Features for espnW.com:
How far can Jordin Canada take UCLA? (11.9.16):
The Bruins knew what was coming. Especially point guard Jordin Canada, who hurried to the baseline.”On the line,” said coach Cori Close, signaling suicide sprints toward the end of practice last week. A male practice player had slipped past three UCLA players to drain a corner jumper. Men’s players, 26. UCLA, 9. It didn’t matter that the No. 9-ranked Bruins had pounded NAIA Westmont 80-45 in an exhibition the night before. “I want every possession to be played with a sense of urgency,” said Close, who guided the Bruins to the Sweet 16 last season for the first time since 1999. Canada, who walked across her family’s living-room floor at 8 months old before having ever crawled, doesn’t know any gear other than all-out. The junior All-American dropped 15 points, 5 assists, 5 steals, 4 rebounds and 1 block against Westmont — even crashing into her team’s bench to save a ball in the blowout. The 5-foot-6 playmaker often flies up the court, throwing no-look passes and twisting ankles with in-and-out crossovers. Ryan Finney of UCLA Communications said he struggles to live-tweet games because he runs out of adjectives to describe Canada’s flair. “She’s a human highlight reel,” Finney said. But what Canada really wants to be is a leader. She dribbled a ball during the recent suicide sprints, and instead of stopping at the baseline like her teammates, she continued to sprint a few feet beyond the line. She still beat everyone. “That is the difference of Jordin between being a really great, flashy, fun point guard to now being an elite point guard that has a chance to be an Olympian,” Close said. “It’s those inches that you see her go every day. “It’s not her talent; it’s not even her skill. It’s that she’s developing a beyond-the-line mentality.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The truth about juco basketball, from players to coaches to pros (3.9.17):
The plaques glimmer across the walls in Rigby’s office at Troy. There is a framed newspaper clipping from 2011 when she guided her previous team, Pensacola State College, to the junior college nationals for the first time since 1985. When Rigby looks, she sees more than wins. She sees her former players, beaming and screaming, raising fists to the sky. Women whose ankles she taped, whose uniforms she washed, whose English papers she glanced over. Women she told day after day: You will become a college graduate.Women who eventually became four-year graduates. Division I players. Teachers. Pro ballers. Social workers. Coaches.”There have been ups and downs, but they persisted,” said Rigby, who guided Troy to the NCAA tournament last season for the second time in school history and regularly recruits juco players. “A lot were first in their family to get a college degree.” Many women have thrived from juco. Danielle Adams (Jefferson College) led Texas A&M to a national title and played for the San Antonio Silver Stars; former Mystics guard Shannon Bobbitt (Trinity Valley) helped Tennessee to two national titles. Legends like Yolanda Griffith (Palm Beach State), Sheryl Swoopes (South Plains College) and Saudia Roundtree (Kilgore College) all starred in the pros. But an alternate image, one of the troubled juco player, flawed academically or behaviorally, is often the one that permeates. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Victoria Vivians drives Mississippi State to best start in school history (1.20.17):
Victoria Vivians could hardly see. The Mississippi State junior scurried across the court to shake free of USC’s Sadie Edwards, who was face-guarding her in the second quarter of a game last month in Los Angeles. But Vivians, a Mississippi native whose 5,745 high school career points rank second all time nationally, is accustomed to finding holes to escape defenders’ hands. The 6-foot-1 guard paused in the corner beyond the 3-point line, a step from colliding with courtside seats along the Galen Center’s ruby-red sideline. With range out of most players’ reach, she drained the trey, cool and easy, as if it were a layup, knotting the score. She wasn’t done. Vivians caught the ball beyond the arc, this time in motion, aligning every muscle from her toes to her fingertips. With equal parts strength and balance, she levitated to pour in a shot. “It’s just automatic,” said senior guard Dominique Dillingham, Vivians’ roommate. “It’s a knack she has. You either have it or you don’t.” A SCORER IS BORN. The clock is set to four minutes. Teams split to maroon vs. white for a 5-on-5, full-court drill called “Bulldog.” The goal? Make as many shots as possible, as quickly as possible. If a shot is drained at 14 seconds on the shot clock, for example, that team is awarded 14 points. No stopping. No puking. No excuse-making. Vivians seizes the ball as if she’s in the fourth quarter of an SEC title game, rallying her teammates — we got this, keep pushing — draining last-second bombs to win. She always has to win. “You gotta be confident in yourself. Without confidence, you’re not going to be able to do anything,” said Vivians, whose No. 4 Bulldogs join UConn as the only unbeaten teams in the nation. “When I go out, I’m just a motor. I just like to run and score.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Go-to freshman Khalia Lanier transforms her harshest critic into her secret weapon (11.30.16):
Khalia Lanier wouldn’t be denied. Flying around the court for USC — up 23-20 in the third set of a back-and-forth game against No. 8 UCLA last Saturday — the freshman outside hitter knew she needed to make a play. Wearing her customary yellow headband, the 6-foot-2 Lanier rose up as if she had springs in her sneakers, and smacked the ball down with such grace that the kill was as sublime as it was powerful. “Khalia walks on the court and she just allows everybody else to know that there’s a go-to player, that if we get in trouble, we can give her the ball and she will do it,” said USC coach Mick Haley, whose Trojans (18-13) eventually lost the five-set thriller. Lanier had 26 kills on a career-high 71 attacks, 10 digs, two service aces and a block. Two days later, she was one of two freshmen named to the All-Pac-12 team. The 2020 Olympics aren’t out of reach.”What she doesn’t get is she has this tremendous ability to lead a team,” Haley said. “She’s the real deal.” Every bone in 13-year-old Khalia Lanier’s body threatened to snap. Before practice for her club team in Scottsdale, Arizona — a team that seemed allergic to winning — Lanier’s teammate, smiling and giggling, bragged about a hair bow she made in school earlier that day. “I can’t believe that we have not won ONE game,” Lanier exploded. “And you’re talking about a BOW that you made in school!” Her coach blew the whistle. “Khalia, get out.” “We go home, and I said, ‘That’s not your job. That’s what the coach says,’ ” said Lanier’s mother, Rose Lanier, who made her daughter apologize to the team.”She’ll do everything she can to win,” Rose said. “She’ll figure it out.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Ashlee Burdg makes blocks, buckets and and buzz playing on boys varsity team in Oklahoma (3.2.17):
Ashlee Burdg huddled into Room 2 at Billings High School (Oklahoma) at 9:30 a.m. for a team meeting. She stared ahead at her teammates, then down at the floor. The normally bubbly Burdg, the only girl on the all-boys squad, couldn’t muster a joke this time. It was Friday, Nov. 1, hours away from Billings’ first game of the 2016-17 season against Mid Moore, a Christian school near Oklahoma City. Billings coach Daniel Long, who teaches science, drew a deep breath. “[Mid Moore’s] parents don’t want their boys playing against a girl,” Long said. “It’s not in their religious beliefs.” Burdg offered to sit out when she learned Mid Moore threatened to forfeit if she played. The boys fumed. To them, she’s just another baller. Sure, the 5-foot-6 shooting guard’s blonde-hair — — sometimes uninhibited by a hair-band — flows much longer than her teammates, but that’s about the only difference. She rains 3-pointers. She dives for loose balls. She challenges 6-2 boys under the rim. “Ashlee’s part of the team and she’s going to play with us or we ain’t going to play at all,” junior Eldren Darger said. “She’s earned her place on the team. That’d be like playing without one of us.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Texas recruit Lexi Sun could be NCAA volleyball’s next big star (12.16.16):
The Red Zone refused to relent. Energizing its home gym in Solana Beach, California, Santa Fe Christian’s student section jumped and shimmied and yelled “Bounce! Bounce! Bounce!” before each Long Beach Poly serve in the first round of the state Open Division playoffs last month. SFC’s 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter, Lexi Sun, the nation’s top recruit who recently signed with Texas, logged a forceful kill in the second set that landed into the Zone. Her classmates clawed to get a fingertip on the ball, fighting for position the way fans at a concert vie for a pop star’s tossed hairband. Sun, the 2016 ALL-USA Player of the Year, kept her cool as Poly fought back, 24-22. Sun smiled, patted a teammate on the back and, in a blink, threw down two monster kills with ease. “It’s like she floats and then a cannon goes off,” said Brad Sandusky, SFC’s sports information coordinator, shaking his head at the scorer’s table. Behind Sun’s 25 kills and three blocks, SFC defeated Long Beach Poly 25-21, 26-24, 25-22. Sun, who has attended the school since kindergarten, looked back at the net. She has spent hours here perfecting her swing. “Things aren’t just going to be given to you,” Sun said. “You have to truly work day in and day out for the things you want. You can’t take days off. You can’t take plays off.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
From laid-back setting, San Diego plots tournament upheaval (11.29.16):
The University of San Diego is quiet, almost still. The water of nearby Mission Bay is clear, and the breeze is comforting — not too hot, not too cold. Bikers pedal leisurely toward downtown, just a few miles away. But inside Jenny Craig Pavilion, less than three minutes into volleyball practice on a recent afternoon, players are shouting and sprinting, smashing balls and smacking hands. Each swing is a statement, each leap a challenge. Hustle is as intrinsic to the Toreros as the relentless traffic is on nearby I-5. Each drill is a competition, from stretching — who can be the most flexible? — to “Plus 5” — who can score five consecutive points against a double block? Hitting errors result in a loss of a point; keeping the ball in play results in a wash. “People are upset, yelling, really, really getting into it,” said former USD star Alaysia Brown. “Whoever beats you won’t let you forget.” That’s because San Diego, a school of less than 6,000 undergraduates competing against BCS schools more than triple its size, has national championship dreams. The volleyball program will make its 20th NCAA tournament appearance this week. And after two unexpected losses to unranked Portland and Pepperdine earlier this month, San Diego (24-5) is aiming for a breakthrough. The unseeded Toreros, who climbed as high as No. 5 this season, face Baylor (21-11) in the first round Friday. This season’s motto is emblazoned on the locker room’s whiteboard: CHAMPION OR CHUMP. THE CHOICE IS YOURS. “It’s in our hands,” junior setter Kristen Gengenbacher said. “We have the ability to go out there and take it and fight for it.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
With new liver and old fire, Savannah Rennie ready to return to Cal volleyball court (10.7.16):
Savannah Rennie had just one wish on this recent September night, and she whispered it so her ears alone could hear. “Get me on the court right now.” Her first volleyball practice without any restrictions in more than a year was still hours away. She’d be able to sprint. She’d be able to jump. She’d be able to hit. She’d be able to dive. The 19-year-old redshirt freshman outside hitter at Cal would be able to be herself again. Savannah, the volleyball player. It was an identity stolen from her as she battled congenital hepatic fibrosis with portal hypertension — a rare disease that took her off the court and threatened to take her life. A successful liver transplant saved her. Not even four months had passed since the operation, but Rennie felt no fear as she stepped onto the court at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. She never has. Not when she taught herself to ice skate at 2 years old and to swim and ride a bike at 3. Not when she struck out boys in baseball and craved the bat when the bases were loaded with two outs. “She’d be the fireman that runs toward the fire,” said T. Pat Stubbs, Rennie’s former Del Mar (California) Little League all-star coach. A Cal teammate set the ball to Rennie in hitting lines. She rose up, took her first swing and smashed the ball down. For Rennie, who could play in her first Division I match when the Golden Bears host Utah on Friday, the hit was more than a hit. It was freedom. “I am where I am today because I’m strong enough,” Rennie said. “I was given a second chance and now I’m going to make the most of it.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
With UCLA libero Taylor Formico, consider it dug (9.21.16):
Taylor Formico was determined to beat her three brothers, two older and one younger, in any sport growing up. She threw fastball after fastball in her backyard batting cage trying to match their speed. She went toe-to toe with them in weekly soccer games and sprinting races. She even tried to bounce the highest on the family’s trampoline, competing for the best backflips and front flips. When she was 5, she watched her brothers climb a 10-foot tetherball post in the backyard. Formico huffed and puffed, falling short each time. But she kept climbing. “I stayed up all night until 3 a.m., until I climbed to the top,” Formico said. “I screamed for my mom in the middle of the night. She was angry I was out there, but I had to have proof.” Formico, now a 5-foot-7 senior libero for No. 9 UCLA (9-1 overall), doesn’t know any other gear than overdrive. “She is the absolute heart of our team,” senior outside hitter Jordan Anderson said. Just ask Formio’s cousin, three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings: “She’s just relentless,” Walsh Jennings said. “She’ll run through fire or a brick wall to get a ball up for her team.” Not even a torn labrum in her hip could keep Formico, the 2015 Pac-12 Libero of the Year, off the court. Playing hurt for the past three seasons, she didn’t miss a game, a weight-lifting session, a conditioning session or a team meeting — even when she had to Uber to campus because it was too painful to walk, even when she had to punch her hip in practice to push through a practice drill, even when her leg went numb during games. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The high-flying, bone-breaking, medal-seeking women of BMX (8.16.16):
Alise Post and Brooke Crain line up their bikes at the gate. Donning navy jerseys with red-and-white sleeves and covered in stars and stripes, the BMX riders are ready to launch themselves from an 8-meter-high ramp. Here, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, lies one of the toughest tracks in the world; its jumps and turns dare riders to conquer or crash. “The slightest error, you’re on the ground with a punctured lung,” says Jamie Staff, director of BMX for USA Cycling. Heads down, backs straight, hands tight — hands really, really tight — Post, 25 and Crain, 23, don’t have time for fear. Two and a half seconds later, the riders who will represent Team USA at the Rio Olympics starting Wednesday, zoom down the track, bouncing over jumps like billy goats and hanging in the air as if they won’t come down. Less than a minute later, they’ve completed the outrageous course. “I think everybody in this sport is somewhat of an adrenaline junkie,” Post says. “You get addicted to that rush of it. That’s what keeps you coming back. That little bit of unknown, and that bit of fear, it’s always going to be there. But that’s the thrill of it.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Coaches take aim at heartache and hardship of early recruiting (5.12.16):
Dashing out of her house on a Friday last December, Molly Sanders couldn’t think; she could only run. To her high school’s lacrosse field. To the mall. To Starbucks, where she cried for three hours. To her friend’s house. The 16-year-old ignored calls and texts from her parents, her sister, her friends, her coaches. She didn’t want to talk about why she left home. Why she ditched a recruiting showcase scheduled for that weekend. Why she wanted to abandon lacrosse, the sport she had always loved. “It kind of felt like I was trapped in a box and everything was pushing in on me,” said Sanders, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity. Sanders dreamed of playing Division I lacrosse and had received some recruiting interest as a freshman, but pressure consumed her when no offers came in. Many of her teammates had verbally committed. Uncommitted at the start of her sophomore year, Sanders felt more than behind; she felt doomed. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
From her backyard playground to X Games, make way for 11-year-old skateboarder Brighton Zeuner (6.1.16):
Watch out. An 11-year-old girl laces up her worn, black Vans. She replaces her teal beanie with a helmet. She slips on elbow and knee pads. Her feet cling to her skateboard, a.k.a Richard, whom she takes everywhere. She stands at the edge of the course at Alga Norte Park in Carlsbad, California, in late May, and the boys clear out. Brighton Zeuner takes off, whirling around the bowl’s curves, creating her own rhythm as her long, blonde hair catches the wind. Ignoring a headache from the tightening of her teal braces and shoulder pain from a recent fall, Zeuner enters a flow and rehearses trick after trick. “On my board, I feel free,” she says with her eyes sparkling, her smile as big as the bowl she’s skating in. “This is something I can’t live without.” Everyone here knows her name. She’s the youngest female athlete to be invited to the X Games. She’ll be skating against women twice her age on Saturday in the Women’s Skateboard Park competition.”She’s a 4-foot-8 powerhouse,” says skateboarding veteran Jeff Grosso, 48, who skates with Zeuner. “She makes it look easy.” (READ FULL STORY HERE)
Voices of Exposure Skate 2016, the biggest women’s skateboarding event in the world (11.17.16):
A row of girls in hot-pink helmets huddle around the bowl at Encinitas Community Park. With skateboards in hand, they know they can do anything. “I feel free,” 11-year-old competitor Stella Reynolds says before her heat. There are competitors between the ages of 4 and 40, donning turquoise helmets, carrying neon-orange skateboards, wearing shirts that say “Boss” and “Fearless.” With the bowl, vert and street courses their canvas and the tricks their paint, these girls and women ripped from morning to sunset. Welcome to Exposure Skate 2016, the premier female skateboarding event in the world, held in Southern California each November since 2012. This year’s competition featured 171 amateurs and pros from all over the world, competing on three types of courses: vert, bowl and street. At this year’s event, the parking lot was already jammed by 8 a.m. Girls and women go to compete — but also hope to get a glimpse of pros like Lizzie Armanto, Brighton Zeuner and Lacey Baker. “This is the competition that, if you’re a girl, you have to be here. This is it. There is no bigger competition,” said Hagan McCreath, 40, of Monster Skatepark in Sydney, Australia, who also served as an emcee at Exposure. There were winners, like Zeuner, age 12, in pro bowl; Armanto, 23, in pro vert; and Alexis Sablone, 30, in pro street. But skateboarding veteran Dave Duncan, emceeing the event, reminded the crowd of something equally important: “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. If you’re having a good day, if you’re having fun, that’s what skateboarding’s all about.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
No fear from Loyola Marymount’s Sarah Sponcil (10.21.16):
Sarah Sponcil knew of the ghost stories that haunted Loyola Marymount University’s Gersten Pavilion. Also known as “Hank’s House,” the gym is said to house the spirit of Hank Gathers, the former Lions basketball star who collapsed and died during a 1990 game. Some who dare enter the gym alone late into the night have heard basketballs bouncing. Sinks rushing with water. A figure appearing in the shadows, the corners, the stairs. But Sponcil, a junior AVCA All-American honorable mention outside hitter for the Lions volleyball team, was never too creeped out to go for a late-night workout. When the clock struck midnight, Sponcil, along with setter and close friend Kristen Castellanos, often went to Gersten to serve, pass and hit in the dark, empty gym during freshman year. Once, the lights shut off on their own. Total darkness. Sponcil screamed. Was it Hank? She shook it off. She was too busy completing repetition after repetition to let fear faze her.”That’s just the fun of it,” Sponcil said. “No one knows what you’re doing and you’re just getting better while everyone’s out doing their own thing or sleeping.” Few expected her to be in the gym that late. Then again, few expected LMU to advance as far as they did last season, sweeping No. 6 Stanford in the NCAA tournament to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Meet the USC volleyball player who is ahead of her time and out of her element (8.26.16):
Two hours into the second practice of the season in early August, USC volleyball coach Mick Haley stopped a drill. He walked over to 5-foot-10 freshman libero Raegan LeGrand, the reigning Gatorade Nebraska volleyball player of the year. “This isn’t Nebraska Juniors,” Haley said, flashing a wide smile, referring to LeGrand’s club team. LeGrand had been taught to pass to the right side of the court; Haley wanted her to pass to the middle. “This is USC.” LeGrand, hailing from Papillion, an Omaha suburb with a population of less than 25,000 that has produced volleyball royalty like Allison Weston, Gina Mancuso and Amber and Kadie Rolfzen, is used to the Nebraska jokes. Her classmates often ask her if she rode cows to school or grew corn in her backyard. LeGrand, a California girl at heart who loves palm trees and the ocean — she went swimming with sharks at age 11 and dolphins at age 12 — nodded her head four times to Haley. “You’re right. Got it, coach,” she said, perfecting the pass the next possession. Welcome-to-college-ball moments are rare for LeGrand, who brings skilled defense, passing and hustle to the defending co-Pac-12 champion Trojans, ranked No. 7 nationally. “She’s solid as a rock,” Haley said. “She’ll be a leader on this team way earlier than most people,” Haley said. “She’ll fight like heck to be out there and help us win.” For most of her life, LeGrand had to scratch and claw to earn roles on elite teams. Her mentality? “Fate Loves the Fearless,” which came from a white and blue LeBron James shirt she received when she was 12. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Former USC basketball star Jamie Hagiya finds new love in CrossFit (7.15.16):
During Hagiya’s first basketball game in first grade, she scored bucket after bucket while the kids around her giggled and ran aimlessly around the court. Hagiya subbed out. “Then they started losing,” said her father, Grant Hagiya. “So they put her right back in and she started scoring baskets again.” But no matter how many shots Hagiya drained as she got older, few believed in her dream to play Division I college basketball. She was doubted, she said, because she was 5-foot-3 and Japanese-American. “They said I’m too small, I’d never play,” Hagiya said. “I said, ‘Oh forget that. I know I can play.'” She happened to find her way into an exposure camp with staff from USC in attendance. And the Trojans offered Hagiya her only scholarship. Hagiya fought to earn starts — out-squatting men’s basketball players and defending women a foot taller. Once, she challenged teammate Shay Murphy to eight games of one-on-one, refusing to quit until she won. Ultimately she reached sixth on USC’s all-time list for career assists. “She’s always had to work for everything in her life,” said Murphy, who has played in the WNBA and overseas. “She was always told she was too short or not the right skin color or she doesn’t have a name to do anything. That drove her.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
A Family Affair: The mothers and daughters of the L.A. Derby Dolls (5.3.16):
The junior Derby Dolls don’t stop for anything. Their arms slice through the air, demanding it make way for them as they whirl around the banked track, gaining speed with each lap. Neon pink, purple, green and blue helmets — glittered with names such as Shark Bait, Skatey Perry and Sky ScrapeHer — start to blur like watercolor paint as the girls, aged 7 to 17, fly by. “I feel cool because the wind’s blowing in my face,” says 9-year-old Scar Child, aka Leah Drazic. “I feel like I can do anything.” With Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” blasting throughout the Dollosseum — a skate rink in El Sereno, just east of Downtown Los Angeles, that’s decked out in black and pink and features a glitzy disco skate hanging from above — the Black Widows and Pretty In Punk were warming up for a bout when I checked in on them back in September. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
First Destiny Littleton donned a mask, and then she took off (1.21.16):
Destiny Littleton couldn’t breathe. Wearing an elevation mask that restricted her oxygen intake, the 5-foot-9 shooting guard sprinted up and down a steep hill behind The Bishop’s School on Prospect Street near the beach in La Jolla, California. Up. Down. Up. Down. Littleton put one foot in front of the other and continued to accelerate, even though she would have given anything to rip off the mask. Cars whizzed by. The sea breeze was hardly consolation in the 85-degree heat.” That mask right there?” Littleton said, shaking her head, pointing to the black and gray elevation mask with a white skull design. “That is probably my enemy.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
How Olympic skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender ended up cycling (9.10.15):
The 250-meter indoor track at the VELO Sports Center in Carson, California, is steep — banking at 45 degrees — but Katie Uhlaender isn’t fazed. It’s early August, the first day of the USA Cycling National Championships. Uhlaender is a three-time Olympian and the 2012 world champion in skeleton – the sport where athletes hurl themselves down (face down!) a frozen track at speeds of 90 mph. She has ridden a bike for only four months, and she’s competing against veterans who have cycled since childhood. But she loves to ride. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
How to Win at Life: Elite CrossFitter Val Voboril’s Tips for Balancing Family, Work and Training (7.22.15):
Val Voboril is focused. She lathers her hands in chalk and hoists herself up for muscle-ups on the rings of the CrossFit training apparatus in the backyard of her home in El Segundo, California. She then churns out a set of 20 consecutive sumo deadlifts at 225 pounds before switching to handstand push-ups. She smiles for the first time upon seeing her 4-year-old daughter, Vin, bounce up and down on the family’s trampoline. “BOING! BOING! BOING!” Vin screams in the air between giggles, hugging her red and green stuffed dragon. “Fly, Vin, fly!” Voboril says, beaming. (READ FULL STORY HERE)