Cortland's Rachel Tower now has Dragons in her Family
When asked to name their closest friends, many people will identify college roommates, childhood playmates, or maybe even a significant other.
SUNY Cortland Dragons club basketball president Rachel Tower answers the question a bit differently. She has a whole village of best friends — her entire family.
Growing up, a typical day for Rachel might consist of baking pies with Grandma in the afternoon, then going for a swim with her cousins at the family camp, followed by a family dinner in the evening. Family surrounded Rachel at all times.
Everywhere Rachel has gone in life, she has tried to bring an element of family. From choosing her college, to deciding on a major, to creating a community in college, Rachel has thought about family first.
With her quiet yet firm leadership, Rachel possesses all the tools to build a family wherever she goes. Anyone who has been in Rachel’s compassionate, enthusiastic, and calm presence long enough knows she will make them feel at home.
Home (schooled) life
From elementary school through high school, Rachel and her siblings would wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, get ready for school, and then - head downstairs.
From there, class began in their basement school room.
Gretchen Tower, the matriarch of the Tower family, homeschooled Rachel and her four siblings Katie, Greg, Megan, and Sarah.
“Being homeschooled made all of us close because we were home together during the day when we would’ve been at school in different grades,” Rachel said. “[Homeschooling was] definitely a bit chaotic, but awesome as well.”
“I am so thankful I got to spend so much time with my children while they were growing up,” Gretchen said. “Homeschooling gave us all a special bond.” Homeschooling also gave the Tower family the ability to have a Catholic education.
“My family and my faith are two huge things for my life,” Rachel said
Born and raised in Waterville, New York, Rachel classified herself as a small-town girl. But with a population of 1,700 residents, Waterville is not even big enough to be classified as a town.
It’s a village.
In this village, Rachel grew up surrounded by family: her maternal and paternal grandparents, her aunts, her uncles, and her cousins all lived within a few miles from Rachel’s house. Rachel also shares a next-level, from-the-womb connection with one family member: her twin sister, Sarah.
“We balance each other out nicely as Rachel is more reserved and diplomatic and I am a little more blunt and straightforward,” Sarah said. “She helps me to keep my cool and I help her to advocate for herself.”
Rachel’s parents aimed to instill the characteristics of hard work, commitment, and responsibility into their children. Rachel took these lessons to heart. While she never has had the loudest voice in the room, her family and friends always have known Rachel to be dependable and mature. Her family raised Rachel to feel loved, confident, and compassionate.
“I have the best family ever,” Rachel said. “I guess I’m probably biased.”
When Rachel neared high school and started taking basketball seriously, she had a decision to make — stay homeschooled or attend a public school. A now-rescinded New York State rule prevented homeschooled students from playing sports at public schools. A public school team would have allowed Rachel to compete against better opponents. Yet she also loved being homeschooled and did not want to change that.
Beginning in seventh grade, Rachel and Sarah had played for the varsity team at New Life Christian School, a private high school with about 25 students. Ultimately, the "Twin Towers" as the sisters were nicknamed, decided to remain at New Life for their high school years and stay homeschooled.
“We didn’t want to ditch our team at New Life,” Rachel said. “We already had our little family community on that team, so why switch that up.”
Rachel, a six-foot-tall center, scored over 1,300 points, blocked over 600 shots, and pulled down over 1,000 rebounds in her six-year career. Sarah, also six-feet tall, shared similar statistics.
“They were the hardest workers on the team,” said Andy Ali, Rachel and Sarah’s high school coach. “They would run and run and run, chasing down people to block shots.”
“[I always] play with faith,” she said about her motivations to play basketball. “[I play] for the glory of God and for him, not me.”
While Rachel was the more introverted sister and Sarah the more extroverted, both sisters agreed that once they stepped onto the court, their personalities switched. Rachel played aggressively and passionately, whereas Sarah played more reservedly.
Although Rachel dominated high school basketball at New Life, she felt unsure of how her talent compared to other players at bigger schools. She remained satisfied with her decision to stay homeschooled, albeit a bit doubtful of her true abilities as a basketball player.
Home “Cort” advantage
As Rachel and Sarah looked into colleges, they had a decision to make. Stay together or separate?
For the first time in their lives, Rachel and Sarah decided to split up. Although they prioritized their relationship over everything growing up, they knew they needed to discover themselves individually, too. “We decided that maybe we needed to learn to become a little more independent of one another,” Sarah said.
Rachel knew she had a talent and a passion for basketball. Although small, out-of-state schools recruited Rachel to play on their college teams, they didn’t feel like home.
Rachel ultimately selected SUNY Cortland, a college in upstate New York with around 6,000 students. Rachel chose to study physical education, following in the footsteps of her paternal grandmother. She knew Cortland had a club basketball team, and she hoped to play for the Dragons in the fall. Sarah settled on Keuka College, an hour and 40 minute drive away from her best friend.
Separating from Sarah was not the only change. For the first time in her life, Rachel lost the security of her nearby grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings. Now, she had to build a community for herself.
“I was nervous that I wouldn’t fit in because I was homeschooled,” she said.
Rachel knew she wanted to find genuine and loving friendships similar to the relationships she had at home. Fortunately, she quickly found a close friend in her roommate, Joana Vasquez.
“I was so used to having Sarah do everything with me,” Rachel remarked. “So freshman year, [Joana and I] did everything together. We relied on each other to grow.”
Rachel dove into college life head first, immersing herself by joining multiple clubs to try to meet people. She joined the physical education club and the Newman club. She also wanted to join the club basketball team.
In Rachel's freshman year of tryouts for club basketball, twenty-five women vied for the four available roster spots. Rachel made it through the first round of tryouts, and then the second, and then the third.
As she waited to find out the final results, she visited Sarah at Keuka College. She remembered sitting on Sarah’s bed when she got an email. She opened it and discovered she made the team. The two sisters celebrated, hugging and jumping up and down in the small space of Sarah’s dorm room. To Rachel, the moment felt even more special because she shared it with her best friend.
Building her family of Dragons
Rachel instantly made an impact on the team, starting and playing the entire game as a freshman. With her sweet personality off the court and her aggressiveness on the court, and two more years of hard work and dedication to her program, Rachel’s team nominated her club president for her senior year, 2021-2022.
As president, Rachel scheduled games and referees, planned for travel, and completed paperwork, as well as created practice plans, led practice, and coordinated plays, press breaks, defenses, and played.
Rachel dedicated herself to her program, but quickly returns the credit to her teammates. She cited the help and support of her vice president, treasurer, and secretary as some of the main factors in Cortland’s success.
Her goal as president was to build a team that felt like a family.
One of the most important roles Rachel held as president was hosting tryouts.
“I not only paid attention to [the players’] skills but their character because to me that’s important,” she said.
In addition to recruiting high-character players, she wanted to lead the team by making everyone feel valued and comfortable. As a result, Rachel created a culture of fun, hard work, and teamwork. Fortunately, her teammates were both great people and talented players.
“Our team needed someone who would be as reliable and enthusiastic about being the best team possible,” said Kayla Syrbe, vice president. “One thing I admire about Rachel is that she never doubted our success and held high expectations for each of us.”
“[From the beginning] our team blended well together,” Rachel said. “We’re all really good friends.”
Cortland’s chemistry off the court led to success on the court. The Dragons finished the season 10-5, putting them in the position to potentially make it to the National Club Basketball Association (NCBBA) championship tournament.
Returning the love
Cortland lost their regional tournament game to Syracuse by one point, so they needed an at-large bid to be invited to the tournament.
To Cortland’s disappointment, Cal-Poly received the bid. Then, two weeks before the tournament, Cal-Poly dropped out, leaving one spot open.
“When I got the call we made it to Nationals, I started jumping up and down,” Rachel said. “I texted my team ‘WE GOT THE BID’ and we were going crazy in our group chat.”
That night, Rachel received another phone call. This call, however, sent her world crashing down. Rachel’s dad told her she should come home. Her maternal grandfather’s pancreatic cancer had worsened and her maternal grandmother had had a stroke.
Rachel rushed back to Waterville to be with her family. Meanwhile, with two weeks until the NCBBA tournament, Cortland did not know if they would have their trusted coach, player, and leader.
But Rachel’s absence made their mission crystal clear.
“Our team dedicated each practice that week to Rachel and her family,” said Kayla, Cortland’s vice president. “All she would want was for us to play our hearts out when she couldn’t.”
Rachel’s grandparents both passed away.
“With my grandparents passing away, it took an extreme amount of faith and my family being there for each other,” she said.
But Rachel knew that she had a responsibility to be there for her family of Dragons. The night of her grandparents’ funeral, Rachel drove back to Cortland.
“Even though I just went through so much sadness, my team was there cheering me up,” she said. “It meant everything to me.”
Cortland lost to Boston College by eight points in the first round of the tournament. Regardless of the outcome, Rachel felt proud of her team. Rachel and a few of her teammates made the All-Star Game, and other Cortland players made the skills and three-point competitions.
During some of the toughest weeks of Rachel’s life, her teammates returned the love she constantly poured into them.
Next year, Rachel will continue to play on the play club team while pursuing her masters in health education. She will be stepping down from her presidency to give another member of the team the opportunity to lead.
From her home life to her collegiate club career, Rachel has proven to herself that she can have it all. Whether it is her biological family or her teammates at Cortland, Rachel pours love, laughter, and dedication into everyone around her. She has laid the foundation for every family she has been a part of, and as a result, she builds a community wherever she goes.
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