Ankeny teammates inspired by memories of late parents

John Naughton

Editor's note: This story originally published on Thursday, March 3, 2016.

Ankeny Centennial basketball player Emily Fontana, right, writes on teammate Sydney Wycoff wrist before playing in the state tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. They both lost their parents to brain cancer in the past year. In their memory, they write the initials of their late parents, Amy Staggs-Fontana and Greg Wycoff, on their wrists before each game.

Two Ankeny Centennial basketball players took to the court this week at the state girls' tournament and looked toward the stands as they were introduced.

Someone was missing.

Syd Wycoff and Emily Fontana both had a parent die in the past year from brain cancer.

The bond that has tied the teammates together — the illness and death of a parent from the same uncommon cause — has also allowed them to share moments of grief, pain and joy.

Tears flow when Emily talks about her stepmother, Amy, who died as this season was starting in November. She spelled Amy’s initials in beads attached to her basketball shoelaces before her team’s 56-52 quarterfinal win over Davenport North Wednesday in the Class 5A state girls’ basketball tournament.

Syd, whose father Greg died last April, wore a headband that read “4 DAD,” its message turned inside.

All of the Centennial players at the state tournament passed around a black marker in the locker room before the game to etch initials on their wrists: AF. GW.

Amy Staggs-Fontana. Greg Wycoff.

“We write it so we have something else to play for,” Syd said.

According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, 16,050 Americans die of brain and spinal tumors combined in a year. To strike the families of two athletes on a 15-player team was improbable.

Centennial coach Scott DeJong said he can't recall having a player's parent die in more than 30 years of coaching. This season, he has two of them.

"It's really hard to imagine that these two young ladies and their families would travel this same journey," DeJong said.

The honorary rituals will continue when Centennial plays in a semifinal game Friday. Winning will be on the players’ minds. But so will thoughts that transcend sports.

Wycoff's father took her to the state tournament every year. He pointed to the court and told her that someday she’d be playing. And he’d be watching her.

As her mother reassures her, “he’ll be there — just in a different seat.”

Emily’s Story

Emily Fontana wears an Ottumwa High School tennis team T-shirt that has a special meaning. It belonged to her stepmother.

The 16-year-old confesses that she still wears a lot of Amy Staggs-Fontana’s clothes. It’s a habit that she developed when her stepmother was alive.

“I’d always take stuff from her closet,” Emily said.

Amy Staggs-Fontana was a star athlete at Ottumwa, where her father coached tennis.

Mike Fontana, Emily’s dad, had met Amy online. They decided to meet in person at an Ankeny restaurant while Amy happened to be in town.

“She told me I only had an hour,” Mike Fontana said, chuckling.

The two found connections right away. Amy brought up football and Mike, a longtime football coach, was smitten. She had him at “Peyton Manning.”

Emily had Amy in her life for six years.

In 2013, Amy started having some struggles. She seemed forgetful. Lost.

“We knew something was up,” Emily said. “She got lost going to work. She would fall a lot. It was just not 'her.'"

Amy was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor.

After the operation, Amy believed she was making a recovery. But when she went jogging, she lost her balance and scraped her wrist and face.

“She thought she was stronger than she actually was,” Emily said.

Emily did what she could to help. She took over the car’s wheel and drove Amy on errands.

They loved making Scotcheroos together. Playing with the family dog, Bella. Or watching movies while curled up in bed, forcing Mike to sleep in a spare room or on a couch.

But the family times were fleeting. Amy’s cancer began to run its course. She was moved into a care facility in Johnston and her family could only watch her wither away.

“She really couldn’t communicate,” Emily said.

Amy died Nov. 19 at age 50. Coaches expected Emily to miss basketball practice, but she showed up.

“I knew Amy would want me there,” Emily said.

Ankeny Centennial basketball players all bear initials in memory of their teammates' late parents, Amy Staggs-Fontana and Greg Wycoff. Both died from brain cancer in the past year.

Syd’s Story

Greg Wycoff was a star athlete in high school, winning 15 letters at Nevada.

He taught his daughter to be competitive, too.

Syd’s father was her first basketball coach when she was in kindergarten. Over the years, he would take her to the gym to work on her shots. And she wasn’t always willing.

In one gym argument, Syd was frustrated and ready to go home. She started to take off her shoes.

No, Greg said. Not until you make a few more shots.

The shoes remained on her feet.

Greg taught Syd about basketball, and about life.

“If it knocks you down, get back up,” Syd said.

Syd was born in Baton Rouge, La., before the family moved to Ankeny.

Christy, Syd’s mom, had met Greg by chance. Call it Southern hospitality.

Greg was living in Louisiana when he was invited to a friend’s family reunion when the wandering Iowan was without plans for July 4.

That’s where he met Christy. The Shreveport, La., native charmed him so much, he called later to ask her on a date.

Life changed for the Wycoff family on Feb. 3, 2008, the day of the Super Bowl.

Greg tumbled in the bathroom. When family members found him, his eyes were rolling back during a seizure.

Syd was down the street a friend’s house when she saw an ambulance and fire truck drive past, sirens blazing.

She said, “I hope that isn’t going to our house.”

She sprinted home.

Greg was diagnosed with a tumor on the left side of his brain. Chemotherapy and radiation kept him in remission for five years.

But in January 2014, he had a recurrence. He started dragging a foot while walking. His speech was affected.

He died April 22, 2015.

“After that, I kept asking, ‘Why me?’ “ Syd said. “Eventually, I accepted it. I knew he was in a better place.”

Ankeny Centennial basketball players Emily Fontana, left, and Syd Wycoff take comfort in things that remind them of their deceased parents. For Fontana, it's an old tennis shirt her stepmother Amy Staggs-Fontana used to wear. For Wycoff, it's the memory that her father Greg Wycoff helped her get to where she is in the sport of basketball. As they enter this year's state tournament, it's a bittersweet experience.

Sharing pain and joy

Teammates Syd Wycoff and Emily Fontana were good friends before their parents died of brain cancer.

But their situations brought them closer than ever before.

They hoped together. They cried together. They grieved together.

In the tough times of a teenager’s world, they could be honest with each other.

“Sometimes, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Emily recalled. “Amy would get mad and snap at me.”

Syd, whose father had been struggling with cancer for several years, was able to offer support.

Ankeny Centennial's Sydney Wycoff tries to make her way past Waukee's Mollie Deskin during their game at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.

“I would tell her to be positive, that their emotions take over,” Syd said. “In a couple of hours, they’d be back with big smiles and happy hearts.”

When Syd was struggling with her emotions in practice, DeJong told Emily to go to the locker room to talk to her.

Emily spoke with Syd and calmed her.

Going to school was the hardest part of her grieving process, Emily said.

Having a friend there who could help her cope was an asset.

Now the teammates are trying to move forward.

In one game this season, Syd shot a 3-pointer that rolled and rolled around the rim. Then it dropped through the net.

The girls smiled at each other.

“He got the tip in for you,” Emily said.

Ankeny Centennial junior Emily Fontana goes up for a shot against Roosevelt on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa.

The deaths of their parents have impacted them in many ways.

Never take parents for granted, Syd said. She recoils when fellow students criticize parents. At least they have them, she said.

The little things that upset some people don’t bother the girls as much anymore. “God put your eyes in the front of your head for a reason,” Mike Fontana said.

Emily, a junior, is thinking about becoming a teacher and playing soccer in college. Syd, a sophomore, wants to play college basketball and is considering becoming a guidance counselor, a sports broadcaster or going into the medical field.

Centennial will continue its quest for a state title this week. They play Cedar Falls at 3:15 p.m. Friday.

That game, Emily will tie her shoelaces with her stepmom’s name. Syd will put on her headband.

Both girls know they’ll be missing parents in the stands. But they believe their presence will be in the arena, watching the action.

“I just have to remember he’s in a really good seat somewhere else,” Syd said, “and that he’s really proud of me. He’s the one who got me there, to where I am today.”