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Matt Norlander

Vermont wins America East in wake of team tragedy Tuesday

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Sleep eluded Evan Fjeld on the eve of his mother's death. The University of Vermont junior couldn't stay in his room any longer last Monday morning, so on his way to beat the rest of his teammates to morning practice, he stopped at Dunkin' Donuts around 5 a.m. He then went to Patrick Gymnasium, where the Catamounts play their home games and won their fifth America East title, 83-70 over Boston University, Saturday afternoon. Once he got there, he tried to jump-shoot the butterflies away.

Evan wasn't aware that his mother was going to die in the next 24 hours, but he did know he couldn't hide his family secret any longer. None of his teammates knew that Evan's mother had lived with breast cancer for most of the past six years. With the end of Susan's life in sight, Jon Fjeld told his son it was time to let his extended family in on the conversation.

"We are a family of brothers," senior Marqus Blakely said. How appropriate that the team has used "one-two-three: family!" as its rallying cry after practices this season. There may not be another group in the country that has welded together like the Vermont Catamounts in the wake of Susan Fjeld's death.

What made the news all the more shocking to the team was the fact that Jon and Susan had traveled from Durham, North Carolina, to see nearly every home game this past season and watch their son play. And when they weren't traveling that far, they had rented a condo in Burlington, Vermont, where the players often stopped in.

But Susan? Sick? It wasn't on anyone's radar-until Evan approached the team Monday morning. After all, the two parents were like surrogates to the entire team, a pair that was a very positive energy at games. And after Vermont had successfully navigated its way through the first two rounds of the America East tournament in Hartford last weekend-and normal mainstays Susan and Jon weren't there for all of it-the players had an uneasy feeling.

Even Evan felt something was amiss when his father wasn't there to watch Vermont defeat New Hampshire, 58-37, and advance to the conference title game.

"We were all just sitting down, having normal locker-room talk and getting ready to practice," Blakely said. "And he [Evan] came up to us and Coach [Mike Lonergan] said, ‘Evan has something to tell you.' ... That's when we knew something was up with his parents."

"She didn't want people to worry about her," Evan said. "So she didn't want people to know, and I respected that, so I didn't tell people."

Evan couldn't get through a full sentence without a hiccup in his voice while breaking the news: His mother was dying, and he didn't know how much longer she had to live. She was at Fletcher Allen Hospital-a five-minute walk away in Burlington-and she could no longer attend the team's games because the cancer had taken over her body. Chemotherapy had reached an insufferable point, and the family-more likely, Susan-had decided she wanted to die on her own terms rather than slowly check out based upon a hospital schedule of radiation treatments taking away her strength week by week, day by day.

"She didn't want people to worry about her," Evan said. "So she didn't want people to know, and I respected that, so I didn't tell people."

Having unleashed the load of his personal life on his team, the group practiced-and practiced hard.

Then came Tuesday morning. Susan, 52, had lost her life hours before and Evan had to relive the conversation with his team again. There were no coaches at the practice when he approached them. Again, the 10 men around Evan felt a collective pit in their stomachs when he approached them with a body language that was more defeated and more somber than they day before.

"He said, ‘I've got something to tell you' and we all knew," Blakely said. "If yesterday he told us his mom had cancer, today couldn't be any better. Everyone was kind of taken aback by how quick it happened. That day, I don't think I smiled. ... I don't know if I could be as strong as Evan is right now."

Lonergan wondered how his team would react. He debated bringing in someone to counsel the players leading up to the title game.

"Our players want to win so bad for him, but it was emotional and it was a stressful week," Lonergan said. "But give Evan a lot of credit. He carried that with him all season. This week, he was so strong."

Teammates huddled around Evan as he cried in front of his best friends. He then left the facility to be with his family. There weren't a lot of words spoken during that practice after he left. The normally loose atmosphere in Patrick had been temporarily suspended. After practice ended, the team got together and prioritized the season:

"As much as we were enjoying [playing for an America East championship] and knowing that we were going to have a championship game at Patrick ... it hit home that that means nothing," Blakely said. "We all knew it now. Evan's mom is battling with cancer and we've gotta go out there for him. Not for ourselves. As teammates, we're going to have to pick him up and get him ready to play."

Evan has improved his game, arguably, more than any player on the Catamounts' roster this season. His points (10.6), rebounds (6.1), blocks (1.2) and minutes (28.7) are more than double what they were in 2009. He averages more assists per game and turns the ball over at a rarer rate as well. Through this season of growth, his parents witnessed his ascent while his mother's health went in the opposite direction.

Evan didn't anticipate having to go through this when he committed to Vermont three years ago. Susan was originally diagnosed with cancer during his sophomore year of high school, but the iterations of chemotherapy nixed the disease-for the short-term-at the end of his junior year. He committed to Vermont, and soon after his freshman year began, the cancer came back.

"They said if the cancer comes back, they don't really have a chance to completely eliminate it from her body, but they were hoping with treatment, they'd be able to keep it under control," Evan said. "I think they were kind of assuming she would eventually die of this cancer someday."

Susan's health took a big hit in January of this past year. The treatment began to make her more and more uncomfortable.

"[My parents] decided to stop radiation treatment because it was making things worse rather than better," Evan said. "She was getting a little worse, but nothing noticeable, and when we were at the America East tournament ... is when it turned."

The cancer attacked fiercely in the past month. The immediacy of her deteriorating health was what triggered Jon to implore his son to tell his team about his mother. He'd rather the team know of Evan's situation than blindside all of them with the news of her death, whenever it may come.

On Thursday, Evan returned to the team and demanded, with some very choice words, that everyone get the job done against B.U. His teammates didn't want him to be alone, so they all went to Church Street-the cultural center of Burlington-and ate at The Tavern, which is where Lonergan to celebrate his team's win Saturday night.

"We gave him his space and we knew he wanted to be with his family, but soon after that, we all met up downtown and got a bite to eat-not to distract him, but get him away from everything that was going on," Blakely said.

During Saturday's game, television cameras frequently found Jon sitting in his normal spot on the wooden bleacher in Patrick Gym. There was an open spot next to him, and he furiously cheered on his son's team, which never let the game's outcome be in doubt. There are two lasting images from the Catamounts' win. The first is Blakely's posterizing slam that put the exclamation point on Vermont's W. After the dunk, cameras caught Evan in hysterics, the emotion of the week escaping out of him in a cathartic way. He cackled like a madman over the offensive-yet-not-surprising nature of his teammate's dunk.

The other image is that of Jon, his eyes welling up, staring at his son's dream come true-happy for the moment and sad that his wife missed her chance to experience it with him by four days.

"It was great to have him there," Evan said of his dad. "The first thing I did after the win was hopped over the bench and ran up to him in the stands and found him. I know he's proud of what I've done this year. Whether we won or not, I knew he was proud."

And mom?

"Oh, man, I know she'd be so happy," he said. "But I don't know if it's fully hit me. I've cried a couple of times. Sometimes I think about it and it still doesn't seem real. And, I don't know, I'm sure it'll hit me some time, full-force, but there's nothing I can do about it now."

Now Evan and the rest of his teammates are preparing for their national moment on CBS Sunday evening, when they'll be awarded a first-round game against a heavily favored opponent. The dynamic of this group has changed for the better because of something for the worse. The rallying cry from practice is now what is used during the games. It depicts what this team is and needs most right now.

One-two-three: family.

Matt Norlander is the editor of College Hoops Journal. You can e-mail him at editor@collegehoopsjournal.com and follow him on Twitter.

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