Features for espnW.com:
Drilling kicks and nailing drills, kicker Becca Longo bids for starting job on Adams State football team (8.17.17):
Becca Longo places a football on the turf near the 20-yard line. She takes a few steps back and then to the side, positioning her right foot — a lime cleat with a splash of orange — farthest away from the ball. With both arms by her side, she gently wiggles her right arm, shedding lingering nerves and doubts. Longo is alone on the field at Adams State, a Division II school in Alamosa, Colorado, a sleepy city of 10,000 about four hours south of Denver. The 5-foot-11, 140-pound freshman kicker is the lone woman on the Grizzlies’ 94-player roster. She’s also the first woman to earn a football scholarship at a Division I or II school. But on this Thursday in early August at Rex Field, the only thing that matters is how high and how far she can make that football soar. She takes a deep breath and looks up at the sky, scanning for a cloud. There are plenty: giant, doughy streaks breaking free of the never-ending blue, hovering so low it looks like they could take a bite out of the San Luis Valley flatland. Morning rain and thunder almost threatened to keep Longo from kicking today, but the weather didn’t stand a chance. Not much does. Last week, she hopped the field’s 7-foot gate to retrieve a ball, which left her with an inch-long gash on the palm of her right hand. She sprinted back to the field and continued to kick as the ruby-red stain pulsed. Head down, follow through. The Chandler, Arizona, native whispers those words from her father, Bob, as she launches a kick that sails through the uprights. She misses just three during the 30-minute session. But Longo, who is money from 35 yards and in and who drilled a 54-yarder in July, frowns. She expects herself to make every kick. Her eyes circle back to the clouds. She envisions Wonder Woman (she saw the movie seven times) lying helpless on the ground, struggling to fight Ares, the god of war. When the plane, flown by Wonder Woman’s love interest, Steve Trevor, explodes in the clouds, Wonder Woman summons new strength, shooting an energy beam to wipe out Ares. A bolt of energy shoots through Longo’s own body. She strikes the ball forcefully, elegantly, and it’s good. “A lot of people think, ‘Aw. She’s a girl. She can’t do this. She’s not strong enough, she’s not big enough,’ ” Longo says. “I think it’s just something inside of me. I don’t always have to prove myself — but I always want to.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Lacrosse clears way to greener–and shorter–pastures for two Strawberry Mansion Teens (6.20.17):
Here, the grass on the lacrosse field rises to midcalf. Each step is like dropping into quicksand, so it’s a good thing these two girls can fly. One jukes imaginary defenders. The other tiptoes at freeway speeds before whooshing the ball inside an orange-lined goal. Nadirah McRae, who goes by “Slim” — “I got chicken thighs!” — is wearing black and silver Nikes with tattered laces. Nadirah El-Amin Gateward, “Na,” has on worn navy New Balances. The 18-year-olds can’t afford cleats, not for this private April workout session at 33rd and Diamond in Strawberry Mansion, one of North Philly’s most dangerous neighborhoods. And not for their games. But they will go through you or around you or behind you to score. Like they did the night before, when each blasted in four goals against West Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker. Smacked in the neck, El-Amin Gateward fell backward to the ground, blood rushing to her head, but played the rest of the game, another Strawberry Mansion loss, this one a close call at 11-10. The Nadirahs, who call each other “twin,” who both play midfielder, who both have asthma, who both are versed in tragedy, who will both graduate from high school on Tuesday, break into sprints. Going one-on-one, McRae slips, her legs nearly scissoring into splits, but recovers to score. She dances in front of the net while El-Amin Gateward snaps each pose with an imaginary camera. “Give ’em face, Sis!” El-Amin Gateward screams in delight. “Give ’em face!” That two black girls are celebrating their lacrosse skills — honed enough to take them to college — is something of a rarity. Lacrosse is played in predominantly white, affluent areas. At the NCAA level, 86.4 percent of Division I women’s lacrosse players in 2015-16 were white, while just 2.8 percent were black. US Lacrosse doesn’t even track participation rates for girls of color at the youth and high school levels. “Every time you walk on that field, I want you to understand that people are always going to show you what you can’t do. You have to prove them wrong. Don’t let people get in your way,” coach Jazmine A. Smith reminds them. “Only you can stop you.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Oregon State volleyball player a brave voice to combat mental illness (5.9.17):
Madison Holleran. All Lanesha Reagan could think about was Madison Holleran, the University of Pennsylvania track athlete. Reagan, Oregon State volleyball’s 5-foot-10 starting outside hitter, known for her power and pogo-stick bounce, lay in her bed in her freshman dorm and combed through Holleran’s story. Madison seemed to be gifted, kind, competitive. A budding track star, a daughter, a friend. Even a banana-and-peanut-butter aficionado. Few knew she struggled with depression and the pressures of social media. On Jan. 17, 2014, Holleran leaped off the ninth level of a parking garage in Philadelphia. She died at 19. Reagan shivered. Images of her own life swirled around her head: years of masking her pain, years of blocking out her shame, years of wishing she inhabited a body other than her own. “That honestly could have been me,” Reagan said. “If things would have been different … I have no doubt in my mind that that could have been me.” Reagan, who will be a senior next season, remembered this moment as she typed until she couldn’t type anymore in early January. Few knew she was about to post: “Being a Student-Athlete and Living with Mental Illness.” Not her grandparents, Dorothy and Patrick Reagan, who raised her; not her best friend, Ellen Anderson, the peanut butter to her jelly since age 4. Reagan didn’t want to sound ungrateful for her Division I athletic scholarship. She didn’t want to alter anyone’s image of her: outgoing, smart, warm, bold. Passionate about her English major and writing minor, books and Beyoncé. A shoulder to cry on and the life of the party. “You know when Lanesha walks into a room,” said McKenna Hollingsworth, a junior setter/outside hitter. Reagan’s radiance caused her preschool teachers to call her “Miss Sunshine.” But Reagan had to speak her truth. Not for herself, but for others. “I am so sick of feeling alone and helpless,” Reagan wrote in her post. “Mental illness is not something you should be ashamed of but breaking down that stigma starts with us, the student-athletes. We can change the culture and make it easier for our friends and teammates to get the help that they need.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
With rich hoops roots, Native American twins Kyarrah and Kyannah Grant bud into stars (8.24.17):
Kyarrah and Kyannah Grant run about 30 miles each week. Twice a week, the fraternal twins sprint alongside the glimmering, blue-black ripples of Lake Pushmataha about 35 miles north of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians reservation — the place they call home. Most people are fishing or boating or admiring the cedar, pine and cypress trees that guard the lake. But the Grant sisters do not have time to stop or stare along the trail. When Kyarrah tries to zip ahead, Kyannah pushes farther. When Kyannah pulls away, Kyarrah zooms faster. “It would take a lot for me and Kyannah to get tired,” Kyarrah says. The pair, half Dine of the Navajo Nation and Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indian, wreak havoc on the basketball court. They led Choctaw Central High School to the Mississippi Class 3A state championship last year, defeating Amanda Elzy 75-42 to finish with a 31-3 mark. Trapping and disrupting nearly every defensive possession, the twins knew where the other one was to double, to steal and, of course, to score. Opponents can’t tell the rising seniors, both 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, apart. Look closely, and you’ll see that Kyarrah has a scar on her left eyebrow. One day when she was 3, she dozed off on a water slide at a park, and as her head tilted to the left, she clipped a nail on the way down. Today the sisters lead the break for a team that is the pride of the reservation. Fans usually arrive at 4:30 to save seats for 6 p.m. games, and about 5,000 traveled to the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson for the state final. What the twins lack in size and strength they more than make up for with spunk. “If they were 6-foot, they’d have everybody in the country looking at them,” says Bill Smith, Choctaw Central’s coach. They’re determined to play college basketball, considering Divisions I, II and III. “You don’t see a lot of Natives in basketball programs, so being one of the few that will be in a basketball program — at a high level at that — I feel a lot of pride,” Kyarrah says. “Just knowing that we can be one of those examples where other kids can look up to us and know they can do it, too. They don’t have to stay on the reservation.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Already golden, Diamond Miller collects glowing reviews for her rare versatility (7.20.17):
Coach Audrey Taylor blinked, and Miller was already at the other end of the floor. Miller, then a seventh-grader, grabbed the rebound out of the air and dribbled the full length of the court and stopped and popped for a jumper, eating up the full length of the court in about five seconds. “Wow,” Taylor, now Miller’s coach at Franklin High School, whispered to herself. “She’s going to be a point guard?”Miller brings the unexpected: length and speed, ball handling and shot blocking. She’s agile but forceful, elegant but raw. One play she’ll scrap down low for boards, the next step out and knock down a 3. Her hybrid frame allows her to take advantage of smaller guards, using her quickness from years of playing soccer to race to the basket. Even if you feed the ball to her in the post, which isn’t exactly in her comfort zone, she’ll stretch from one block to another in a single pivot to put in the easy bucket. “I think even refs have a hard time,” Taylor said. “They call travels more than they should because she’s so long and can have such long steps.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Te-Hina Paopao is no stranger to Puke Hill or Kelsey Plum (6.29.17):
“Kels, you want to jump in this drill really quick?” Everyone in the gym, including 10-year-old Te-Hina Paopao, easily the youngest one there, knew exactly who coach Terri Bamford was talking to. That would be Kelsey Plum. Plum before she became women’s college basketball’s all-time leading scorer. Plum before she became the No. 1 pick in the 2017 WNBA draft. Plum, whose silky 3-point shot had already elevated her to hoops royalty. “Te-Hina doesn’t have a partner,” Bamford called out to Plum, who was back at La Jolla Country Day School (California) shortly after her high school graduation. “Can you go with her?” “Sure,” Plum said, settling into a “Dummy D” stance to guard Paopao. She’d have to turn Paopao as many times as possible until half court before going one-on-one. Plum vs. Paopao. Plum didn’t really see it that way. She didn’t bother to tie the laces of her blue Nike Hyperdunks. “Of course I’m thinking, ‘I’m just gonna hurt the kid,’ ” Plum said. “I’m trying to be nice to her.” But Paopao, playing up with 16U girls all season, wanted to show out — even as her hands shook. Dribbling with her right hand, the sixth-grader busted an in-and-out move before crossing over to her left hand, exploding past her hero to score on the other end. “OK, OK,” Plum said, smiling as the gym erupted. “You got me.” Plum stopped laughing, tied her laces and switched to offense, blowing by Paopao for the layup. But it was clear that Paopao, now 14 and one of the top point guards in the class of 2020, was next in a long line of greats from the area, from Plum to Charde Houston to Candice Wiggins to Destiny Littleton. “She’s just never scared. It’s like a fearlessness but a confidence that she has,” Plum said. “I think she could start in the Pac-12 right now. “Honestly, I think she could be the best to come out of San Diego.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Softball player Caitlyn Taylor fought off shark: “I’m glad it happened to me.” (4.26.17):
In those seven seconds, Caitlyn Taylor didn’t have time for thoughts. She didn’t have time for fear. She didn’t have time for doubt. The softball player at Atherton High School (Louisville, Ky.) was swimming behind SunDestin Beach Resort in Destin, Florida, with five of her teammates, on April 2. They were competing in a tournament that week. “Look!” one girl exclaimed, as the group was approximately 75 feet from the shoreline and in shoulder-deep water. “There’s a dolphin!” Taylor looked. A wave had crested, but in a matter of seconds, she saw that the animal emerging was not a dolphin. Not even close. A shark charged toward her; she turned to swim away. But couldn’t. The shark lifted her out of the water and seized both of her legs in its mouth. The shark bit down. Without any hesitation, Taylor punched the shark on its head, over and over and over, the adrenaline shooting through her arms as her legs grew weak during the battle. Finally, the shark, which she estimated at 5 feet, let her go and swam off. “It was just instinct for me to hit it,” said Taylor, whose fingers have some very faint imprints from the shark’s teeth, “because of the adrenaline, and how much in shock I was, it happened so fast.” “When you play sports, you’re constantly going through — not to this extreme — intense pressure situations,” Taylor said, “and I think a lot of people who don’t go through those types of situations every day, when they face something that’s a little scary — or very scary like this one was — most people would shy away from it or get scared or give up.” “I think being an athlete and going through situations like that definitely helped me.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Competitiveness drives Notre Dame Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw (4.21.17):
Muffet McGraw, then a seventh-grader, was sitting with her Catholic school classmates one afternoon when a priest walked in. “I’m starting a basketball team if anybody’s interested,” the priest said. Nobody talked. Nobody moved. The girls scanned each other to gauge whose hand would shoot up first. Girls’ basketball was a 6-on-6 game then, but McGraw had played a bit with the boys, letting the dust and the rust of the playground fill her soul each day. The ball, the net, the lines on the court, tugged at her. “I loved it,” McGraw said. “I just loved it.” McGraw’s hand was the first among the girls to bolt toward the sky. She was already plotting the first game. “I’m 4-foot-10,” McGraw thought to herself, “I better work on my ballhandling.” McGraw, 61, has used that same relentless desire to improve, compete and dominate to build Notre Dame into a national powerhouse during the past 30 seasons. Boasting an 853-227 (.771) career record, McGraw has coached the Fighting Irish to a national championship (2001), to seven Final Four appearances and 15 trips to the Sweet 16. She will be inducted into the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class in September. And though Notre Dame’s season ended in the Elite Eight less than a month ago, she’s already preparing for next season. How to get more defensive stops? How to make passes crisper? McGraw’s mind doesn’t stop. “The competitiveness, it’s just part of her makeup, it’s part of who she is,” Chattanooga coach Jim Foster said of McGraw, who was an assistant on his Saint Joseph’s staff from 1980 to 1982. “It’s show up every day with an attitude about work and getting better and competing. That’s been driving her forever.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Kelsey Plum caps accomplished college career with Wooden Award (4.7.17):
University of Washington shooting sensation Kelsey Plum dribbled the ball between her legs, toying with her defender in the first quarter of an NCAA tournament second-round game against Oklahoma on March 20. A half-second later, Plum crossed the ball back over with a silky ankle-breaker that gave her all the space in the world to elevate up for the 3-point shot. The ball swam through the net for three of her 38 points, enough to break Missouri State standout Jackie Stiles’ NCAA single-season points record that night. (Plum finished with 1,109 points her senior season.) So how did the 5-foot-8 playmaker, who also shattered Stiles’ NCAA career points record (3,527), torch opponents as women’s college hoops’ most lethal scorer? “I think you have to start out being super aggressive,” Plum said Friday when she accepted the John R. Wooden Award during ESPN’s College Basketball Awards show in downtown Los Angeles. “And then you allow the defense to choose what they’re going to take away, and then whatever they take away, you take what they don’t take away.” The consensus national player of the year, who led the nation by averaging 31.7 points per game, was the obvious choice for the Wooden Award. Pick-and-roll? Three-pointer? Step-back? Elbow? Floater? Layup? There wasn’t a shot Plum couldn’t drain. She was too quick, too crafty, too skilled to be contained. Just ask UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, a finalist for the men’s Wooden Award, who said he enjoys watching Plum play. “It’s crazy,” Ball said after the ceremony at The Novo at L.A. Live. “I haven’t seen a girl play like that since I’ve been on this earth.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
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).
All eyes will be on California’s all-time leading scorer Destiny Littleton (3.23.17):
Shaking free of two defenders, Destiny Littleton caught the ball near half court. The 5-foot-9 senior guard bolted hard to the middle of the key. She slipped past another defender, then one more, but as the two girls recovered and swarmed her, a jump shot seemed all the more improbable. Littleton was running out of space, and if she waited any longer, she might have had three hands in her face. But this is Littleton — not one to take no for an answer. She muscled her way through contact to sink an and-one fadeaway jumper; a bank shot, at that. Her team, The Bishop’s School (La Jolla, California), would go on to beat rival La Jolla Country Day School 58-57 in the CIF San Diego Section Open Division semifinals. “Every time I get the ball, I’m always thinking: ‘Score first, always look at the basket.’ There’s nothing else that comes to my mind besides, ‘Score,'” said Littleton, who was recently named the 2016-17 California Gatorade Girl’s Basketball Player of the Year, the first player from San Diego to earn the award in 30 years. She will also play in the McDonald’s All American game, March 29 at the United Center in Chicago. The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. ET. College coaches will be keeping a keen eye. And plotting. “Scoring is what I pride myself on,” Littleton said. “I spent hours and hours in the gym working on my shot. (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).
Olympians Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Lilly King headline NCAA swimming championships (3.14.17):
Even for Olympians, there’s something about the NCAA swimming and diving championships, which will pit the nation’s best (and sometimes the planet’s best) against one another Wednesday through Saturday at the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis. “It’s super crazy, mentally and physically exhausting, compacted into four days. You barely sleep,” said Cal sophomore Kathleen Baker, the NCAA’s top seed in the 200 backstroke. “There’s so much cheering, the atmosphere on the deck is crazy. In the final heat, every single team is standing up and cheering as loud as they can for everyone.” The NCAA championships is the ultimate test for teams to prove themselves, whether chasing a national championship, placing in the top four or trying to crack the top 10 for the first time. “Each year, it’s by far the best meet in the world,” said Greg Meehan, coach of top-ranked Stanford. “You get in the environment and from the very first session Wednesday night until about Saturday night, it’s pretty intense and just really fun, and I think the teams just feed off that energy inside the building.” (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)