Yow puts program first again

Like so many people, North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell has been waiting, wondering and worrying about NC State's Kay Yow.

The two have coached against each other for 22 years at rival schools. Yet, as is the case with all Yow's colleagues, Hatchell thinks of her as a pal first and the opposition second.

So when the Tar Heels are hosts Sunday to the Wolfpack, Hatchell will feel a void.

"It won't be the same without her there. We're going to miss her," Hatchell said of Yow, who announced Tuesday that she is taking a leave of absence for the rest of the season as she continues to deal with the effects of cancer.

Yow was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987 and underwent a partial radical mastectomy. Cancer recurred in 2004, then again in 2007.

"We're all trying to win ballgames, but she's battling something a lot greater than what we are. We just want her to defeat this thing -- again. She's already done it a couple of times. We want her back out there doing what she loves."

That's everyone's wish. But there is, of course, fear that Yow's departure from the sideline could be permanent this time.

At 66 and having endured Stage IV cancer for more than two years, though, Yow has defied the odds so many times that people have higher hopes for her than they would for most anyone else.

When Virginia's Debbie Ryan -- her friendship/coaching rivalry with Yow goes back to 1978 -- heard Tuesday's news, she immediately thought, "There's Kay Yow, giving again."

Ryan, who survived a bout with pancreatic cancer in 2000, knows that Yow has been facing a double-edged sword. The demands of coaching at the Division I level are exhausting enough for a healthy person. Yet doing your job and being around your team can often be the greatest tonic to help a coach's spirits.

"Stepping aside might not be what's best for Kay, but she knows it's best for her team right now," said Ryan, whose Cavaliers will face NC State on Feb. 15 in the "Hoops 4 Hope" game (ESPN2) in Raleigh.

"So she's willing to sacrifice. She's always given her best to NC State, and now she's doing it again. Kay is someone who gives so much and gains energy from being around other people. That's what keeps her going."

Yet Ryan understands how Yow has reached a point where the benefits of continuing to work are not able to offset the physical toll on her body. Ryan knows firsthand just how debilitating the war with cancer is.

"The pain is one thing -- and receiving treatment and the radiation is another," Ryan said. "That gives you a type of exhaustion that you can't sleep off. You can't sleep for 12 hours and feel good. You feel the same way when you wake up after 12 hours as you did when you went to sleep. It's an endless exhaustion.

"For her to be able to be able to coach her team through preseason workouts and the first part of the season under the amount of pain she's been in is extraordinary."

Gail Goestenkors spent 15 years at Duke going against the Wolfpack and learning a great deal from Yow.

"She was a role model from day one for me at Duke," Goestenkors said. "And I'd use her as an example to my own players. How often do you do that with an opposing coach?"

Now at Texas, Goestenkors wasn't having a good day Tuesday, still steaming after her Longhorns' loss at Purdue the night before.

Then Goestenkors heard the news about Yow and told her staff, "We lost a game, big deal. Kay is not going to be able to coach the rest of the year. We're dealing with one stupid little loss, and at NC State every day they are worried about … I can't imagine what they're going through."

Hatchell, Ryan and Goestenkors all praised the rest of the NC State staff, led by associate head coach Stephanie Glance, for how the personnel continue to deal with the extra responsibilities all have had to assume. They also point out that the Wolfpack players have been resilient, too.

"Kay has remained so positive, and has been such a great leader for them," Goestenkors said. "Her players so many times have been able to rise above and become even more than what they otherwise would be.

"We experienced that [at Duke] in the ACC tournament when they beat us -- it was a team that was on a mission: full of faith, love and inspiration. It's because of Kay and because of her staff."

That 2007 ACC semifinal -- in Goestenkors' last season at Duke -- was the Blue Devils' first loss that season. Hatchell's team also lost to NC State in the regular season that year after Yow had returned to the team. She missed 16 games in the 2006-07 season, but was there to lead the Wolfpack's NCAA Sweet 16 run.

"Kay will always put her team first; that's the way she is," Hatchell said. "I know if she feels like if she can't give them 100 percent now, she wants to step away and let her staff take over. I know her team will play inspired. Those kids will be playing every second of every game for her."

Ryan marveled at how Yow has inspired so many people outside of her team.

"This is Kay's journey, and she's had to find her own way through this," Ryan said. "I've been so impressed with the majesty that she's projected through this entire thing.

"She has had pain everywhere, hands without skin on them, feet that couldn't walk. But she has been serene in her ability to project to the public what she's wanted to -- so much grace over the course of this grueling fight."

Goestenkors still regularly keeps in touch from Texas, often sending Yow text messages of support.

"Sometimes she can text back, sometimes she needs someone to text for her because her hands are so swollen she can't text," Goestenkors said. "I know all of us are sending her our love and our prayers.

"There's no one quite like Kay. You saw the WBCA's superlative awards, when she got 'most inspirational'? I can't even think there would be a second place for that."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.