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SP Sports Weekly: Softball player defeats cancer and tennis coach continues to dominate

The State Press sports editors discuss two of last week's top stories

Sportscast

Illustration published on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.


Sports editors Alex Coil and Koki Riley talk to writer Chris Fahrendorf about an ASU softball infielder who is grateful to compete after defeating cancer. Then, the pair speaks with writer Carson Breber about ASU women's tennis head coach Sheila McInerney as she enters her 37th year in the position.

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ALEX COIL:


Hello, everybody. Welcome to the first episode of the fall 2020 season of SP Sports Weekly. Alongside Koki Riley, I am Alex Coil. We are the sports editors at The State Press.

KOKI RILEY: 

Thank you, Alex. I'm really excited to be here. So, what we're going to do on this podcast is that each week we will highlight at least one story from the previous week of sports articles, content, so to say here at The State Press. We'll be talking to the writer of the article that we choose for that week and we'll be asking them a variety of questions to him or her about the piece. So, since this is our first episode of the show, however, we wanted to share two stories this week instead of one.

ALEX COIL: 

That's right, we're looking forward to a great semester of highlighting unique stories from our sports desk. All right, now we're going to welcome in Chris Fahrendorf, one of our highlighted writers this week. He wrote a piece, a very nice one, on ASU  softball infielder, who is grateful to compete after defeating cancer. Chris, welcome in.

CHRIS FAHRENDORF: 

Hey guys, thanks so much for having me on, excited to be here. 

ALEX COIL:

All right, Chris. So obviously you know, Halle Harger started her career at Boise State and was diagnosed with cancer, then a lot of things happened after that for her to wind up here at ASU. Basically could you give us an overview of your story?

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

Yeah. So last year was my first year at The State Press and I got assigned to the softball beat. So, while I was looking for stories, I found out that Halle actually had a dad, her dad is on the coaching staff and so I reached out to try to write a story about the father-daughter connection. And she wasn't doing interviews at the time because she was still, it was still a sensitive subject,  her defeating cancer. Now that we've gone back and she's done a couple interviews on it, it seemed like a perfect time to write that story. You know this was her first season at ASU and after defeating cancer, this is her first full season. So it was a really big story that I felt like needed to get some traction. 

KOKI RILEY:

So Chris, I was just interested. What about the story do you think connects? What, what do you think about it is so unique? Of course there's the cancer aspect, but it seems like there's some other unique aspects of the story as well.

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

Yeah, well, I mean, of course the big thing is that she defeated cancer and got back to the softball field. But one of the other craziest things that I found was that when she was at Boise state, she actually found the bump on her groin and then played out her entire freshman year with it, with no problems with not being removed or anything. And I just thought that was crazy, you know, playing through it, playing through the pain, playing through the numbness. I thought that was another, you know, unique aspect to the story was that she was able to play an entire season, you know, without getting it removed. Um, and then it was after that season that she went to, you know, get a biopsy and ultimately went to UCLA to receive treatment and get it removed.

ALEX COIL: 

Yeah. That's another thing that, the UCLA aspect of this, she obviously didn't play softball during that time or any of that. She went to the UCLA medical center to get all this attention. When you were talking and doing these interviews with her, with her dad, with Coach Ford, what did, what did they talk about specifically with how important going to Los Angeles was for that treatment?

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

So they wanted to get the best treatment they could possibly get. And at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, they felt that that was the best place to do it. She went through six weeks of therapy. Her entire family moved up there with her, including her father, Jeff, who like I previously said as an assistant coach on the ASU softball team and they just did it as a family effort. She mentioned her friends being a big emotional support pillar for her. And as well as, um, head coach Trisha Ford, she has been family friends with the Hargers in the past and has coached with Jeff for a very long time. And she was there through the entire thing and she just said the main driving force behind her wanting to get through it was getting back on the softball field, which you know, is amazing that she's able to get back there.

KOKI RILEY:

You mentioned, um, that motivation in order to get through those, those tough moments, those tough times, um, when you were interviewing Harger, like what was, what was the sense you got from her as to how difficult that was? What was it in those interviews that made that struggle feel real to you?

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

Yeah, well, I mean, both the interviews specifically with her Halle and her dad, you know, were very emotional. Jeff had even told me that this was actually his, I believe his first interview that he's done for an ASU story yet at his time at ASU, which is big for him, you know, being able to his first story, being able to speak out on his daughter's recovery. But, Jeff mainly focused on, you know, the blessing, just being able to see his daughter each and every day. He mentioned, you know, the softball part is nice. It's great that she's able to, that she was able to get back to the field, but it's even better for him as a father. Still having her there every single day, waking up and, you know, having her there with them specifically as being her coach as well.

ALEX COIL:

Another aspect of your story, especially like in the later part of the piece it talks about, you know, how she's not just here because her dad's a coach and because, when they want it to be a family affair, you know, after just defeating cancer and all this stuff. She was there because she's a good softball player. What kind of player is she and where does she fit in down the road here at ASU?

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

Yeah. So, she's a very unique player. She's a middle infielder, so, she plays multiple, a multitude of positions, including some outfield as well. I believe. She was the ASU team's best pinch hitter this year and had even worked her way into some starts before COVID hit, and you know, the season had to be canceled. Coach Trisha Ford talked with me a little bit about her progression as the season went on and said, you know, some of the other girls on the team were iffy with her coming in being a coach's daughter, but that she proved herself and was able to get some starts.

She batted .364 in 22 at-bats and led all non-starters in RBIs. Like these are big numbers that she was putting up in such a small sample size of the season. For me, and you know, Trisha Ford said this as well, she expects her to pick right up where she left off last season and expects her to compete for a starting spot this year as well.

KOKI RILEY:

What Alex just said, just had me thinking a little bit because I was wondering, how was her experience, her bout with cancer, translated and made her not just from a person, but a different softball player?  How has that experience changed her on the field and off the field?

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

Yeah, well, I know this is going to sound really cliche, but it obviously, and she echoed this when she was speaking with me, it made her a lot stronger. You know, when she first tried to come back to the field at Boise State, her sophomore year, she wasn't able to do it. She had to redshirt the season because she was getting numbness in her legs when she was running, and she just didn't feel strong enough in her lower body. Taking that year off and coming back to ASU and being part of, you know, a family with her, with her dad and, and with coach Tricia Ford, she was able to take the necessary time to get stronger and to feel more comfortable in her body and her athletic ability, which I think was really a big part in her getting back to the field.

ALEX COIL:

So obviously this piece has been tweeted by NCAA softball, tweeted by ASU softball. If you wanted the readers that have already read this piece, or that are going to read this piece to take something away from this, what would it be?

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

Yeah, the main thing that, I would, I as the author of the article and myself, that I took from this piece is that you know, anything is possible. Especially if you persevere, if you set your mind to it. And in the case of Halle Harger, you know, with a great supporting cast, you know, with her family and her friends being there for her, you know, anything is possible. She went through, you know, she got the phone call saying that she had cancer and her dad said it was the worst phone call he's ever gotten in his entire life, that they were concerned about the negativity going into it. But if you create a positive atmosphere, if you persevere, if you set your mind to it, you know, anything is possible. And in the case of Halle Harger defeating cancer and making her way back on the softball field.

KOKI RILEY:
Thank you for sharing your time with us today, Chris.

CHRIS FAHRENDORF:

Yeah. Thanks, so much for having me on guys. I really, really appreciate it.

KOKI RILEY:

We want to thank Chris again for coming onto the show and sharing his insightful story on ASU softball player, Halle Harger. Now joining us on the podcast is Carson Breber to talk about his article on ASU women's tennis coach Sheila McInerney. Thanks for joining us Carson.

CARSON BREBER:

Yeah, thanks for having me on guys.

KOKI RILEY:

So, just to start this off, what about the story sort of grabbed you or convinced you that this is an article worth writing about?

CARSON BREBER:

Well, for me, I think it starts with my, my love and interest in the sport of tennis. So, I think that I'm always looking for stories there when maybe sometimes other people aren't. And this was a really incredible story to tell in my opinion, because you're talking about a coach who was entering her 37th year with ASU, took this job when she was 26 years old and so now the majority of her life she's been in the same position and ASU has been an incredibly successful program under her. And so, my first intrigue was sort of, how can I tell the story of how she's been successful. And, I don't think that people have gone as deep with that historically, as they could have considering her incredible accomplishments. But another thing that really stood out to me was that she was a tremendous player. 

She was a four-time All-American in college. She was on some of the greatest women's tennis teams ever at USC, where she won three national titles. She was a top 75 pro in the world, played in three of the four grand slams, played some of the best players. So, for me, it was really in that preliminary research that I saw- I think if there's a really interesting story to tell here and sort of connecting and weaving together her time as a player when she was tremendously successful and then her time as a coach where she's obviously a legend in the sport.

ALEX COIL:

Now you mentioned how, you know, she was a tremendous player. And in your second paragraph of your article, you mentioned that she pushed a Billy Jean King to a third set. When you talk to her about that, like, what was the story behind that?

CARSON BREBER:

It was pretty cool. She said that from her perspective, this was, you know, she was only 19 years old. She was not a professional player at this time. She was an amateur. She was a college student and player first and foremost. And so, she had to first qualify to get into the U.S. Open, which is where you play a few preliminary matches to even get into the main draw. She did really well on those, kind of you've dominated and then, you know, picked up a win, got into the third round against Billy Jean King. And she said that Billy Jean was really nice to her. Apparently had done a little research about her, was talking to her about how, how college was going for her, how you know, how her playing was going. And coach McInerney is from New York. So a bunch of people from her hometown kind of got bused into this tournament. And for her, I think it was really a cool experience. 

I asked her if that changed her perspective, if she thought that she was going to be some sort of great pro player, which, you know, as, as tremendously successful as she was, she never really got to the upper echelons of professional tennis. She was never competing for grand slams or anything. So I asked her if at 19 years old, did that sort of change her perspective. And she said that, that it didn't really it, that she sort of understood her limitations, but she was always a competitor. And she was able to bring that even against one of the greatest players in tennis history and legitimately challenge her in the biggest tournament we have here in America.

KOKI RILEY:
So, you mentioned her competitiveness. How has that competitiveness translated to her coaching career? How has, how has her playing career translated to your coaching career?

CARSON BREBER:

It's the same skills and traits that made her a great player that make her a great coach and competitiveness is right at the top of that list. I think it's interesting because she describes herself as an incredibly competitive player who got down on herself a lot. I talked with her, one of her teammates at USC, Barbara Hallquist DeGroot, who said, yes, she was incredibly competitive, but she didn't outwardly get down on herself. And so I think that that is something that has made her obviously a great doubles partner, because you're responsible for keeping another person's morale high out there. Because, if you're getting down on yourself in singles, that's one thing in doubles, that's a reflection of your team now. Your partner is feeding off of that. 

It's similar as a coach because she's incredibly competitive. She wants to win every single match, but it's out of her control. And so, the way that she described it is, her job as a coach is a bit like what her college coach at USC, Dave Borelli. He had the responsibility with her to say, it’s only one match, move on, keep fighting. And now however much a single loss may hurt her, and her associate head coach Matt Langley said that it often hurts her more than people realize probably, she has that responsibility to keep a calm, exterior and understand that she's responsible for the emotions of her players. And, as she put it, to then accentuate the positives with them.

ALEX COIL:

Now we've, we've discussed h how was she was a great player and had tremendous success in playing. But also, one of the multimedia links that you have in your article is a little graph that says she's of over 500 career wins. You know, I believe, 32 straight NCAA tournament appearances. As a coach and when you talk to her about this, how does she look to, you know, breed that success and how has she been able to keep that success going for 30 plus years?

CARSON BREBER:

Well, I think the biggest thing and her greatest value is that she breeds the sense of community and everyone that works with her that plays under her feels valued and feels that there is a real relationship there that is important to her. And that's what stood out to me throughout these interviews that I had. Barbara Hallquist DeGroot, her teammate, said that she was an incredible teammate. And tennis is an individual cutthroat sport. Even within your team, you're competing for the ladder. You have someone playing number one singles, that person is above you in a way you're chasing them. And she, you know, was able to separate her competitive doing what was best for the team.

 And as a coach, it's been, you know, those same values of, of preaching community, collaboration. She has a division of labor with her associate head coach, Matt Langley, where they both do what they're best at. And I think you really can't overstate how impressive and how successful that has been because Arizona State is not a traditional tennis powerhouse. This is a sport that has been dominated by the California schools, for the most part, the big four California schools, USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Cal. And Sheila McInerney has come in and beaten a couple of those colleges close to 20 times she said, which was not the expectation when she came in here almost 40 years ago.

ALEX COIL:

Now another thing that you mentioned in the article was the time after she retired as a player before she came to ASU, she went to USC, and work with coach Dave Borelli, and she kind of mentioned is how he treated her as kind of a co-coach. How did you think that played a role in what kind of coach she is today and how she uses her assistants?

CARSON BREBER:

Yeah. Well, I think that she does the exact same thing. Matt Langley, as I mentioned, is listed as an associate head coach. For someone who has been in this position for almost 40 years, she doesn't need to give someone what is essentially an equal title to her, but she does. And she's done that in the past with other head coaches, because I think that like Dave Borelli made her comfortable, made her feel like this was her team that she was coach of as well, that she had every right to go out there and work one-on-one with players, tell them what they really had to improve that, assert herself as an authority figure. I think she feels that she has that same responsibility to her, what most people would call, assistant coaches and help foster that environment of confidence in oneself and of trust. And so, I think that it's absolutely, you see the same value. She only spent a year at USC. And so, I do think that that teamwork, that collaboration seems to have been inherent in her, but it certainly that was a launching point as well for those values.

KOKI RILEY:

I really can see that now. My final question to you is what do you think is the driving reason behind why McInerney is still involved with tennis after more than 40 years in and around the game?

CARSON BREBER:

Well, I think that that is one of the questions that stands out because not only has she been involved in it, she's been in the same job. And I think that it is really driven by that competitive fire, that desire to be great and the love of the relationships with the people around her and of tennis. To me, she, she described herself as sort of a natural-born teacher. And if she weren't a tennis coach, she'd be a teacher. And obviously there are similarities there. She just happened to also be blessed with tennis ability. And so that is the avenue that she has taken. But I think that she is really compelled and driven by helping people become the best version of themselves. And coaching is not a job that really gets that stagnant. Every year you bring in a new group of talent, you have different dynamics, you have different personalities. And I think that navigating that, helping all those people succeed and thrive is something that really continues to compel her.

Like Matt Langley told me she, is there dawn till dusk still every single day after almost 40 years. And you know, she was a high-level junior starting with when she was 10, basically. So, this is 80% of her life that has been spent with this sport as one of the top priorities. And she still loves it, which I think is an incredible thing and something that, you know, very few people find in their lives, in their respective fields.

ALEX COIL:

Now obviously we've talked about a lot of her past and as a player and as a coach, and now let’s look into the future and kind of the more immediate future. What is this team looking like for, uh, for next year, for next season, especially having the last season cut short?

CARSON BREBER:

Yeah. I think, as always, this is a, this is a strong roster that she's fielding and I think that the expectation is not to speak for them, but I think it's to be, you know, a top 25 team. Obviously, it’s to be in the tournament. They've done that for 32 straight years and returning some really strong players. Obviously, the extra year of eligibility from COVID-19 helps on that front for some of the seniors. And they're always in that conversation. They are always one of the premier programs in college tennis. And I think of this year is just more of the same on that front.

KOKI RILEY:

Thank you for joining us today and for shedding even more light on your stories today, Carson.

CARSON BREBER:

Yeah. Thanks for having me on guys. It was a story that I felt very lucky to tell.

ALEX COIL:
Thank you to both Carson and Chris for coming on the first episode of SP Sports Weekly. Koki and I look forward to seeing you all next week on the next installment of SP Sports Weekly.


Reach the reporters at ancoil@asu.edu and kbriley@asu.edu and follow @anc2018 and @KokiRiley on Twitter.

Like The State Press on Facebook and follow @statepress on Twitter.


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