ANSONIA — Natalie Ramadanovic takes off her Ansonia cap, rubs her bald head, and says seven totally unexpected words.
There is no good time for cancer. There is never a good time for cancer. Not now. Not last week. Not next month.
“I know that sounds weird,” she said. “But coming into Jojo’s senior year with such excitement is the only thing I’ve been looking for since I was told I have cancer.”
Ramadanovic, Ansonia’s assistant basketball coach and stepmother to star player Jojo Sanchez, is a fighter. A look at her Facebook page shows the family in black shirts with pink boxing gloves and pink lettering: “Cancer Picked the Wrong Girl.” Another photo shows small pink boxing gloves hanging from the rearview mirror of the car.
During the Seymour football game in Ansonia in October, the announcer took a moment to recognize a coach, volunteer and No. 1 fan who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. There were balloons spelling her name. There was a big sign. “Coach Nat” was even painted on the grass near the 50-yard line at Nolan Field.
Standing nearby I thought this must be a special person to deserve all of this. When we met at Ansonia’s gym on Friday afternoon, I discovered how special it was.
Having recently completed her fourth course of chemotherapy, Ramadanovic has not missed a workout or competition. Two weeks ago, she went from chemo to a scrimmage.
That’s a warrior, right?
Jojo nodded her head and said softly “Yes.”
Selected by GameTimeCT as one of the 25 state players to watch, Sanchez, who started varsity since ninth grade, is a combination watch. She can handle the ball. She’s not going to lie either.
“I like shooting,” she said, “a lot.”
Sanchez started playing educational basketball with the Ansonia Armory in the third and fourth grades. She played youth football, often the only girl. She played softball and picked up again last spring. Still, it’s basketball that she immediately loves and still loves.
“The way it’s played, the collaboration between you and your teammates,” Sanchez said. “And the friends I made while playing made me love it even more.
“When I first came here, it wasn’t interesting for people. Our record got better and more and more people came. The energy in the gym was different. It inspired my playing more.”
She would play AAU ball with CBA along with her sister. Jojo and Jayda, a year later in school, would play together at Ansonia. Under head coach Vince DellaVolpe, Ansonia finished 17-6 in 2019 and 2020 ahead of last winter’s COVID-shortened 6-6 season.
“It was a good feeling to have your sister on the field with you,” Jojo said. “Sometimes we hit our heads.”
Jayda plays as a freshman for Albertus Magnus. Jojo is figuring out where she will play next year.
“I definitely want to play in college,” she said.
Ramadanovic played basketball at Bunnell. She married Jojo’s mother, Patricia Crisante, three years ago. They’ve been together for over seven.
Knowing that Natalie had a basketball background, Patricia asked her to see Jojo try for Team Connecticut in sixth grade. She started coaching Jojo at Ansonia-Derby Travel. AAU followed, and now high school.
“I’ve never coached basketball without Jojo on my team,” Natalie said. “She has known me coaching since day 1 for seven years.”
How is it going?
“The best ever,” Natalie said. “It can be difficult to coach your child because you take everything home with you. Every practice, every game, but I wouldn’t change anything. It’s fantastic.
“I’m sure other parents who coach their kids know it’s hard to break up. Sometimes I find myself more of a parent on the couch. More of cheering, jumping off my seat and talking things I probably shouldn’t be talking when she’s getting a good shot. It’s a thin line. I think we did pretty well. I know it’s probably harder for her than it is for me. I think we have found a good balance.”
At the gym, Natalie is the coach. At home she is not the coach. That is where the balance is found. On the drive home from games or from practice, they talk about basketball. If it’s a good game, they usually watch the video while eating.
When asked if she finds herself telling her stepmother she doesn’t want to talk about hoops sometimes, Jojo answers no.
“Even after a bad game, she’s pretty good,” Natalie said, laughing at what happened next. “(Jayda), sometimes not so much.”
Mothers and fathers everywhere can tell.
Cancer ambushed Natalie Ramadanovic in August. She didn’t feel sick. She hadn’t felt anything wrong.
“I literally woke up one day and felt I had a problem,” she said. “Four days later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Step 3.”
Stage 3 breast cancer means the cancer has spread outside the tumor but has not spread to nearby organs. According to medical text, the five-year relative survival rate is 86 percent.
Natalie immediately began chemotherapy. She is being treated at Bridgeport Hospital, part of the Yale New Haven Health System. There are six rounds. Because the drugs are strong, there is three weeks between each round. The surgery is scheduled for February, followed by radiation.
“Cancer scared the hell out of me,” she said. “I lost my mother to cancer. She was 59. It’s just scary because when you’re done with this, you’ll have that five-year waiting period. Scans every three months, hoping it hasn’t come back or gone elsewhere.”
Otherwise healthy at 41, her prognosis is good. Her mental and emotional state is strong. She’s a fighter.
“I have a wonderful family, a 3-year-old grandson who keeps me going,” Ramadanovic said. “I have a great village. I have my players, my friends, my family; the city is behind me.”
The volleyball team honored her. The cheerleaders. Her basketball players wear pink laces in their sneakers. There’s pink in their warmups.
“Otherwise they are still attacking me as they normally would, which is exactly what I want,” Ramadanovic said.
A few months ago there was a head shaving party among family and friends. Although Jojo was there, she did not participate. This is an emotional time for the children.
In the weeks that followed, the players stopped by for a hat party and brought a gift basket containing the cap Ramadanovic wore on Friday.
“We’re all behind her,” Jojo said.
Ramadanovic, who continues to work from home for State Farm Insurance, says there are more good days than bad. The heaviest are the 10-12 days after the chemo. She will feel better and then it will be time for another round. Round five will start next week and the chemo will end in January.
“They say you should keep your life normal as much as possible,” Ramadanovic said. “It helps. It helps take your mind off things. When I’m at the gym I don’t think about it. I don’t want to be just the girl who has cancer.”
There is joy to be found in 3-year-old MJ. He is Jayda’s son and Jojo’s older sister, Gianna.
“He’s the little man in the house, the only man in the house,” Natalie said. “He’s Jojo’s buddy. She is more of a sister to him than an aunt. He just loves to watch Jojo and Jayda play.”
Last night at halftime at Seymour, MJ jumped onto the pitch and started dribbling around the ball.
“I’ve learned that there are so many things that aren’t important that I used to focus on and don’t focus on anymore,” Natalie said. “My family is the most important.
“Jojo and my relationship have clearly changed over the years as she got older. After I got sick, our relationship definitely got better. Not that it’s a shame, but it brought us closer. And that makes me happy.”
What did Josephine Sanchez learn?
“I’ve learned to get her back,” Jojo said. “If she needs anything, I’m there for her.”
The COVID-shortened schedule cut Sanchez’s career totals. Coming in this year, she needed 303 points to reach 1,000 and added 31 in a 1-1 start.
“I want to be there when Jojo reaches her 1000,” Ramadanovic said. “I’m sure she will. I definitely don’t want to miss that. I’ve already told my surgeon it’s basketball season.”
The operation is planned around Ansonia’s schedule. Cancer will have to wait.