By Kate Carrico
Each team competing in the NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Elite Eight last week in San Antonio received a commemorative patch to wear on their uniforms.
But for the Western Washington squad, the Elite Eight logo took a backseat to a more permanent patch. The Vikings wore an “ER” emblem on their left shoulder to honor Erik Ramstead, the father of senior center Erika Ramstead, who lost his five-year battle with cancer on Jan. 15.
Erika’s senior basketball season challenged her immensely both on and off the court. In October, before the season officially began, doctors found that the elder Ramstead’s cancer had spread and that he was expected to live for only three to six more months.
Erika recalled a tearful phone conversation with Western Washington coach Carmen Dolfo shortly after learning the news. Dolfo gave Erika the option of taking a redshirt year to allow her to spend more time with her father, but the decision to play was an easy one for the senior. “I wanted to play for my dad because he wouldn’t have wanted me to sit,” she said.
As the Vikings season got underway, Ramstead attended as many games as he could from the family’s home 30 minutes away from the Bellingham, Wash., campus. When the team played in a tournament in Las Vegas in December, he was invited to be an honorary coach on the sideline, which meant a lot.
After those two games, Erika experienced an intense foot pain in her right foot, limiting her ability to walk. After an initial X-ray reveled nothing, doctors instructed Erika to sit for a few weeks to help the healing. At the time, there was no way to know that the Las Vegas weekend would be the last trip her father would take with the team and the last time Erika would wear a Western Washington uniform during the regular season.
Division II requires a seven-day moratorium from athletics activities during the holidays, so there was a break from basketball in late December. For Erika, those days were extremely memorable. “I spent every minute I could with my family, which was a blessing,” she said.
She traveled in street clothes with the team to Alaska in early January for two of the team’s regular-season games. While in Alaska on Jan. 2, Erika received a call from her mother saying that her father had collapsed, was in excruciating pain and had been rushed to the hospital.
Dolfo and the Western Washington athletic department arranged to fly Erika home early from Alaska to be with her family. For the next two weeks, she spent time with her father in hospitals and told him the Vikings team was sending thoughts and prayers his way. He told her that he wanted them to focus on themselves and their goals. “If you can do one thing for a dying man,” he said, ”I want you guys to get to Texas.”
“On Jan. 15, I lost my father to his five -ear battle with cancer,” Erika said. “I miss him every day.”
While mourning the loss of her father, Erika received additional bad news four days later. She learned her right foot was broken and that her collegiate basketball career would end early. “After that point,” she said, “I just kind of felt dead for a couple weeks − emotionless.”
Fortunately, Erika was not left alone. Her teammates pulled her out of her grief.
“This team has been a second family for me,” she said. “That’s something special my team has.”
After winning the Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season and conference championships, the Vikings fulfilled Erik Ramstead’s wish with a 75-58 win over Simon Fraser that earned them a spot in the Elite Eight in San Antonio.
“There was something pretty powerful in that moment,” Erika said, recalling fellow senior Corinn Waltrip approaching her after the game. Waltrip tugged on the ‘ER’ patch on her uniform and said, “We did this for Dad.”
In San Antonio, Erika suited up for the first time since late 2012. After a quarterfinal victory over Nova Southeastern, Erika joined her teammates on the court in the closing seconds of the Vikings’ 66-54 loss to eventual national champion Ashland in the semifinals
Through a season filled with ups and downs, the Vikings ended as they had been during the entire ride – together.