By TOM WILLIAMS
The Ocean City sports community lost its soul this week when former star athlete and coach Mikenzie Helphenstine finally succumbed to cancer after a long, courageous battle.
She (Mikenzie Custer) had been a multi-sport athlete and an especially good field hockey player at Ocean City High School in the late 1990s, went on to play at Towson University and then coached a year at Johns Hopkins while obtaining her Master’s Degree. She returned to her alma mater, teaching at the Intermediate School, coaching basketball, field hockey and lacrosse on many levels.
If you knew Mikenzie, you surely have some significant memories. Here are the memories and thoughts from some people you know in the Ocean City sports family.
Trish LeFever (Hall of Fame coach): “Mikenzie was incredibly strong, passionate and courageous. I feel honored to have known her and to watch her develop from a little fourth grade, athletic spitfire through her successful high school and college years on the fields and courts and finally to return to us as a hugely successful teacher and coach. She brought so much to our program. She has positively impacted the lives of so many students and athletes. What I loved most was seeing her develop relationships with all members of our community.
“She was an incredible teacher, coach, friend, family member and, especially, mom. Her loss is just immeasurable and heart breaking. We will all miss her so much.”
Cory Terry (Hall of Fame athlete & coach): “It is difficult to put words together to encapsulate Mikenzie. What she gifted her players, students, friends and family – what she meant to her community and what it meant to her – it’s too big for words.
“Yes, there are countless unforgettable memories that are real and tangible in many ways. Yes, her dedication, enthusiasm, and grit were the incarnate manifestations you saw every day. I am grateful for all of them.
“But, the greatest part of Mikenzie is the ineffable – that which can’t be put into words and lasts far longer than words ever can. It is pure spirit. She was overflowing with it.”
Dr. Chris Lentz (former coach and athletics director): “It is hard to put into words what an incredible young woman Mikenzie was. She will remain one of my most favorite people. Respected by her colleagues and community, loved by her family and friends, Mikenzie always made everyone around her better. When I was a young coach, I could often be heard yelling, “just give the ball to Mikenzie.” I could always count on her. I admire her for a myriad of reasons. She was honest. She always did what was right, not what was easy. She spoke truth to power and was the strongest advocate for students and athletes. A story I think epitomizes who Mikenzie is happened this year during one of the last field Hockey games she coached. It was Upper Township vs Ocean City. Two former OCHS athletes were coaching – Mikenzie and Tracy LeFever. One team wore green, one wore red. At the end of the game, Coach H gathered both teams. She talked about the game, what it means to be competitors, and she spoke of respect. Then she reminded them that today they were opponents but next year they may be teammates and she handed them red and white OCHS jerseys. That was Coach H. To her, HOPE was a muscle that she exercised tirelessly toward a better future.”
Pat Dougherty (Hall of Fame coach): “While I never taught Mikenzie or coached her, I so admired her commitment to the children in this community. Mikenzie Helphenstine was a true hero in Ocean City. As a high school student-athlete she was the consummate team leader. When I think about her as a professional, I am reminded of all the contributions she made to both the educational family, as well as the local community, in general. There was no educator and coach more dedicated to the students and athletes here. It was not always easy. Her commitment was not always appreciated or recognized but that never kept her from giving it her best every single day. The success of the students was always her primary concern and goal. She never hesitated to help with or volunteer in any program or in any capacity. In the end, she fought the fight like no other and her legacy will live on forever.”
Frank LaSasso (fellow teacher and coach): “Mikenzie was a tremendous asset to our community. She lived for Ocean City and it’s athletic programs. It’s rare to find someone who impacts lives from the youth level all the way through high school the way she did. What I will remember most about Mikenzie will be the passion and intensity she carried with her as both a coach and a teacher. She brought it every single day. That passion and intensity carried over to her long battle with cancer. Mikenzie is an inspiration to anyone battling cancer because of her courage, resilience and positive attitude. When I saw her at the Coaches vs Cancer game, she said, ‘I am not feeling well, but I wouldn’t miss this moment with Frankie for the world.’ That speaks volumes to the type of person she was – a wonderful coach, teacher, friend, wife, daughter, mother. I know I will miss her dearly.”
Danielle Donoghue (award-winning athlete and college lacrosse all star): “From the time I first moved to Ocean City in second grade, up until college, Coach H was always there with me. Whether on the field, in the classroom or simply being a second mom to me, she always wanted to see me succeed in every aspect of life. I was lucky enough to have someone like her to look up to and to have as a mentor from the start. She cared for me and loved me like no other and was my biggest fan. I am who I am because of her. I remember in 5th grade when she first started dealing with the cancer and watching her battle through it. Coach H was a fighter. She never gave up and fought until the end. She never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her or for what she was going through. She put others before herself and always wanted the best for her players.
“No matter the circumstances, Coach H was present at almost every game, with the BIGGEST smile on her face. She refused to give up and fought until the end. Coach H wanted the best for her players and pushed us each and every day to be our best. She was our biggest supporter. No matter how much I hated running and didn’t want to run, she didn’t care and made me do it anyway. But that’s what made me into a better player. If it weren’t for her, I would be playing softball. She introduced me to lacrosse and taught me everything about the game. ‘You’re gonna be a lacrosse player, I don’t care what you say’, is what I heard going into 7th grade, never having picked up a lacrosse stick before. I fell in love with the game because of her. From Upper Township Warriors through high school, she was at every one of my games. Mikenzie was someone I could relate to in every aspect of life. I was lucky enough to also have her as a teacher in middle school and because of her, I have developed a love for teaching and helping others. I strive to be half the person she was. She will forever be remembered as a loving, caring mother, coach, teacher, mentor and second mom to all. Throughout her time, she touched so many lives and I speak for the whole Ocean City community when I say she will truly be missed but remembered forever.”
This is a quote from Mikenzie back in 2012 during her first bout with cancer.
“Actually, I lost a friend to bone cancer,” she said, “and I have always participated in walks and other fund raisers as a tribute. Some of the kids on my freshmen field hockey team were also on the Intermediate school basketball team last year when I was going through everything. They went through it with me. When we started wearing pink at the beginning of the month, some of them would tear up around me.
“The support system in Ocean City was beyond my expectations. My sister’s godmother is a nun and she asked me to name some of the positive things about all this. It was surprisingly easy. You learn how strong you are. You learn how strong your friendships are. And you find new friends who become a permanent part of your life. I’m more than willing to share my story, to encourage people to get regular exams and report anything unusual. I want people to learn about the disease and get involved fighting for a cure. But there is one thing I feel very strongly about. Breast cancer was part of me but it does not define me.”
Mikenzie Helphenstine was 43.