By ARLENE JOHNS
When George Sodini unleashed his violent frustrations on women exercising Tuesday night at a Pittsburgh health club, he took the life of a Pitt-Johnstown graduate and star basketball player.
Jody R. Billingsley, 37, of Mount Lebanon, was a 1994 cum laude graduate with a degree in biology.
She was part of back-to-back regional Lady Cat championship teams and still is ranked 21st all-time with 515 career rebounds.
“We are deeply saddened to learn that we have lost one of our Pitt-Johnstown alumni family,” university President Jem Spectar said Wednesday in a statement. “Today, Jody is being remembered across campus as an exemplary student and caring individual, who was highly regarded by both her professors and classmates. After graduation, she remained an active alumna, enjoying a successful career in the health-care industry and making a positive difference in her community. We extend our deepest condolences to her family and friends.”
Jodi Gault of Oil City, who retired after coaching UPJ women’s basketball for 25 years, was Billingsley’s former coach and a friend.
The two hailed from the same area in Franklin County and met when Gault taught a YMCA camp. The eighth-grader made an impression on the coach who recruited her out of high school.
“She was a great kid on the court and a great kid off the court,” Gault said.
Despite the years that had passed, the former player and coach kept in touch.
“I just spoke to her last week,” Gault said. “She called for my birthday.”
Billingsley was loyal to her alma mater and the basketball program.
“She was one of the kids who always came back for every alumni event,” her former coach said.
Gault said Billingsley returned to campus in April for the induction of her former teammate, Mindy Young-Gagliardi, into the Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Fame.
“Her teammates are devastated,” Gault said.
“Some of them were vacationing together at Hilton Head, N.C., and they are flying back. That is what she meant to them.”
Chris Stumpf of Davidsville, UPJ chief of staff, remembered his former classmate and friend.
“She was an excellent student and a really genuinely nice person,” he said. “She was incredibly driven and worked very hard at athletics and academics.”
Her former coach recalled an incident in Billingsley’s senior year that exemplified her determined spirit.
While visiting her family during Christmas, the star player was in a traffic accident and struck her face on the steering wheel.
“Her face was unbelievable,” Gault said.
“But she had clearance from a doctor and wanted to play.”
The injuries were so severe that one of her teammates got sick when she saw Billingsley.
But Billingsley refused to be sidelined.
“I am playing,” she told her coach. “You can mask me, but I’m not missing a game.”
Gault said the news of the tragedy was hard to believe.
“We lost a good one,” she said. “We’re going to miss her.”