By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Anyone can see the numbers.
A fan of high school basketball can go online and see that Kennedy Campbell averaged 17.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game for the Cape May County Technical High School’s girls basketball team over the recently completed season.
Those excellent numbers, however, don’t nearly tell the story of what the senior guard went through to post them. And they certainly don’t tell anything about Campbell herself.
Campbell played the entire 2021-22 season with a heavy heart. Her father, Joseph, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer last October. He entered the hospital shortly thereafter on Christmas Eve and never left, passing away at the age of just 53 on Jan. 22.
All told, he lived just 92 days after being diagnosed with bladder cancer that eventually spread to his spine.
“(Doctors) told him they would discharge him if he could walk but never could,” Campbell said, her voice drifting with emotion.
Through it all, Campbell tried her best to play basketball. In some ways it was cathartic, allowing her mind to drift from thoughts about her ailing father, even if it was just for fleeting moments.
Making matters worse, Campbell could not visit her father in the hospital due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She never saw him in person again after he entered the hospital on Christmas Eve. Communication was done through Facetime, text messages, notes, cards and care packages.
“It was pretty hard,” said Campbell, a four-year starter for Cape May Tech. “My dad was my biggest role model. My freshman, sophomore and junior year, he wanted to be at my games as much as he could be. So then going through my senior year and not having him there was hard. I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk out with him on Senior Night and I knew not being at the games was devastating for him. I just knew I had to make my whole season for him.”
Campbell was brilliant for the Lady Hawks. On the day before her father passed away, she posted career highs of 30 points and 18 rebounds in a 49-43 loss to Cedar Creek. In her final high school game, she recorded 14 points, 10 rebounds and two steals in a 43-40 win over Lower Cape May, avenging a loss from earlier in the season.
“When we beat Lower Cape May, that was probably the ultimate game,” Campbell said. “We lost to them at Lower, so having that final win in the last game was huge. Games that go down to the wire like that are the most exciting.”
Cape May Tech finished 7-13 in 2021-22. The team was 7-8 with Campbell in the lineup. She missed five games after her father’s passing.
“I don’t know if anyone handles those situations the way people might expect them to,” Cape May Tech coach Amber Waddington said. “I lost my mom when I was 20 so I know about what she’s going through. I tried to be extra sensitive to her and make sure she could handle this the best she could. But I couldn’t imagine anyone handling something so difficult as well as she has.”
Campbell felt as if she had no choice.
“After my father died, being back on the court really helped me clear my head,” she said. “The team is kind of like my second family. So to be back with them and being able to play with them was a really great thing for me. It was like a huge distraction that really helped me.
“I was really satisfied with how it went, as bad as things were for me. It was probably the best year I’ve ever had, even though I went through what I did. It was a really good year for all of us. Even though a lot of the games were very challenging, we pushed through as much as we could.”
Campbell is a very well rounded 19-year-old and not just a basketball player. She is a member of the National Honor Society and is ranked among the top 10 in her class academically at Cape May Tech.
In the summer months, Campbell, a resident of West Cape May with her mother and her father’s partner for more than 20 years, Liz Dougherty, is a member of the Cape May Beach Patrol. An avid and talented paddle boarder, Campbell finished in first place in the paddleboard race at three different lifeguard competitions last summer.
“When I was a junior guard one of the guys on the beach patrol, Pat Kennedy, took some of us out paddling all the time,” Campbell said. “I fell in love with it and then I did it so much that I got pretty good at it.”
Campbell’s resume doesn’t end there. She serves as president of Cape May Tech’s Future Farmers of America chapter. She also graduated in January from the Cape May County Fire Academy with Firefighter 1 status and now serves as one of just two female volunteer firefighters in Cape May Point, where her father also served as a volunteer firefighter.
To say Campbell leads a rather active, service-oriented lifestyle would be an understatement.
But thanks to her father’s ordeal, Campbell has also learned to appreciate the small things as much as possible.
“Family is everything,” she said. “Even extended family you might not feel you’re close with. Through the experiences I had with my father, I learned how much family means to you and that you shouldn’t take anything for granted.
“You don’t want to look back and say, ‘I should have taken that picture,’ or ‘I should have done this with that person,’ or ‘I should have said, I love you, one more time.’ Having that support of family is amazing. Even if it’s not really your family like it is for me with the basketball team and the beach patrol and the fire department. When you have that many people in your life that you can consider family, that’s so important.”
Campbell plans to attend college in the fall but is not yet sure of which school she wants to attend, although she has taken a peek at Richard Stockton University. She plans to study biology or conservation and wildlife management, in the hopes of eventually becoming a conservation officer.
Her coach at Cape May Tech has no doubts her player is headed in the right direction, no matter which path she may choose.
“I think something like this that she went through with her father matures you very quickly,” Waddington said. “I think that happened with her. She went out there and was playing to make him proud and I think everything she does she’s going to do it to make him proud.
“She was one of the best teammates we’ve ever had. She stepped up huge for us this year as a player and as a leader. I think she stepped up huge because she wanted to do it for her dad.”