Westmont College women's basketball team honored after rising up from tragedy

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - At Westmont College, the women basketball players are taught to always say never. "Never stop working. Never stop believing. Never give up."

Now in her ninth year as women's head basketball coach, Kirsten Moore's teams have won nearly 70 percent of their games and she's closing in on 200 victories.

"She's a coach that demands the most from you," said player Celina Gougis.

"She's always really clear about what she expects and she's a great communicator," said Jillian Wilber.

Westmont College is 90 minutes and decibels from Los Angeles, in the heavenly hills of Santa Barbara. Kirsten fell in love with the place on her interview and later fell in love with an assistant professor.

"Alex was Kirsten's biggest fan and was in her corner in everything that she did," said Jen Shinn, Kirsten's friend.

Alex Moore put the full court press on Kirsten for several years before they were finally married in the spring of 2008.

"What I saw in him was a willingness to sacrifice himself for others," Moore said.

Kirsten had to sacrifice too, because Alex was in and out of the hospital after being diagnosed with a gastrointestinal disorder called Crohn's disease.

"We joked for the first couple years of our marriage that we were really good at the 'in sickness' part of our vows and we were ready for the 'in health' part, you know," Moore said.

The health part was supposed to happen in the spring of 2011, when Alex underwent a successful surgery in Los Angeles. When he woke up, he insisted that Kirsten go home and get some rest.

Late that night, Moore's phone rang.

"There's no way to put words to how you feel when you get a phone call like that," she said. "I think the closest way I've been able to put it was it was like a darkness descending."

A blood clot had stopped Alex's heart and he died. He was 31, and Kirsten was eight months pregnant.

"I think you have that thought of like, 'How am I going to make it to the end of the day,' let alone the end of a week or a month or a year or a lifetime without him," Moore said.

When baby Alexis was born just weeks later it seemed the whole Westmont community came together to support both Alexis and Kirsten.

"We just decided that we're going to show up so much that she won't have to ask for help," Shinn said.

Still, with basketball season right around the corner, no one would've been surprised if Kirsten decided to take some time off. The thought never crossed her mind.

"It's not just what I do. It's who I am and how I am used to do good," Moore said.

"She just took every day one day at a time and for her to be present at practice and for all the team meetings and all of our preparation stuff was a victory in itself," said assistant coach Selena Ho.

Whenever she had to take care of her basketball duties, someone stepped in to take care of babysitting duties.

"So many people just started coming in and coming in and coming in," said forward Kelsie Sampson.

"It's a testimony to the relationships that she's been building here in this town and on this campus for a number of years," said David Odell, Athletic Director for Westmont College.

Something special was happening on the court.

"I think we got a lot of joy of just being around each other," said guard Jillian Wilber.

After some initial ups and downs, the Warriors won the Golden State Athletic Conference regular season championship by going 14-0. Somehow, the team was outplaying the heartbreak.

"We wanted to play for her," Sampson said. "And we wanted to play for Alexis and more importantly we wanted to play for Alex."

They earned a spot in the NAIA tournament and then steam rolled their way to the National Championship Game.

"We knew this was something bigger," Gougis said. "We were playing for a bigger reason."

Just before the title game against highly touted Lee University, Coach Kirsten Moore gathered her team in the locker room for what the players thought would be a pep talk. Instead, she looked at each and every player and just said, "Thanks."

"I do not care what that scoreboard says at the end, like we were already champions, we had already overcome. We already had the victory. And I thanked them for all they sacrificed along the way," Moore said.

"The words just flowed from her heart. She cried, we cried. We had such a special moment," Sampson said.

And two hours later, the tears flowed again – with joy. Westmont beat Lee 71-65 to win their first ever national championship.

"What I felt when we won the national championship was just a lot of love," Moore said."I actually get more choked up how grateful I am for everybody than almost anything else these days."

We all suffer defeats in life, but Kirsten Moore and the community at Westmont College decided not to be defeated.

"It truly gives all of us strength to see what she's been through to know you can go through incredible depths of suffering and also find incredible victory in life," said Dr. Gayle Beebe, President of Westmont College.

Each day is still a struggle, but Kirsten and Alexis continue to push forward guided by faith, memories of Alex, and the knowledge that two people were lifted by a community that came together as one.

"Extraordinary love can accomplish extraordinary things," Moore said.


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