Miami’s Meier draws strength from players, 82-year-old mom in Elite Eight run

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined in 2010.
  • Graduate of the University of Florida.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — In the moments after Miami beat Villanova to advance to the Elite Eight in the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament Friday, Hurricanes coach Katie Meier made her way across the court and walked behind press row, looking into the stands. “Where’s mom?” she asked.

Phyllis Skolak made her way to the front row and shared an emotional embrace with her daughter. Over a playing and coaching career that has spanned five decades, Meier had never made it this far in an NCAA tournament. The one person who stood behind her all those years was her mom, who picked up the pieces after a terrible tragedy and helped Meier become who she is today.

There are tears as they hug. Of course, there are tears. Meier never knew her biological father, who died in a plane crash before she was born. Phyllis was 27 at the time, pregnant with Meier, raising three kids under the age of 4. Yet she found a way to push through, and in time married Howie Skolak. Their blended family had eight kids and a home filled with love — and sports.

Now 82, Phyllis Skolak had to be there to watch her daughter, on the precipice of making history for the University of Miami. “It is hard to find the words,” Phyllis said afterward. “Kate’s worked so hard. She deserves all this. This is so special. It’s just remarkable. I’m nothing but proud.”

What got Meier really emotional Friday was not having Howie Skolak there. At age 93, he was unable to make the trip and watched from back home in Illinois. Meier sent him a text before the game.

“I said, ‘Dad, I love you. I can’t believe you’re not here, but thanks for letting mom come,'” Meier told on Friday night, her eyes welling with tears in a quiet moment after the 70-65 win. “He’s a pretty special guy, and the two of them in the 1970s decided to merge and become a family through tragedy. We’ve just got a lot of strength. That’s who I am.”

That was on full display this season, one that started with Meier serving a three-game suspension in November as part of an NCAA investigation into impermissible contact between a booster and two players Miami ended up signing.

In February, the NCAA announced the result of that investigation, placing Miami on probation after concluding women’s basketball coaches inadvertently arranged the contact between Miami alum John Ruiz and Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twins who transferred to the Hurricanes from Fresno State.

Meier — whose 9-seed Hurricanes are the highest seed remaining in the women’s bracket and face No. 3 seed LSU on Sunday — did not want to discuss the NCAA case, nor did she want to make their run to the Elite Eight about her. “It’s not about me,” she insisted. “I never want it to be about me. I love this team. They have been working, they have been faithful, they have been loyal.”

But those cheering for her in the stands, tears streaming down their faces after the win, believe this victory is very much about her — and the work she has put in to get Miami to its first Elite Eight in history. Nearly all of Meier’s siblings came to Greenville. Her wife, Hunter, was there, beaming. So was her coach at Duke, Debbie Leonard, who recalled Meier recording a triple-double in the first NCAA tournament game she played in.

“Katie gave confidence to her teammates when she was playing at Duke, she gives confidence to these players,” Leonard said. “She has gotten these kids on a roll. She’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes after what happened. You don’t want to hear what I have to say about that.”

Though Meier didn’t want to talk about the NCAA investigation, she seemed to allude to it in her postgame news conference when asked about the way her team has handled adversity from the very start of the season.

“I just am so grateful for the toughness. They’re really super women,” Meier said. “My team, they’re good-hearted, honorable women. They are wonderful people. But if you try to come after us, we’re going to rise up.

“Maybe that came from some of this. If that’s the case, then they had my back, so good for them. And let’s go, because we have got a spine. I’m grateful to them. I have their backs, they have my back, and we feel like we deserve this.”

Meier is in her 18th season at Miami, a proud program with a proud women’s basketball history and tradition ignited by former coach Ferne Labati, a University of Miami Sports Hall of Famer who spent 15 years with the Hurricanes and was their all-time winningest coach.

That is, until Meier surpassed her. But never until today had anyone wearing orange and green ever felt what they felt. In addition to her family and friends in attendance, Miami women’s basketball alums showed up to cheer on the program, too. In fact, they surprised Meier and the team with an eight minute pregame video with special messages reminding them not only about the opportunity in front of them, but how meaningful it is to be here, in this moment.

As Meier talked about that video from her postgame news conference, her mother and wife sat in the back beaming. When Meier walked off the podium and into the hallway, she said a quick hello to them before apologizing and saying, “Mom, I’ve got to go scout.”

Meier disappeared down the tunnel.

There’s more work to do.

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