Commentary

UWM's Hagen, coach united through misfortune, triumph

Updated: October 22, 2008, 3:17 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Sarah Hagen and Laura Moynihan shared this world for only two years, but their paths remain intertwined nearly two decades later.

Though separated during those two years by nothing more than 100 miles of Wisconsin countryside, between Milwaukee and Appleton, they never met and never had reason to know of the other's existence. They resided at opposite edges of time's unflinchingly linear map, Hagen taking her first steps in a world of seemingly unlimited possibilities even as Moynihan fought for a few more against dwindling hope.

But long after cancer took Moynihan from the family she raised and the soccer community she nurtured, it failed to stop Hagen when she was diagnosed with dysgerminoma, a form of ovarian cancer, at 13 years old. Five years later, instead of a life defined by the disease that took the woman she never had an opportunity to meet, Hagen now follows a trail made possible in part because of the life Moynihan lived.

[+] EnlargeSarah Hagen
UWM Sports InformationFive years removed from battling ovarian cancer at age 13, Sarah Hagen she owns the Panthers' single-season goals record with 17 -- as a freshman.

Before Moynihan came on the scene, there was little in the way of top-level soccer to which girls growing up in Wisconsin could aspire. Among many other contributions, it was under her watch that the state's Olympic Development Program (ODP) was born (and would go on to produce the likes of current national team midfielder Leslie Osborne). Today, the United States Youth Soccer Association national champions in the under-17 age group for girls claim the Moynihan Cup in recognition of her contributions to the sport's growth.

It's that passion that Laura passed down to her own children, including her son Michael. When he finished his playing career and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1990, there was no hesitation as to which side of the gender divide he would end up working with as a coach.

"She's the reason I got involved in women's soccer," Michael Moynihan said of his mother, who eventually became commissioner of the girls' ODP in Wisconsin. "I played through college and immediately when I graduated, my mom was the one that got me into coaching girls."

Laura helped her son get a job at Milwaukee's Pius XI High School, one of the state's early powers in girls' soccer. From there, he moved through the ranks of youth soccer and the state's ODP and soon joined his sister Sue's staff at Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1993 (Sue had taken over for her ailing mother the year before -- Laura died of esophageal cancer in 1992 at 47 years old, only a year after accepting what was then a part-time position as Wisconsin-Milwaukee's head coach). Michael inherited the top job from Sue when she went to Purdue in 1997. But it was through his continued involvement at the youth level that he met Hagen, a year before she was diagnosed with cancer.

Hagen is the kind of player the Moynihans' matriarch would surely have loved to coach. Now a 5-foot-10 freshman forward at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Hagen needed just 17 games to score 17 goals, breaking the school's single-season record for goals. That's no minor feat for a program that boasts a 53-2-3 record in the Horizon League (and its predecessor, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference) since 2000.

"She's a very good athlete," Michael said, with a chuckle, in understatement. "She's strong and athletic. As far as her soccer sense, she strikes the ball extremely well. Technically, she's very, very good with the ball; she's comfortable with it at her feet and under pressure.

"I think one of the greatest strengths, and something she's still working with and finding a balance [with], is she's got a very calm, laid-back disposition. It doesn't seem like things rattle her at all. Some of the best players I've played with had that quality -- it's like the game is going a million miles an hour and then it gets to that person and it's like, 'OK, everything is under control now.' She has that quality."

Control wasn't as easy to come by five years ago, when Hagen felt a lump on her abdomen while at an ODP camp. Little more than two weeks after she first noticed something was amiss, she was diagnosed with dysgerminoma. Tests revealed a tumor as big as a Size 4 soccer ball growing on one of her ovaries. Though Hagen's grandmother had only recently survived a bout with breast cancer, the disease was tough to grasp for a 13-year-old getting ready for the second half of her freshman year in high school.

"It never really went through my mind that I could have cancer," Hagen recalled.

By her own account, the diagnosis was the only experience during the ordeal that brought tears, but it wasn't for a lack of opportunities. What turned out to be a six-month treatment process required three rounds of chemotherapy and two major surgeries, the first exploratory and the second to both remove the tumor and perform a hysterectomy. The latter procedure means Hagen will not be able to bear children of her own.

"At the time, it was kind of over my head. ... [But now] I better understand exactly what I went through and how difficult it was on my body. And I can't believe I actually got through it."

--Sarah Hagen, on having ovarian cancer at age 13.

In some respects, the ignorance of youth was perhaps her greatest ally, even as her hair and energy deserted her and treatment necessitated she leave school.

"At the time, it was kind of over my head," Hagen said. "I kind of just thought about, you know, 'I have cancer and I've got to get through it.' But now when I go back for my checkups and everything, they kind of go through it more and let me know what I actually went through. I better understand exactly what I went through and how difficult it was on my body. And I can't believe I actually got through it."

The chemotherapy and operations were successful, and six months later, Hagen was cancer-free. But even as she returned to school that fall and gradually began to resume soccer-related activities, it took many more months to regain the normalcy of life as a soccer-addicted teen.

"It just took a long time to get back into shape," Hagen said. "And I remember my first game back, I could barely be out there for 10 minutes without having to come off. … It was a great feeling to be back out there and playing. I think that was the most fun I've had during a soccer game, was that first game back."

While none perhaps lived up to the pure joy of that first game back on the field, plenty of the games that followed proved memorable. She earned all-state honors in her final three seasons at Appleton North High School and scored 33 goals as a senior. Familiar with the coach and some of the players at Wisconsin-Milwaukee from her youth soccer experiences, and comfortable with a campus only a couple of hours from home, Hagen proved to be an easy recruiting mark for the Panthers. It didn't hurt that among the things Michael had inherited in his soccer rearing was a disdain for "route one" football and an appreciation for the kind of technical, skillful play at which Hagen excelled.

"We had high hopes," Michael said. "I don't like to express them too much because I don't like to have [players] feeling a lot of pressure. But just from watching her, I knew she was different from anybody we had. And I knew she would complement a lot of the players we had very well by bringing some different qualities -- we haven't had anybody that can hold the ball up front in a long time, and nobody that strikes the ball as cleanly as she does. … Sometimes people struggle to adjust to the pace of the college game, and that's an unknown; you don't really know until they get into the environment. But I was pretty confident she would have an impact."

It may be a little premature to start the countdown on catching Danielle Fotopoulos -- the NCAA's all-time leading goal scorer with 118 -- but Hagen is clearly a special talent. She has already broken the Panthers' record for single-season goals, and her next goal will tie her for fifth all-time at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Lisa Krzykowski's program record of 57 goals appears in serious jeopardy. And there are team goals to achieve, which include leading the program's first trip to the third round of the NCAA tournament (the Panthers advanced to the second round in 2005 and '06).

When she's already done what no other player in program history ever did, what limits exist?

"We haven't had that conversation yet," Michael said last week. "We're just kind of going through the season at this point. … But it's something we'll definitely sit down and talk about at the conclusion of the season."

One thing that conversation need not cover is maintaining perspective. As unlimited as Hagen's future seems these days, both she and her coach understand more fully than most how quickly life can change, and how little control we may have when it does.

And yet the very fact that coach and player will walk together onto a field for next weekend's home finale is evidence that no matter what the world takes away, what people give to it in the time we have can last far longer than a lifespan.

Every game Sarah Hagen plays suggests that Laura Moynihan knew that.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.