Lewinger steps down as Mary Louis hoops coach

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Citing family obligations, Joe Lewinger has stepped down as head coach of The Mary Louis Academy girls’ basketball team, effective immediately. Lewinger informed the Hilltoppers at a New Year’s Eve practice and assistant Kevin White will assume the responsibilities for the foreseeable future.

Lewinger knew it was going to be difficult to juggle his responsibilities at the Jamaica Estates school and at home, where his 3-year-old twins, Madison and Jack, are both battling cancer.

“When I come back, it will be a win-win situation,” Lewinger said. “Because that will mean my children are healthy and I’m able to coach again.”

Lewinger, in his ninth year at Mary Louis, will remain as the school’s athletic director and, in that role, will attend the Hilltoppers’ home games.

“I just won’t be on the bench,” he said.

He has taken a diminished role with the team in recent weeks, but after a CT scan indicated Madison still had cancer in her lungs nearly two months after her final dose of chemotherapy, Lewinger said he could no longer devote the necessary time to coaching.

“The social worker assigned to our case said it was like going from a blizzard to a few flurries,” Lewinger said. “Some lesions disappeared, some were smaller and some were still there. The oncologist said it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the result we were hoping for.”

A day after learning Madison still had lesions on her lungs, Jack was rushed by ambulance to the burn unit at Nassau Medical Center on Christmas Eve. A freak accident resulted in a spilled cup of coffee giving him second-degree burns on his right arm and first-degree burns on his head.

“It wasn’t exactly the Christmas Eve we had planned,” Lewinger said.

Madison was first diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a cancer of the kidney that affects about 500 children in the United States each year, on April 8. Her left kidney, which had a grapefruit-sized tumor, was removed three days later.

On a whim, Joe and his wife Maura, decided to have Jack tested in July, although he had showed no signs of sickness. He, too, had a tumor on his left kidney, although in Jack’s case the cancer was in stage 2, while Madison was in stage 4 with stage 5 being the most serious.

The couple has had a tremendous support group, from the well wishes from various coaches and athletic directors throughout the CHSAA and the PSAL, receiving prayers from several different religious sects to students and workers at the United Cerebral Palsy of Nassau County, where Maura works as a speech and language pathologist, who made 1,000 origami paper cranes in honor of Madison.

An old Japanese legend, based on an 11-year-old girl who was diagnosed with leukemia after the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, says that anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes so pleases the gods that the folder is granted a wish.

To give his friend a hand in this difficult time, White, who runs the NYC Heat AAU program, joined the Mary Louis coaching staff this year. It has allowed Lewinger to take some time off from coaching – he missed five days in a row and another seven consecutively.

“I missed more time this year than the previous eight years combined,” Lewinger said.

But when Madison’s recent diagnosis wasn’t favorable, Lewinger knew it was time to step aside and spend more time with his family.

Lewinger coached the Hilltoppers in a 69-59 win against South Shore at the Bergtraum Holiday Classic Tuesday and confided in St. John’s-bound star guard Amanda Burakoski that he would inform the team at practice Wednesday that he was taking a leave of absence.

“I’m going to see him in school everyday, but as far as coaching I understand it was a huge decision for him,” Burakoski said. “Am I upset? Yeah. But he did what he had to do.”

After a relatively light practice Wednesday morning, Lewinger addressed the team, informing them of his decision.

“Maura has her outlets and basketball was mine,” Lewinger said. “I explained to them on the first day of preseason that the reason I’m here is that I enjoy (coaching) and that I enjoy the group. But there might be a situation where it becomes too rough. In early December I told them it was getting harder at home and I had to scale back.”

With 10 games in 18 days in January, Lewinger knew he couldn’t give his team the attention it deserves.

“I’ve always preached you can’t just show up and expect things to work out,” he said. “The show must go on and obviously I know how terrific both Kevin and (fellow assistant) Lynda Day have been. Words cannot describe how I feel about Kevin, both as a person and a coach.”

White, who has already stepped in for Lewinger for three of Mary Louis’ eight games, could sense Lewinger was struggling with his family situation, although he didn’t realize how difficult things were until Lewinger told him about Madison’s diagnosis on Wednesday.

“I knew that Joe had a lot on his mind and I could tell something was not right, although I didn’t know Maddy was sick again,” White said. “I told him he’s got to take care of his family first. I’m there to help him. I’m not there to take Joe’s job, I’m there to help him. I’m there for Joe.”

White and Day have run several practices already. Burakoski and a handful of her teammates have played for White with the NYC Heat.

“It should be easier,” Burakoski said. “And for those who haven’t played for him before, they have all pretty much warmed up to him and respect him.”

The transition, White said, will be seamless.

“I’m trying to continue to do what Joe wants,” White said. “It’s about getting the team to improve on what we’ve been doing and making some minor changes, some tweaks, here and there.”

One may include the dress code on the bench for the coaches, White joked.

“I told them we’re going to be making one big change,” White said. “We’re going to be wearing Hawaiian shirts on the sideline.”

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