In life and in sports, everyone gets knocked down, but champions get back up.
During her 10 years as girls’ junior varsity soccer coach at Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood, Judy Zink proved on the field that she is a champion, having reached the championship game in each of her seasons while taking home six Nassau/Suffolk GCHSAA Division ‘A’ titles.
However, the events of this past year cemented Zink’s legacy as a champion in the game of life.
Back in January, the parishioner at Holy Child Jesus, Richmond Hill, and graduate of Dominican Commercial H.S., Jamaica, was notified that she would be taking over as the Stanners girls’ varsity coach for the fall season. In addition to her coaching pedigree at Molloy, Zink was the first-ever recruit for the women’s varsity soccer team at St. John’s University, Jamaica, in 1987 and served as team captain her final two seasons.
But just under three weeks after finding out this good news, Zink’s emotional high wore off quickly, as she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
“One of my first thoughts was would I be able to do it (coach),” she said. “That thought really didn’t last too long because I really do have a strong faith.”
That faith certainly came in handy. Her doctors said that if she had to get breast cancer at some point, she got the best type since it was curable. The timing of it would also allow her to recover just in time for the start of the soccer season in August.
After undergoing successful bilateral mastectomy surgery on March 28, Zink’s journey back to good health began. Her treatment schedule would involve four chemotherapy sessions spaced three weeks apart.
To her first chemo treatment, Zink wore the shirt that her junior varsity Molloy team had made up after winning their division championship the previous year. On the back of the shirt was the slogan “Everyone gets knocked down, but champions get back up.” She said that wearing that shirt and focusing on the upcoming season helped get her through her rigorous treatment schedule.
She also was thoroughly relieved that Molloy’s athletic director Mike McCleary placed his utmost confidence in her to still be able to coach in the fall. She also said Molloy’s boys’ varsity coach Andy Kostel was very supportive in the entire process.
As she was deemed cancer-free, Zink was just as excited to be opening Molloy’s varsity soccer season, and she was totally focused on the upcoming campaign.
“Once the season started, I didn’t want it to be about me; I wanted it to be just about them (her team) and what they could do and what they could accomplish this season,” she said.
At Molloy’s first game, the players surprised their coach by proudly displaying breast cancer patches that they had ironed onto their uniforms. They also wore pink shoelaces and presented Zink with two-dozen pink roses.
“We wanted to show we were all there to support her (Zink) like she supports us,” said Melany Caceres, a junior midfielder on the Molloy varsity team. “Obviously as a coach she guides us, and we just wanted to show how much we appreciate her.”
The Stanners played a few tough games against strong competition early in the season, but the turning point came while playing in the Forest Hills H.S. Charlie Zink Tournament, named after Judy’s father. The Stanners won the tournament, and Zink was named the tournament’s most outstanding coach. From that point on, the team improved its play substantially, culminating with a second place regular season finish.
For her efforts, Zink was named Coach of the Year prior to the playoffs. While her team was ecstatic, she told them the journey was not yet finished.
“I said, ‘Girls, we still have one more thing to win, so let’s win that championship, because I’d rather win that for you than that (Coach of the Year award) for me.’”
The Stanners defeated Our Lady of Mercy, Syosset, L.I., handily in the semi-final matchup and would be taking on rival Holy Trinity D.H.S., Hicksville, L.I., in the championship. Holy Trinity had won both games against Molloy in the regular season.
The day of the championship, Zink gathered her players in the Molloy chapel to reflect in prayer on how they arrived at that point. It was there that she told her team about wearing the shirt with the slogan to her chemo treatments. While the team had maybe been knocked down a few times during the season, it was time for them to get back up as champions.
In a game that featured a clinic in defensive excellence, Molloy emerged when the dust the settled with a 1-0 victory to capture the Nassau/Suffolk GCHSAA Division ‘A’ title.
“It really was a complete season with so many accomplishments,” Zink said. “They played really well and never gave up all season. It has been quite a journey.”
Just as winning this year’s soccer championship required a total team effort, Zink acknowledged that overcoming breast cancer was also a team effort. She received tireless support from members of her parish, and her time as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion kept her faith strong when it needed to be.
“No man is an island, and I couldn’t have gotten through what I did if I didn’t have my family, my faith and the community of the parish,” Zink said.
Zink was surely inspired by all those around her during her road to recovery, but she’s the one that serves as the example of how to face a challenge head-on.
“Not only did she (Zink) coach us, but she led us to the finals and to win the game,” Caceres said. “She’s inspiring not only to us but to anyone who has cancer. She came out with a passion for the game, and it just shows that she didn’t let that (cancer) stop her.”
So while Zink’s coaching resume now includes a varsity championship to go along with six junior varsity titles, it’s her life’s resume that has received that most valuable entry from this past year:
“Champion cancer survivor.”[hr]Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.