- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Are you better off than you were four years ago?
The past, let's say, 50 presidential election cycles suggest that will be a contentious question in the coming year in the perennial battleground state of Ohio. But at the University of Dayton, where red and blue comfortably coexist in the color scheme favored by the Flyers, there is no such conundrum when it comes to Justine Raterman's reign.
The only bad news for the basketball fans who rally at UD Arena throughout the winter months is that her term limit is ironclad.
"You would want your kid to grow up to be like Justine," Dayton coach Jim Jabir said.
Legacies are commonly measured by championships and records. To be sure, Raterman chases both as her final season enters its final months. The ups and downs of its nonconference schedule notwithstanding, Dayton retains the potential of a team picked as preseason co-favorites in the Atlantic 10, a conference championship it has never claimed. And Raterman remains on pace to finish as the school's third-leading career scorer, first among those in three decades of NCAA play, while making similar charges up the charts in rebounds and 3-pointers.
But for all the wins created and numbers compiled, and all those still to come, a loss better explains why Dayton is a different program because of her.
For 35 minutes in last season's Atlantic 10 championship game against Xavier, Raterman went toe-to-toe with one of the most imposing front courts in the sport. She did so even though she didn't have the means to go knee to knee with anyone, the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee shredded during the course of a semifinal against Temple a day earlier.
Ranked No. 5 at the time and with everything to play for in terms of NCAA tournament seeding, the Musketeers won that day. But they did so only after Raterman tied the game with two minutes to play, two of the 19 points she scored while missing just three shots and turning over the ball just twice. Perhaps Dayton, a bubble team by any measure entering the game, would have earned the at-large bid that followed regardless of the outcome. It doesn't seem crazy to think the optics of giving a top-five foe all it could handle helped push the Flyers over the top.
"She was just incredible," teammate Olivia Applewhite said of Raterman. "That was unbelievable. I think about when I hyperextended my knee and how much pain I was in, and that's nothing compared to what she went through. That just made me have so much more respect for her. It was unbelievable to me, what she did that night."
What she has done every night for four years might be less dramatic, but it's hardly less impressive.
Once a Division II AIAW national champion, Dayton's rise after two decades of mediocrity at the NCAA Division I level began even before Raterman arrived. Adding Canadian Kendel Ross provided the first cornerstone of future NCAA tournament appearances. Keeping in-state standout Kristin Daugherty close to home provided another. But if Raterman wasn't the first piece of the puzzle, she was the one the program had to have to complete the picture. The Ohio native averaged 32 minutes per game as a freshman and led the team in scoring and rebounding.
That was the tangible part. The intangible part was the presence certain people possess.
"When we got her, we were in desperate need of her because of where the program was," Jabir said. "Her importance to the program was huge because of where we were and where we wanted to go. I think it is defining for a lot of reasons, not just her ability on the court but the kind of kid she is, the kind of kid she is in the classroom.
"The girl's amazing."
It's an imposing profile for an undersized forward who doesn't cut the most imposing figure on the floor, even if you wouldn't want to bet against her in a pound-for-pound strength contest.
"When you think about it, she's physically limited," Jabir said. "She can't go by somebody, she can't jump, she can't do a lot of things. But she's the kid you need on the floor. I don't know where we'd be without her."
The Flyers wouldn't be coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, the first in program history. They wouldn't be positioned near the front of an in-state crowd that includes Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Toledo and Xavier fighting for a place at the table with Ohio State.
Jabir's system, reliant as it is on depth and diffusion of minutes, means Raterman's statistics don't jump off the page (although she averaged 21.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per 40 minutes a season ago, numbers on par with just about any of the players with whom she shares space on award watch lists). But whatever she gives away physically to peers like Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike or Delware's Elena Delle Donne, or Xavier's Amber Harris before them, Raterman makes up for in versatility. She's a dead-eye shooter from long range (38.8 percent on almost 400 career attempts) who also has an array of post moves. She's a tenacious rebounder who will finish her college career with almost as many blocks and steals as turnovers.
When she took the court against Xavier last March, Raterman didn't know her ACL was already torn. She wouldn't hear the doctor utter, as she put it, "the feared three letters that every female athlete never wants to hear" until after the team returned home from the conference tournament. All she knew was that while her knee hurt, there was one more game to play and her team's postseason fate might ride on the outcome.
Assured after the tear was diagnosed that she had done all the damage she could to the knee, Raterman took the court again in the first round of the NCAA tournament when Dayton played Penn State, against whom she had scored 32 points earlier in the season. But the mental toll proved too much, the uncertainty the knowledge created in her own mind finally allowing a failing body to gain control. She played just 19 minutes, including just four in the second half, and Dayton's late rally fell short.
"It was really heartbreaking," Raterman recalled. "I can remember sitting on the bench with tears coming to my eyes knowing that I couldn't help my team as much as I wanted to. That's what was the worst part."
There were reasonable questions in the offseason as to her availability this season -- whether it might take until the start of conference play for her to regain her timing or her confidence, or if it might be better for the Flyers to redshirt her altogether. The list of doubters, or at least questioners, didn't include Jabir because it never included Raterman. As summer arrived and her teammates scattered for six weeks of freedom, she stayed on campus to rehab. When the team took the court for its first exhibition game on Nov. 1, she was in the starting lineup.
The only person who would have felt she was letting anyone down had she not been ready was Raterman. That was enough.
"Other kids would still be in rehab right now," Jabir said in late November. "But I knew she'd be ready for the first day. I never doubted it for a second."
A two-sport star in volleyball and basketball in high school, there came a time when Raterman had to choose an athletic path. Either offered a chance for college competition. Neither offered the prospects of professional riches. Whatever her place in the larger basketball landscape, her answer changed everything for one program.
"When it came down to it I couldn't imagine my life without basketball," Raterman said. "I picked up volleyball in junior high and started playing it and loved it. I absolutely love the sport and I miss it to this day. But I can't imagine my life without basketball in it somehow."
Dayton would rather not imagine basketball without her. If only the Flyers could keep her for four more years.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.
After two decades of mediocrity at the Division I level, Dayton is now looking for its third straight trip to the NCAA tournament. Senior Justine Raterman continues to lead the way.