Three months after suffering a devastating stroke the day she moved the last of her belongings into her college dorm room, Avery Marz wanted to evaluate how far she had come.
She asked her mom to drive her to a nearby YMCA and film her attempting to run for the first time.
Marz was widely considered the most promising incoming freshman on the Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball team before her stroke interrupted her blossoming hoops career. She lost the ability to move either her left arm or leg until the blood clot that caused her stroke dissolved. Then she required months of intensive therapy just to relearn simple tasks she once took for granted.
It took days before Marz received permission to shower or use the bathroom on her own and weeks before she could tie her shoes, button her clothes or walk up a flight of stairs without assistance. When she summoned the courage to go out in public for the first time a couple months after the stroke, she had a brace on her left leg, a sleeve on her left arm and a cane to steady herself as she walked.
Those milestones were behind Marz by November 2014 when she and her mom visited the YMCA to film her first attempt at running again. Marz lined up at one end of the basketball court and attempted to sprint to the opposite baseline, her left arm stiff at her side and her left foot dragging along the ground as though there was a 20-pound weight inside her shoe.
When Marz staggered across the finish line, she asked her mom to show her the video. What Marz saw left her questioning if she would ever make enough of a recovery to play high-level basketball again.
“Think of the most uncoordinated human you’ve ever seen jogging, and that was me,” Marz said. “I remember watching that video with a knot in my stomach because of how bad it looked. I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if I can do this. I can barely run from one line to the other. How am I going to be able to move well enough to compete with Division I athletes again?'”
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To struggle merely jogging was jarring for Marz because sports previously came so easily to her. This was a girl who excelled in basketball, soccer and field hockey growing up and began receiving scholarship offers from Philadelphia-area colleges before she even began high school.
When Saint Joseph’s coach Cindy Griffin scouted Marz for the first time as an eighth grader, the young combo guard’s explosiveness in the open floor immediately stood out. Sometimes Marz would elevate over an opponent’s outstretched arms for pull-up jump shots. Other times she would leave defenders flat-footed off the dribble and finish with a fancy Eurostep in the lane.
“She was extremely athletic, she was bouncy and she had a personality on and off the court where people wanted to be around her,” Griffin said. “When you see a kid at that level and she’s local, you want to get in early, offer a scholarship and put Saint Joe’s on her mind.”
As Marz improved her court vision and added a 3-point shot to her arsenal, she became an even more dangerous offensive player and coveted recruit. She led Wilson West Lawn High School to four straight county championships and received enough interest from college coaches across the country that the folder of letters and emails her mom kept began to overflow.
Throughout high school, Marz played on a star-studded Philadelphia-based AAU team featuring players who went on to sign with Maryland, St. John’s, Michigan State and Villanova. Philly Belles coach Sean Costello described Marz as the most college-ready of any of those prospects because of her unusual athleticism, strength and maturity for her age.
“We had a very high-level AAU team and she was maybe the most athletic kid on the team,” Costello said. “She was so good in space and in transition. It was very difficult to defend.”
While Marz initially envisioned herself playing for a major-conference program in college, she warmed up to the idea of attending Saint Joseph’s as she got older. Campus was just over an hour’s drive from her home, the coaching staff had pursued her voraciously throughout high school and she had a chance to emerge as an impact player right away.
At the end of six intense weeks of workouts the summer before Marz’s freshman season, Griffin informed the 17-year-old she would likely be the team’s starting point guard from day one. Little did either of them know that an unexpected tragedy would soon alter those plans.
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There were no ominous warning signs anything bad was about to happen when Marz awoke the morning of Aug. 23, 2014. She hadn’t experienced any of the symptoms some people do leading up to a stroke, no headaches, blurred vision or difficulty speaking.
Marz’s first inkling anything was wrong came at about 6 p.m. after she and her mom had just finished hauling the last of her belongings from the car to her dorm room. Her left knee gave out as she was putting away clothes, forcing her to take a seat on her bed for a brief rest.
“In my mind I’m thinking don’t even tell me she just tore her ACL,” her mother, Mary Beth Schoellkopf, said. “Now I wish that’s all it was.”
As Marz sat on the bed, she started to feel a bit warm. Moments later, she collapsed to the ground.
When Marz tried to get up, she realized she couldn’t move the left side of her body and immediately knew something wasn’t right. Speaking only out of the right side of her mouth, she said, ‘Mom, what’s happening? What’s wrong with me?”
Only about 1 in 20,000 people suffer a stroke before age 19 according to the American Heart Association, but Schoellkopf had recently read an article about a high school baseball player from a neighboring town who had one that initially left him paralyzed from the neck down. That helped her recognize the implications when she noticed that the left side of Marz’s face had begun to droop.
Schoellkopf sprang into action, instructing Marz’s roommate to stay with her while she raced down the hall to tell the front desk attendant to call 911. An ambulance rushed her to the nearest hospital, where a battery of tests revealed that Marz had suffered an arterial ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot that blocked an artery in the right side of her brain.
Doctors recommended treating Marz with tissue plasminogen activator, a controversial medication intended to dissolve the blood clot and improve blood flow to her brain. Although studies have shown the drug can reduce the brain damage wrought by strokes, it occasionally can also cause potentially fatal bouts of cerebral bleeding.
“I was very, very scared to sleep that night because I knew there was a chance I could die,” Marz said. “I had the shakes the whole night. I couldn’t move my left side. It was paralyzed at that point. And then all of a sudden my whole left side would spasm and it was uncontrollable to me. It was really rough.”
For the next few weeks, Marz focused on relearning to do basic tasks that once came easily to her, from dressing herself, to walking short distances, to picking up objects with her left hand. Basketball didn’t even enter her mind very often until one of her doctors encouraged her to write down a list of goals for her recovery.
Marz wrote that she wanted to play Division I basketball again. When the doctor told her that was unrealistic, it only made her more determined.
“I don’t know if he meant it as tough love, but I just took it as motivation,” she said. “If somebody tells me I can’t do something, I want to show them I can.”
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While Marz was passionate about pursuing her goal of playing Division I basketball, she was also self-conscious about letting others catch a glimpse of how her coordination had eroded.
Therefore she preferred to practice late at night when there was nobody but her mom around to judge her.
“Her former high school field hockey coach would come open the door to the gym, let us in and just tell us to make sure we locked the door behind us when we were done,” Schoellkopf said. “She would be in there for hours teaching herself to play again. She didn’t want anyone to see her. It was embarrassing for her going from the star athlete who could do everything so easily to not being able to run properly or jump rope right or dribble the ball with her left hand at all.”
Two years of physical therapy, strength training and basketball workouts helped Marz improve to the point where she felt physically capable of rejoining the Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball team at the start of last season. Only the psychological challenges of making a comeback convinced Marz it would be prudent to delay her return to competitive basketball for one more year.
While Marz had actually transformed herself into a more cerebral player and a better perimeter shooter during her time away from basketball, she lacked the explosive burst off the dribble that had been her trademark and she couldn’t effectively dribble through traffic or finish at the rim with her left hand. She would have sporadic panic attacks during practice because it was difficult for her to cope with not being as effective a player as she was before the stroke.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Marz said. “I knew I wasn’t the same player that I used to be and that really upset me. Anytime something would go wrong, like I would turn the ball over or miss a shot I felt I should have made, I would always come back to the stroke and get really frustrated and upset.”
Seeing a therapist helped Marz because it gave her an outlet to share the feelings she had once bottled up. She stopped measuring her performance against what she could do before the stroke and started just trying to be the best basketball player that she could be.
When Saint Joseph’s began preparing for a 10-day exhibition tour of Italy last August, Marz told the coaches she was finally ready to play. She appeared in two of the Hawks’ games and scored her first basket via a Eurostep in Europe on the eve of the three-year anniversary of her stroke.
“That was her go-to move in high school,” Schoellkopf said. “It could not have been more perfect.”
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If the basket in Italy was a milestone moment for Marz, it still was just the appetizer for this month’s main course.
On Nov. 12, in Saint Joseph’s season-opening 93-69 victory over Niagara, Marz played in a competitive basketball game that counted in the standings for the first time in more than three years.
Marz checked into the game for the first time late in the first quarter and logged 12 minutes off the bench. After missing two previous attempts from behind the arc earlier in the game, Marz cooly sank her first career basket on a 3-pointer off an assist from teammate Mary Sheehan.
“That was a big moment for me,” Marz said. “I tried to stay cool, calm and collected and act like I’d been there before, but to hear my teammates and coaches going crazy was really special. Having so many people text me or tweet me about how awesome it was after the game, that was probably the best part.”
Whether Marz is able to carve out a spot in the Saint Joseph’s rotation this season remains to be seen. She logged two minutes off the bench in a victory over Bucknell last Wednesday night and then didn’t play in a tighter win over James Madison on Sunday afternoon.
Marz may never evolve into the ball-dominant lead guard Griffin envisioned when she signed her, but the Saint Joseph’s coach believes the once-prized recruit can find other ways to contribute. She’s now an effective spot-up shooter who provides infectious energy, solid defense and veteran leadership in spurts off the bench.
“Every time she’s on the court, she’s getting better, but it’s a process,” Griffin said. “As a player, you have to say I’m not the same player I once was, but how do I manage that? How do I compensate for what I lost? I told her you just have to play more with your dominant hand. There are plenty of people who aren’t very good with their non-dominant hand anyway. You have to work on your weakness but also compensate in different ways for it.”
Marz is on track to earn a communications degree from Saint Joseph’s and hopes to pursue sports broadcasting someday. She’ll first have the option of playing one more year for Saint Joseph’s if she chooses to next fall.
Whereas Marz once took being able to play basketball for granted, she now arrives early to every practice and celebrates just being able to step onto the floor during games. She hopes to serve as an inspiration to other stroke victims or anyone else hit with unexpected adversity at a young age.
Anytime Marz needs a reminder of the tragedy she has overcome, she only needs to look in the mirror. Emblazoned on her back left shoulder is a tattoo of the date of her stroke, 8.23.14, symbolic since it’s on the side of her body that was paralyzed and it’s always behind her.
“I gave her permission to get her first tattoo when she was in the hospital, but I just asked that she make it meaningful,” Schoellkopf said. “When she told me what she got, she said, ‘People told me tattoos are forever, but this day made me realize life is not forever.’ I thought, ‘OK, I can’t argue with that.'”
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