom told me to go back and play ball because she wanted to come over and watch me play,” Stavish said.
Stavish’s teammates were by her side – both figuratively and literally – while she was away from basketball caring for her family. Her No. 15 jersey remained on the bench each night, MSUB’s annual Pink Night was dedicated to Lori, and players wore ‘Play For Lori’ bracelets. After the team’s win over Rocky Mountain College on December 17, 2016, the entire team joined the postgame interview to greet her while Stavish watched from home.
“I can’t even imagine how hard the difficulties of her mom’s diagnosis must have been on her,” Woodin said. “She and her mom were so close, and I know it was like losing her best friend. Vanessa and I became closer during that difficult period, and I was amazed at the strength that she showed on a daily basis.”
No one would have thought twice if Stavish had extended her stay in Frenchtown, remaining with family and loved ones for the foreseeable future. But she quickly realized there was only one option, and it was to return to her teammates in Billings.
“Coming back was hard, but it was the best thing for me,” Stavish said. “If I could get away and do something else, and get my mind on something else, then that’s what I wanted to do. Everyone told me I was so strong for coming back. But they would have done the same thing if they were in my position. MSUB is my second family, and with everything I went through I don’t think it would have been the same at any other school. I couldn’t have asked for more support.”
As Stavish worked towards healing and returning to her college routine, her focus began to shift to the 2017-18 basketball season. At first it seemed the sport she loved couldn’t be further out of reach. But deep down she knew that her mother wouldn’t have it any other way than for her to return to the hardwood again.
“I believe her mom’s death motivated her in the off-season before her junior year, and I know her mom’s spirit was involved with her preparation. She dedicated her junior season to her mom,” – Kevin Woodin on Vanessa Stavish returning to the court.
On March 12, 2018 Stavish hit her first three of the night just over 90 seconds into the NCAA D2 west region title game against Alaska Anchorage. The Seawolves were the No. 13 team in the country, and had dispatched MSUB twice during the regular season.
MSUB trailed by five after the first quarter, and was in danger of letting the heavy favorite extend its lead to an unreachable distance. Stavish made three more 3-pointers in the second quarter, and another in the third that kept the ‘Jackets within striking distance.
The game ended with an historic 71-70 win for MSUB, which stormed the court and hoisted the west region championship trophy for the second time in school history. Stavish had 17 points and 10 rebounds, completing her first-ever double-double in the most important performance of her career.
“Vanessa peaked down the stretch of her junior season,” said Woodin. “Her five threes against Anchorage in the regional final were a major reason why we won that game. She is not afraid to take the shot in pressure situations.”
“Right before that game, someone in the locker room said that this could be our seniors’ last game, and I remember thinking that it should have been me,” Stavish reflected on what stands out as the best moment of her athletic career. “I thought about how it could have been my last game, and for the seniors it really was that feeling. We had a core group that year who had the mindset that we weren’t going to lose.”
Stavish started all 37 games that season, and was third on the team with a scoring average of 9.5 points per game. She hit at a clip of 36.3 percent from beyond the arc, and also chipped in 5.0 rebounds per game. “Vanessa worked extremely hard on blocking out, and has become a better rebounder and defender,” Woodin said on Stavish’s improvement as a player. “Offensively she has developed a better back-to-the-basket game. She has a quick release and can score from mid-range as well as the 3-point line and beyond.”
Now a senior captain, Stavish is completing her best season yet. She averages career highs of 12.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, while playing 29.1 minutes and starting 23 of 24 games. She has logged two more double-doubles, including last Saturday at Concordia when she scored a career-high 23 points to go with 10 boards.
“It is crazy to think I am finishing my career and all of this is coming to an end,” Stavish said. “What I take away when I reflect back on it is all of the relationships I have made. When you come to college to play basketball you automatically have 12 friends. I have some great relationships, and have made some lifelong friends.”
Stavish earned academic all-GNAC for the third time in her career this season, as she works diligently towards finishing her degree while carrying a 3.4 grade point average. In her final semester, she has juggled a full-time student teaching position with the rigors of the daily practice schedule and traveling frequently to play.
She feels fortunate to be completing her student-teaching under the guidance of Yellowjacket alumna and hall of fame point guard Amy (Winslow) Pfeifle at Billings Senior High School. “We love to talk about sports and student-athletes, and she is still very interested in MSUB’s teams,” Stavish said. “On top of that, she is an amazing math teacher.”
“From Day 1 Vanessa has wanted to be a secondary math teacher, and I did that for 17 years so we also bond in that area,” Woodin said. “We like to talk numbers and the Pythagorean Theorem, and it kind of makes me miss those days.”
“I am lucky to have been coached by Coach Woodin,” Stavish said. “He cares so much about us as people, and he goes out of his way to do anything for us. He has always pushed me to be my best, and he has always been straight up and honest with us. That is something I will take into my own coaching, because it helped me realize how important it is to establish a good relationship with someone.”
“Brave was our word, especially after she got diagnosed. It’s something she said to me a lot when I was growing up, and I always said it back. She would tell me to be brave at practice today, and I’d tell her to be brave during her chemo treatments.” – Vanessa Stavish.
It isn’t easy for Stavish to talk about her mother. Fond memories force a smile onto her face that eases tears of love and pain. “She asked me, ‘if there is one thing you’re going to remember, what is it?’ And I told her that I am always going to remember that you told me to be brave. That brought a smile to her face.”
Lori was an avid scrap-booker, documenting each year of her children’s lives with thoughtful, hand crafted volumes. The memoirs were trademarked by her signature, flowing handwriting. “It was almost like calligraphy,” Stavish noted of her mother’s careful penmanship.
Stavish stumbled across one of her mother’s old notebooks, this one containing nothing but page after page of the meaningful phrase. It only felt natural to have it inked into her wrist in Lori’s exact handwriting.
The final problem Lori left her daughter with was the toughest of them all. It wasn’t a math equation; no amount of arithmetic or logic could yield an answer. It was one with no real solutions, at least that’s what it seemed like.
But every time she feels stumped by it, Vanessa opens her right wrist. Her mother’s flawless handwriting gives her the only answer she will ever need: Be Brave.