Shea Ralph – University of Connecticut
So many wonderful predictions are being made about Shea Ralph’s basketball career, who could fault her for thinking about her future?
Consider that the six-foot forward starts for a University of Connecticut team favored to repeat as NCAA Champions. Already named to the preseason All-BIG EAST 1st team, she’s in the running for BIG EAST Player of the Year honors and the Naismith National Player of the Year. Many anticipate she’ll follow former UConn standouts Rebecca Lobo and Nykesha Sales and play professional basketball, and electronic bulletin boards are abuzz with which WNBA will draft her.
But for Ralph, thinking about what might happen only distracts her from what she considers truly important: making the most of her college experience. A fifth year senior, Ralph’s basketball career has included the high of a National Championship and the low of two knee surgeries. The 22-year old has learned that basketball, like life, is unpredictable, and she is determined to take nothing for granted. “When I have to get a real job,” she says, “or when I’m on a team that’s not like the one I’m on here, I’m going to wish that I hadn’t looked ahead so quickly.”
The Fayetteville, North Carolina native came to UConn in 1996 after a stellar high school career. Ralph remembers herself as a freshman whose “big mistake” was acting like she knew everything when she didn’t know anything. But no one could have known what would happen on March 15, 1997 when, playing in her first NCAA tournament, Ralph tore her right ACL. Then, after surgery and five months of arduous rehabilitation, she re-injured her knee and had to start the process all over. She made dealing with the frustration and disappointment of her setback part of her recovery. “You have to have the mind set that says ‘this happened to me once, and I came back from it. I know I worked my butt off and I deserve another chance at this.'”
Her hard work gave her that chance and in 1998 Shea Ralph the basketball player was back. She describes herself as a fireball and warns that, on the court, if she’s going somewhere “you’re either going to get run over or you’re going to move out of the way.” This is a woman who loves to win, but can accept being beaten. Losing, though, is a different story. “If somebody beats you, then they beat you,” explains Ralph. “If you brought your game, and you played well, there’s not much you can do. But losing is just a feeling…I just feel like I want to go out there and play that game over.”
Last season her drive and leadership earned her team the NCAA Championship and herself the tournament MVP. When Ralph considers how much she’s changed during her tenure at UConn, she finds the award somewhat ironic. “In high school I wanted the individual awards. It’s funny, because whenever I wanted them and worked towards them, I never got them. The one time I didn’t really care was when I got it.” She credits coach Geno Auriemma with teaching her to be a team player — to put her teammates and their goals in front of hers. Being MVP was nice, she admits, but more meaningful was winning the National Championship.
She can enjoy the Championship because Auriemma has also taught her not be afraid of success. Before, says Ralph, “I was just not sure if I deserved it. And I know now – going through what I’ve gone through here – we work hard. There is no doubt in my mind we deserve what we get — whether it be a National Championship or not.”
As the Huskies pursue a second title, Ralph’s goal is to help everyone have fun, keep them together, and help them stay in the now. She can only hope the current freshmen will enrich each other’s lives as her teammates have hers.
“I’ve never been very patient,” says Ralph.” I used to make crazy decisions, chaotic, split decisions, without really thinking. Having them around me has made me a much, much better person — more caring and more considerate. They’ve helped me bring out qualities of myself that I always wanted, but I didn’t know how to get. I feel like the things I’ve been given by them I can never repay.”
Ralph is too wise not to have considered that her knees might prevent her from pursing professional basketball. She will graduate with a degree in Sports Science and Exercise Physiology — she is, after all, a student. A fact never more evident when, detailing her non-stop daily schedule, a particular day draws her wrath. “I hate Thursdays,” she laments. “Thursdays are my worst day.”
But it is a lament full of affection.
“I’m milking my time here at Connecticut,” she confesses. “I’m not what I want to be yet. I’m getting close, but I’m not there yet.”