Though the older sibling by two years, Kaitlynn Pacholke said she always wanted to emulate her baby sister.
Neena Pacholke — 3-point specialist, TV news anchor, Packers fan, cat lover and coffee fanatic — elicited that kind of radiance.
“She was just like a little ball of sunshine, and her smile was massive,” Kaitlynn said Monday morning.
“And she could just make you feel like you were the most important person, whether she knew you for five minutes or her whole life. ... We would be out at coffee and someone would recognize her, and she would lighten them up the way she’s made me feel the last 27 years.”
A former USF women’s basketball player who helped lead Freedom High to the program’s only state tournament berth in 2013, Pacholke died Saturday at age 27. Her sister confirmed Pacholke, who was working as a weekday-morning news anchor in Wisconsin and was engaged to be married, died by suicide.
“My sister was by far the happiest person I thought I knew,” said Kaitlynn, an assistant women’s basketball coach at Southern Mississippi and former Freedom High teammate.
“Sometimes you just don’t know what people are going through, no matter how much you think you know someone. ... My sister had access to every resource you could imagine. She was loved by everybody. She was so good at her job.”
Pacholke, who lettered three seasons at USF (2013-2016), cultivated her Packers devotion while working at ABC television affiliate WAOW in Wausau, Wisconsin. While living there, she also had developed a passion for snow skiing, Kaitlynn said.
A post on the WAOW.com website read: “The entire team here at News 9 are absolutely devastated by the loss as we know so many others are as well. Neena loved this community and the people who lived here. She was a kind person with a big heart and a contagious smile and we will miss her greatly.”
A point guard and team captain at Freedom, Pacholke averaged nearly four assists a game as a senior for the Patriots, coached by her mom, Laurie. The team, whose roster included no fewer than three players who would play at the Division I level, finished 25-4 and fell to Gainesville Buchholz in the Class 7A state semifinals in Lakeland.
Prior to that season, she and her sister — also a point guard — had played two years together for their mom.
Pacholke spurned small-college offers to remain in Tampa and play for USF. She appeared in only a handful of games in three seasons with the Bulls but was part of two teams that reached the NCAA Tournament.
Former Bulls teammate Micah Kroll, who began playing with Pacholke at the AAU level at age 10, said her longtime friend possessed a big-picture perspective and a willingness to look at “the positive side of everything.”
“She just lightened everyone’s mood, put a smile on everyone’s face, and she was always there for us,” said Kroll, an intensive-care nurse at Mease Countryside Hospital. “Any one of us, she would drop anything and be there for us.”
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In a text message, longtime USF coach Jose Fernandez said the Bulls basketball family was “devastated and deeply saddened” by the loss of Pacholke.
She is survived by her mom, sister, fiance and father, Aaron.
“She just radiated love and positivity, and she just cared so much about pouring into other people, and always put other people first,” Kaitlynn Pacholke said. “I think she did that at the expense of not caring about herself.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.
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