For the first time ever, Andrea Robertson Knaack, said, she was standing on a gym floor in Vinton, without her friend and teammate, Monica Huelman Zaruba, at her side.
Speaking Tuesday during half-time of the Vinton-Shellsburg Vikette’s varsity game vs. Benton Community, Knaack spoke first during a memorial to Monica, who died Dec. 10, at age 40.
“Monica and I shared many things over the years, and one of them was a passion and love for the game of basketball. It brought us together as both friends and teammates, but it also taught us so much more about the game of life,” Knaack continued. “As middle school and high school students, we learned what it meant to commit to something we were passionate about, which required sacrifices and work that ultimately made us better as people.”
Knaack recalled how when they were seventh graders, Monica would ask her to slow down at first, on the basketball court.
“But yet, just a few short years later, that same girl was giving me a simple head nod, which meant I was to heave that ball down the floor as she sprinted ahead of everyone else to score an easy basket. Monica had the courage to transform herself into the likes of a swift wide receiver who simply could not be stopped.”
Monica wore the numbers 44 and 45 as a Vikette, and 45 at Iowa State, where she was the very first recruit of Coach Bill Fennelly. Many of her Vinton-Shellsburg classmates wore “MO 45″” shirts on Tuesday.
While Monica’s 1996 Washington High School classmates led the tribute to her, many of her other friends and teammates from other WHS graduating classes were in the stands. One of those teammates, Libby Greenlee, who was a guard on those Vikette teams.
“I had the easy job of passing the ball to Monica,” Greenlee recalls. “It was a lot of fun, and we were very good.”
So good, in fact, that Monica led the Vikettes to the 1995 Class 3A State Championship, and to the 1996 Championship game, where they lost, 52-48, to the same team they had beat the year before.
In Monica’s last three seasons, the Vikettes only lost three times, to teams that were State Champs.
Knaack recalled how that as 8th graders, she and Monica went to Omaha for the Creighton University basketball camp, where they played many games each day.
“One night as the two of us lay exhausted in our dorm room beds, I remember Monica saying that she didn’t quite know if she could handle this whole thing we had gotten ourselves into. However, as the years progressed, Monica was the picture of perseverance, evidenced in our senior year when we were struggling in the State Championship Game. During halftime in that small room at Vets auditorium, her words of encouragement to her teammates and her focus on not giving up still rings in my ears to this day,”
While known because of basketball after her success at VS and Iowa State, those who knew Monica the longest say their childhood friend was a person who always reached out to everyone, at home, and classroom as well as in athletics.
Several recalled how Monica’s smile and laughter seemed to fill a room, and how she was always willing to help anyone.
Teacher Janet Woodhouse recalled a foreign language lesson, in which students had to pass a ball around the room, and count in Spanish as they did so. Monica, she recalls, offered to catch the ball for students who were struggling with coordination. Later, says teacher Kris Howes-Vonstein, Monica returned to VS Middle School to help students plan which trees to plant after the wind storm of 2011 destroyed the large walnut trees in front of the school. Monica had majored in horticulture at ISU, and was working for Country Landscapes nursery at the time of her death.
“Monica was even better known as simply a friend,” said Knaack. “Monica had a way of including anyone, no matter who you were.”
Monica’s friends also shared some humorous memories.
Knaack recalled the first time that Monica, who had large feet, came to her house. Later Knaack’s mother came home, saw the large shoes, and figured that a boy had come to visit her daughter.
Classmate Heather Thoren Schmidt recalled the day when she and Monica were driving around in a large, old Ford LTD, and Monica decided to drive through the very last remaining snow pile in town. They made it through the snow once, and decided to try again. This time they got stuck, and had to find a phone and call Monica’s dad, Ken — the driver’s ed instructor.
“Her dad couldn’t get us unstuck so we had to call the tow truck,” Schmidt recalled.
Monica’s WHS Class of 1996 classmates originally hoped to raise enough money to plant a tree in her memory at the high school. But by Tuesday’s game, they had collected around $5,000, which will go toward the VS basketball program, the Vinton Parks and Rec Dept, and Friends of the Shelter, Inc., along with a tree and bench for the VS horticulture class. Classmate Melanie Davis and Monica’s father, Ken, thanked everyone for showing their support.
Knaack ended her speech by telling the audience that the best way to honor Monica’s memory was to do four things Monica is best-remembered for:
- Find something in your life that you are passionate about and commit yourself fully to whatever that may be.
- Have the courage to make changes that ultimately make you better in your pursuit.
- Persevere when challenges arrive in your quest to reach your goals.
- And lastly, simply be a friend. Build others up around you and make them better for having known you, just as Monica did.
The Vikettes rallied for a lead after the half-time presentation, but came one point short of victory when a 3-pointer by Benton in the final seconds gave the Bobcats a 51-50 win.
See more photos of the game, and the tribute to Monica, HERE.
See a video of the tribute HERE.