One Tough Cookie.
That’s what it said on the pink T-shirts worn by about 30 of coach Cookie Stevens’ former volleyball players, who surprised her this past Friday night by showing up at the University of Miami’s gym wearing those tops.
The ex-players gathered inside the Knight Sports Complex about 90 minutes before UM’s match against North Carolina State, where Stevens is now serving as an assistant to head coach Linda Hampton-Keith.
Stevens, who was told this past summer she had won her battle with breast cancer, was greeted with the cheers of her former players, all wearing those shirts in her honor, and the tears flowed.
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“I was super surprised,” Stevens said. “I had no idea. They did a good job of keeping a secret. I understand my husband was in on it, and my head coach was in on it, too.
“It just filled my heart. I’m very blessed to have all these people come to see me, and some of them flew in from Utah, Atlanta and different places.”
One Tough Cookie — those words are indeed fitting when describing Stevens, 60, who previously was the head coach at FIU, Miami Dade College and Westminster Christian.
Not even cancer had a chance against Stevens, who on Friday night coached her first volleyball game in Miami in more than a decade, since leaving FIU in 2004.
“She’s extremely inspirational,” said Vivian Viera-Edisis, a middle blocker on the Stevens-coached 1986 MDC team that won the program’s first national title.
“Cookie was very hard on us because she set our expectations high. She knew when to push us and when to ease up. She molded me into the person I am today and built my self-esteem as a woman. It was more than just volleyball.”
There are at least 25 former Stevens players who have gone on to coaching, and many more have raised children who have taken up the sport.
In the latter category is Ani McDermott, who played for Stevens at MDC. McDermott’s daughter, Brooke, is on the UM team that knocked off North Carolina State in straight sets on Friday.
“I was rooting for Brooke, obviously, but also for Cookie,” Ani McDermott said after UM beat a team that had started the night in first place in the ACC. “Cookie is a fantastic coach and a fantastic person.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami since age one, Dulcie Stevens has almost always been “Cookie” to her Puerto Rican mother, her Cuban father and just about anyone she encountered. (In Spanish, “dulce” means a sweet treat such as a cookie.)
At 6-1, volleyball was practically made for Stevens, who was an All-American middle blocker at MDC and at San Diego State.
Stevens and her husband Peter passed on the love of volleyball to their two sons, who were both phenomenal players — Tyler at Southern Cal and Sam at Ohio State.
And even though Cookie now lives in North Carolina, she’s the quintessential South Floridian, with roots seemingly everywhere, including Nova Southeastern University, where she earned her master’s degree in physical education.
Her coaching career has been stellar. In 16 years coaching MDC, she won two national titles and, at one point, strung together eight consecutive state championships. At FIU, she led the Panthers to their first ever NCAA Tournament, sweeping Central Florida in the first round before losing to Florida.
After FIU, Stevens went to Southern Cal, where she helped the Trojans make 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths as well as three Final Fours.
In 2015, Stevens left Southern Cal, returning to Miami to care for her mother, who is in her 90s. But in March of 2016, Stevens discovered a lump in her breast. She soon had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
“My husband told me: ‘You were slashed, burned and poisoned, and you still came out on top,’” Stevens said.
Viera-Edisis said she’s not surprised Stevens survived.
“If anybody could fight cancer, it would be Cookie Stevens,” she said. “She cut her hair instead of the disease choosing. She took control.”
On July 11, 2017, Stevens received the “all clear” sign from her doctors. She had defeated cancer and was in negotiations to buy land in Indiana, where she and Peter would build a house and be close to Sam and their granddaughter, Elayna.
But then fate intervened once again.
On July 12, one day after doctors had given her the great news, Stevens got a call from one of her former assistant coaches at FIU.
Hampton-Keith, now the second-year head coach at N.C. State, had an opening on her staff and wanted a veteran assistant she could trust.
“I owe my whole career to Cookie,” Hampton-Keith said. “She hired me at FIU when I was 20-whatever years old. It was my first college job. She became a mentor for me.
“When we had the opening, the only person I knew would be awesome was Cookie. So I called her and said, ‘Please, please, please think about this!’”
Stevens called off the deal in Indiana, and with her mother well taken-care-of in a nursing home, she took the job.
“I think it was perfect timing for both parties,” Hampton-Keith said. “She has added so much value to our staff, and the players love her. It is very heartwarming.”
Stevens has worked primarily with middle blockers and setters on defense and blocking, and the Wolfpack (14-8, 9-2 ACC) is having one of the best seasons in program history.
Again, no surprise.
“Being the strong woman she is, ,” Viera-Edisis said, “she’s not one to give up.”
One Tough Cookie.