Winning the fight of her life
Blazetic battles back from cancer to lead top-tier program
Edinboro junior forward Samantha Blazetic brings an upbeat attitude and contagious smile to the gym every day.
And who can blame her? Blazetic has a lot to be happy about. She is playing a sport that probably saved her life and is a member of the No. 2 Fighting Scots (22-0) –- one of just two remaining unbeaten squads in Division II.
Blazetic is a cancer survivor, but she may not have even known about the disease if it were not for a routine sports physical at the beginning of her freshman year of high school.
The doctor found a walnut-sized lump in Blazetic’s throat that looked like an Adam’s apple. She had an ultrasound, which revealed the lump was a tumor.
Later that week, the 15-year-old had the tumor removed. But the ordeal was not over. The doctors returned a few days later with the biopsy results. It was thyroid cancer. Blazetic went under the knife again that same week to have her entire thyroid gland removed.
“The first thing I thought was that basketball helped save my health,” Blazetic said.
Blazetic underwent a month of radiation treatments, but went on to make the varsity basketball squad at Eastlake North High School in Eastlake, Ohio. Six months after the first treatment, she had radiation again and then every year after that because there was still a chance thyroid cancer cells were in her body.
Blazetic went on to have a fabulous high school career before moving on to Edinboro, where she made an immediate impact as a freshman, starting 18 games and earning PSAC West Freshman of the Week three times. She posted 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in her sophomore season, earning second team All-PSAC West honors.
After the season, Blazetic had her annual radiation treatment in the spring, and the doctors followed it up with some thrilling news.
“It turned out that I was completely clean and I won’t have to radiation for another three years,” Blazetic said. “It was probably the best news I’ve ever heard.”
“She called me and that was big and exciting news for her,” Edinboro head coach Stan Swank said. “I think she’s grown as a person after going through this. I don’t think she sees challenges in basketball as overwhelming as some of things she’s probably gone through in life.”
While Blazetic still takes thyroid hormone medication daily -- and will for the rest of her life -- and monitors her health closely, she knows her battle with cancer has made her stronger in the long run.
“Cancer definitely changed my perspective on life,” Blazetic said. “When people think of the word cancer, you never think about it for yourself. I was 15 and going to high school -- it wasn’t possible. I look at life a lot differently now. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow -- you have to enjoy it. I try to smile and be happy all the time.”
The disease has influenced her attitude on the court. Blazetic plays basketball like there is no tomorrow and Swank says that definitely affects the rest of the team when they are down.
“They are thinking, ‘This isn’t a real crisis, we’re going to win this game,’” Swank said.
Blazetic leads the Fighting Scots with 14.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, and is the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots. She has swatted away 51 shots this season.
“She brings so much to our team from a lot of different standpoints,” Swank said. “She plays the point on the press, she blocks a lot of shots, she scores points, she rebounds well, but I think more than anything else it is that she brings an upbeat attitude every day.”
Edinboro’s relentless full court press wreaks havoc on opponent offenses, and the Scots are leading the nation in turnover margin (10.58) because of it. The team also ranks second in the nation with 17.7 steals per game and a 23.7 scoring margin. Blazetic plays an integral part in that success.
“She’s very unselfish,” Swank said. “She doesn’t want glory. She just wants us to win.”
Swank says while Blazetic was a key contributor in her first two seasons, she has really come into her own this year.
“I think the game that put her over was a preseason scrimmage against [nationally-ranked Division I] Purdue,” Swank said. “She had a great game -- 18 points and 10 rebounds. I think that gave her the confidence that she could play with anyone.”
Edinboro lost just one player to graduation from last year’s squad that went 26-4, won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Championship and earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Atlantic Regional.
“Last year was almost like a wake-up call that we could be really good,” Blazetic. “We bonded very well together. We push each other to our limits every day at practice, on and off the court, in order to achieve something great in the future. We don’t want to pass up any opportunities.”
But last year’s team also made an early exit from the postseason, unexpectedly losing to Shaw University in the first round -- a team that advanced to the NCAA semifinals. That loss motivated the Fighting Scots in this season’s journey.
“We still talk about that game and know we want to get further this year,” Blazetic said.
Edinboro has only trailed at halftime twice this season, and come back to win both contests, including a 74-57 defeat of No. 18 Gannon after trailing seven at the intermission. After scoring only eight points in the first half without a rebound or block, Blazetic put up 15 points, seven rebounds and six blocks as the Fighting Scots rallied for the victory.
“They want to win so badly that they never quit or give up,” Swank said. “They don’t get down at halftime if they are losing. I would never bet against them, because they always find a way.”
With only four regular season games remaining on the schedule -- all opponents Edinboro has beaten by 20 or more points -- another postseason bid is almost a certainty at this point in the season, and the Fighting Scots are going to make the most of their chances.
“We’re still hungry for that championship…we have high hopes for going pretty far,” Blazetic said.