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GULLS GRADUATE: Emma Tierney ’19 Turns Tragedy Into Triumph

GULLS GRADUATE: Emma Tierney ’19 Turns Tragedy Into Triumph

(The Gulls Graduate feature series is intended to share stories about our 2019 Class that the casual fan may not be aware of. We hope you enjoy this feature series as we prepare for our student-athletes to leave The Nest, onto bigger and better life adventures and successes.)

BEVERLY, Mass. — Mikaela Rogers felt deep in her core there was only one option.

She was moving in.

Motivated by the unexpected news she had received a few months ago, Mikaela whipped her mattress out of The Mods and dragged it across the cold January pavement to Standish Hall where her future roommates Catie Lipscomb and Emma Tierney would be waiting.

At the time, one of those roommates was in the process of providing a shoulder to cry on. The other, her world turned upside down similar to Mikaela's recently vacated dorm room.

For the next month, Catie, Mikaela, and the rest of the Endicott women's basketball team were going to focus on healing Emma's heart… not the grueling stretch of games that lie ahead.

"I knew I just wanted to be there when she was having a good day, and especially when she was having a bad day. Sometimes distractions are a nice getaway from reality, and it can show you that things are not always going to be this hard," said Mikaela. "I think that was the main reason I basically moved into her room for about a month. I wanted to be with her and remind her that she is strong enough to get through this, but if she needs help along the way I wanted to be there for her because she would be there for anyone else if they needed her."

The help Mikaela was alluding to came in the form of binge-watching movies, trying not to laugh at each others' karaoke "skills" and countless trips to get bagels with other members of the team. 

Somehow, the goofy and unconventional remedy was helping Emma move forward through it all, together, as one.

Catie was there when Emma's phone rang on October 13, 2018.

Like drawing a charge on the hardwood, Emma could only brace so much for the impact that was coming next.

It would be the worst call she'd have to endure all year.

On the other end of the line was her mom. 

"Dad had an accident at work," she said. "You need to come home."

The extent of what was going on was unclear, but the roughly three hour, 150-plus mile drive from UMass Amherst — where Catie and Emma were visiting friends at the time of the phone call — to the quaint town of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire was certainly going to be a long one.

Catie was with Emma the whole way until they arrived at the hospital. 

What happened next was unimaginable.

Robert A. Tierney, a man of honor, and Emma's father, passed away unexpectedly the next day, October 14.

One word to describe Mr. Tierney was hard-working, but there was more to the man than that. 

He served in the Air Force, then worked briefly in the Peterborough, N.H. Police Department before completing a 24-year career in the Wolfeboro Police Department. 

During that time, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant at the Wolfeboro Police Department, while also earning his associates degree from Saint Anselm College and later his bachelor's degree from Granite State College.

He also was a pillar in his community — participating in the Special Olympics Torch Run for many years and a devout Catholic who never missed weekly mass at Saint Katharine Drexel Parish in Alton, N.H. 

Even in his retirement, Mr. Tierney worked at Sal's Advanced Auto in Wolfeboro where his co-workers became his second family.

Most of all, though, he was the biggest supporter of his daughters Emma and Megan Tierney and wife, Lise Tierney.

That's who Mr. Tierney really was: a hard-working, caring, and passionate family man.

"My father was a very hard-working person and he held me and my sister to that kind of standard," said Emma. "He wasn't a huge sports guy and didn't understand basketball really but he knew when my name was announced and he would get excited for me. He was just a good guy, a really good guy."

Three days after the funeral, Emma somehow mustered up the strength and returned to campus a few days after the official start of college basketball season (October 15). 

"It wasn't really an option to stay home or do anything like that," said Emma. "My mom was like you need to keep going. I knew my dad would want me to keep going. He, my mom, and my sister were the best supporters I could ever ask for."

What Emma didn't realize at the time of her grieving is that she would have to add a lot more people to her supporters' list. The outpouring of care was more than appreciated but also overwhelming as it came in droves from her teammates to Assistant Vice President, Director of Athletics Brian Wylie Ph.D., and most of all head coach Brittany Hutchinson.

Let's be honest, she probably didn't expect Mikaela to become her roommate during January break either but that's just what this Endicott Community is like.

"I think people that are willing to drop everything and just cry with you if you need it shows you that they're good friends," said Emma of Mikaela moving in and the rest of the help she received from the women's basketball team. "There is literally never a time I can name that I felt alone or lost when I was going through everything. I definitely had people there the whole time through it all."

Again, to reiterate, that's what this Endicott Community is like.

Example two, Coach Hutch.

"She's obviously very passionate, that's not a big surprise to anyone. What a lot of people don't see is that she's the first person to get started with things off the court. She always says open door policy, which is honestly the truth. I ended up having to take an incomplete for thesis class in the first semester and that was because AD Wylie and Coach Hutch helped me through all that. Coach would email all my professors and make sure I had what I needed. She would text me in the morning and ask 'Do you want to get lunch? What do you need today?' She really went above and beyond a coach's role once everything happened."

And, one more example, just for good measure.

"Coach Hutch even drove all the way up to Wolfeboro before the funeral to spend time with me, my mom and my sister, which is just another example of how she went above and beyond," said Emma. "Then at the wake later on in the week, the entire team also made the drive up to Wolfeboro to be there for me. Even the underclassmen who I had only known for about a month before. All of this kept showing me that they were there for me. Freshman Lexi Gellerman even came with me when I got a tattoo of my dad's handwriting (she got one in the handwriting of someone that she lost as well). Everyone really just stepped up to be there for me."

For Coach Hutchinson, the choice to act never crossed her mind.

"I often say to others that my job is not my job, it's a lifestyle choice. That may sound a bit much to some, but it's not something I do 9-5. It's a way I choose to live and it's reflected in the directions I choose to aim my time, energy, and efforts every day. It's an all-the-time thing," expressed Hutchinson. "I'm obviously crazy when it comes to winning, but coaching is teaching and if you aren't passionate about the development of young people, if you aren't living your own life as an example, and truly loving them, then you probably shouldn't teach or coach."

Emma isn't afraid to admit that she hasn't fully processed her father's passing. 

That vulnerability exemplifies her unrelenting strength.

It's without a doubt what guided her to post a career year for the Gulls this past season. 

Honoring her father was a motivator too.

"Definitely," stated Emma emphatically when asked if her father's passing motivated her during the year. "As a post player, I'm tall but not aggressive I wouldn't say, that's always been an issue for me. I definitely tried to use it to get angry. I had bad days when I was pissed off but I tried to turn it into a motivator and everything felt more meaningful if I said 'okay this is my purpose for right now' and that helped me get through it."

Her "purpose" showed up in the stats, that's for sure.

Individually, Emma notched career-highs in games played (27) and games started (17), minutes per game (18.5), points (3.0), rebounds (3.1), and blocks (1.7). She also tied the program record for blocks in a game with seven against the University of New England on January 16, 2019, while her 65 blocks in 2018-19 ranks tied for third all-time in a single season. 

In addition to those numbers, Emma finished her career ranked eighth all-time for blocked shots with 106 total even though she didn't play her freshman year. If you take her three-year average of 35 blocks and add that to her career numbers, Emma would rank third all-time with 141 blocked shots. 

"Emma was a beast this year! To see her rise up over and over again, not just this year, but throughout her career is a testament to the fight that resides in her," said an emphatic Coach Hutchinson. "Emma came to practice every day with a true attitude of wanting to get better and she worked at it. That is kind of rare for seniors who usually feel pretty comfortable where they are and practice is more of a routine, but Emma really worked at it. 

Coach Hutchinson continued passionately talking about Emma's work ethic.

"She worked at the nitty-gritty skills of posting up big and strong, catching elbows out, making moves and finishing layups. She worked on her mid-range jumper and actually got really good at it. She worked on her communication defensively and seeing things around her which is incredibly difficult as a center. She understood herself very well and that understanding took her to great heights in our defense, literally! She perfected when to step up, when to block shots, when to challenge or play off. And, what was the most fun for me from the sidelines was watching how her teammates responded to her play. They were grateful, excited, proud, pumped up, and, most importantly, together. The team became more connected in a lot of ways because of Emma."

Coach Hutch isn't wrong, by any means.

Emma's play helped the Gulls to an 18-9 overall record, their most wins since 2013-14 (23-7), and a 13-3 mark in Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) play. 

Defensively, the Gulls ranked third in the CCC in points per game allowed (56.3) — which marks their lowest average since the 2012-13 season — and advanced to the CCC Championship for the first time since 2011-12.

Somehow, Emma managed all this success on the court all while student-teaching at Higgins Middle School in Peabody, Massachusetts from 7 AM to 3 PM, attending classes, and working on her thesis.

"I honestly don't know how she did it because going through what she did a lot of people would have quit, a lot of people wouldn't come back to school and never would come back to basketball," said Catie. "And, over the summer she was sick, so we didn't know if she would come back anyway. After her father passed away, we all just didn't know but the strength from her mom and her sister, their strength that they gave her, she had an incredible year whether it showed on the basketball court or not. Just being able to mentally be there every day, to me, is unreal."

Coach Hutchinson shared similar sentiments.

"I think she wanted something else to define her this year other than the grief she was feeling. I think her mother and sister were great catalysts for her success as well and her teammates motivated her and encouraged her. She definitely learned that you don't move on from grief, you just move forward with it. You GO THROUGH IT. We talk about that idea a lot as a team and she embraced it."  

Despite all the compliments given to Emma by everyone involved with the program, Emma would be the first person to point out that everyone else actually deserved the recognition before her, well, because that's just who she is, too.

"Mikaela, Emily [Pratt], and Kaleigh [Putnam] all really stepped up to be leaders when Catie and I were injured or sick or couldn't physically lead the team on the court in the preseason, and then again when my dad passed and I wasn't necessarily in the right mindset to be a leader for the team. The junior class really saw Catie and I going through some things and wanted to help out. They stepped up when we needed them most." said Emma.

Basketball is far from the only thing that defines Emma Tierney.

She is a teacher, an artist — studio art major to be specific — and also someone you hold onto dearly as a friend because of her compassion for others.

Mikaela's definition of Emma is just as good too.

"I really do not think I can say enough about how much Emma means to me. She was one of my very first friends at Endicott and has continuously gone out of her way to make me feel loved and cared for. Even though Emma has always been a strong woman, I think this year many people got to see just how strong and amazing she really is," said Mikaela. "I lost my grandpa shortly after she lost her dad, and she was my rock throughout the whole process even with what she was going through and had on her plate. I really don't think that my experience at Endicott would have been the same without her."

Mikaela continued.

"Her success did not stop with just basketball, either. She was also determined to do well academically this year, which is typically the hardest year for any student at Endicott. She did extremely well on her thesis paintings, and would also share her thesis topic to the team about loving your body as females and being proud of who you are inside and out."

Academically, Emma's entire career is one to marvel.

She currently holds a 3.44 cumulative grade point average (as of the date of this writing), passed her English Language Learners (ELL) licensure test, and completed internships and/or teaching placements at the following schools: Crescent Lake School, Kingswood Regional High School, Brisco Middle School, Bates Elementary, and Higgins Middle School.

Specifically, at Higgins Middle School, which served as the senior student-teaching portion of her degree, Emma was responsible for instructing students in watercolor painting, including specific techniques such as zentangle. This method of painting incorporates filling any shape or design with intricate patterns.

The days were long but ultimately rewarding.

"I started off having to teach Mr. Lamkin's lessons that he already made and then had the ability to try my own. By the end of my student-teaching experience, I was in control for the entire day. It was exhausting but rewarding while you went in," said Emma. "Aside from having control of the lesson plans, I thought it was kind of neat to come in every day and the students would have connections with you. They would say 'Ms. Emma, I won this game over the weekend or it's so-and-so's birthday coming up' or when I got to experience that cool moment in class when they ask you a question instead of Mr. Lamkin. That was kind of cool to see that develop over time."

As Mikaela previously referenced in her glowing words of Emma, thesis was also a major portion of her senior year. 

Shockingly, Emma aced that too. 

No, she really did… we're not making this up for the story. We promise.

Here's the hard proof. 

She received an A for her Senior Thesis II class this spring after earning an A- in Senior Thesis I in the fall.

Her success in Senior Thesis II came with an assist — basketball pun intended — from one of her professors, however.

"My thesis professor, Cynthia Roberts, she bought me this sketchbook for watercolors and she said 'this might not be for you but I lost someone and art helped me through it,' said Emma. "Having that as a tool helped me process everything and helped me get everything done for thesis." 

The finished product was an intricate and elaborate two-part masterpiece. 

Emma provided the details below:

As a studio art major, my thesis had two parts, one written part (a 53-page document) and one visual part (a series of four oil paintings). My written thesis, titled Cross Your Legs: How Feminine Beauty Standards Pressurize Female Identity in Contemporary Society, played off of the idea of how men "manspread" to showcase the role of women in our American Society and investigate why we aren't "allowed" to take up space, in a literal and figurative sense.

Women can take up space in many different ways, not just with their bodies — women voicing their opinions and running for office are "taking up space" in the world of politics, successful businesswomen take up space within the workforce, etc. In my literature review, I was able to use WNBA player Brittney Griner and tennis icon Billie Jean King as examples of women taking up space within the world of sports.

That's actually how I came up with the idea for my thesis, me being a female and an athlete, a role which had only been filled by men for a large part of American history.

The visual portion of my thesis, which I titled Ladylike, was a series of four large scale figurative oil paintings. I tried to show women who were confident with their bodies and who were positioned in a way that they occupied a large amount of space and weren't trying to hide anything about their bodies. I tried to use these paintings to challenge the idea that women have to be small and delicate to be feminine or beautiful.

Emma's art — including her thesis project — can also be seen on her Instagram page: EmmaTierneyArt

Now, with her thesis completed and basketball season wrapped up, the only thing left for Emma to do is walk across the graduation stage at Hempstead Stadium on Saturday. 

She will do so having excelled in every facet of her career at Endicott College, which includes being an integral member of the community, a well-versed and educated student, and a top-tier athlete.

That's a fine legacy to leave behind, but Mikaela knows Emma has a duty to keep another one going.

"Emma truly is a special person that makes a lasting impact on everyone she meets. I think her dad's love for kindness is something that will forever be a part of her and is a way for his legacy to live on within her."

The record books may not show that part of Emma's story, but it's the legacy most worth cherishing. 

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(Photo Credit - Emma Tierney)