RALEIGH — N.C. State seniors Emili Tasler, Tia Bell and Bonae Holston are the last women's basketball players in the program to play on a team coached by Kay Yow.
Their teammate, junior Marissa Kastanek, is Yow's last official recruit.
As coach at N.C. State for 34 years, Yow signed 145 letter winners to play for her teams. The legendary coach, who at 66 died of breast cancer in 2009, welcomed them to the Wolfpack family with a warm smile and high expectations, players recalled. Her message of excellence was consistent from the start, they said, and later in life her perseverance served as an inspiring example.
Together these four players represent the end of an era, the last players selected by a Hall of Fame coach who won 737 career games and became a women's basketball icon for her long fight against breast cancer.
Today's game against Wake Forest marks the seventh annual Hoops 4 Hope awareness event at Reynolds Coliseum. It's an event Yow founded to inspire hope for breast cancer survivors. The event's motto: Hope for early detection, hope for increased survival, hope for a cure.
The Kay Yow Cancer Fund has raised hundreds of thousands to help fund research.
Each year, former Yow players return to pay tribute to the coach and participate in the program's alumni dinner. Each has a story to tell about how the coach impacted their lives and why they accepted an offer to play for the Pack.
"I just take pride in being her last recruit," Kastanek said. "She saw something in me that she saw in the rest of these girls. ... She saw something in all of us."
They saw something in her, too.
'A special woman'
Tasler grew up in Iowa, and every summer visited her grandparents in Apex. She attended basketball camp at N.C. State and first met Yow there.
She recalled how Yow walked among campers and made everyone feel comfortable.
"She was just a special woman," Tasler said. "Anyone who met coach Yow knew right off the gun, she was just special. She was different."
Yow and her staff, assistant coaches Stephanie Glance and Jenny Palmateer among them, showed interest in Tasler - a 5-foot-8 guard with a automatic jump shot. They offered and she verbally committed as a high school junior.
Tasler tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee during her senior year in high school. She worried about her future.
Yow calmed her fears.
"She was supportive," Tasler said. "She told me I had nothing to worry about. I still had my scholarship. We were going to work hard in the summertime to get back. Just keep pushing."
Every time Bell steps onto Kay Yow Court at Reynolds Coliseum, she's reminded of her first meeting with the coach.
As a rising senior, she visited campus with her mother and met Yow in her office in 2006. Bell hoped to make a good impression.
"By the end of the meeting, I felt like I knew exactly who she was," Bell said. "She was very genuine and soft spoken. And at the same time very strong. I felt like I could be myself around her."
At the time, Bell knew very little about Yow's fight against breast cancer. She had no previous experience with the disease.
As the school program prepared for its first Hoops 4 Hope event, Bell learned more about Yow's journey. She recalled the team wearing their pink game jerseys to practice to show their coach. They all turned around, and on the back Yow's named was emblazoned in white.
"She just cried so hard," said Bell, a 6-foot-3 forward from Washington, D.C.
"If I would encourage anyone to come to the game, I would encourage them to come for reasons like that," Bell added. "Because she knew we were playing for her and she was coaching for something bigger than herself."
Yow's plight resonated with Bell on another level a few years later when her great-grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"If I hadn't known coach Yow's story, I would have panicked," she said. "I set my grandmother down and was like, 'Grandma, you're going to get through this. Coach Yow lived with this disease longer than I was alive.' And she just had her 85th birth Monday. She's cancer free."
Little things, big impression
It's the little things Holston remembers about Yow.
She arrived on campus as a rising junior for a summer team camp with her squad from Newport News, Va. She had made an impression on the staff as a Ford-tough ninth grader and had kept in contact.
But this time, as a more mature player, she really made a statement. Still, her confidence was low, not having received an offer from an ACC team.
Yow approached her on the last day of camp.
"I remember her saying, 'In order to play in the ACC, you have to be big and strong. And you got that,'" Holston said. "I don't know why that sticks in my memory. But she made me actually believe I could come play in the ACC and be successful. "
State offered her that day. She accepted.
Holston, a 5-11 forward, has played much taller than her height and worked her way into the school's record book. She's listed 15th in scoring (1,496) and eighth in rebounding (841).
True to her word
State's basketball staff had pursued Kastanek since she came to town as a ninth grader and showcased her tenacity at the 2005 Deep South Classic.
A 5-9 guard from Lincoln, Neb., Kastanek drew Yow's attention with her hustle. Over the years, they developed a relationship by phone.
During Kastanek's senior season in high school, she prepared for Yow to make an official home visit. Aware of Yow's health problems, she hoped the coach would consider, but would have understood if she could not.
Yow kept her word.
"She was in pain when she came out," Kastanek said. "Her fingers were numb. She wasn't feeling her greatest. But she still came out to visit. It was a big deal for me to know that someone was so dedicated to want me to come here."
Yow shared dinner with the Kastaneks. Nearly 30 people showed up at the restaurant where the family rented a room - from grandparents to baby cousins.
Throughout the process, over years of casual conversations, Yow never wavered in her commitment.
"She was so sure that she wanted me," Kastanek said.