- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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It didn't take long to convince University of Richmond women's basketball coach Michael Shafer that Becca Wann's heart was in hoops every bit as much as soccer, the sport in which she earned a scholarship to the school and eventually All-American honors and a spot on a U.S. national team.
But back when she was just a freshman basketball walk-on, he wished her head was a little less committed.
"I say this kiddingly, but it's somewhat true, I think it took her a little bit of time to actually figure out you could use your hands," Shafer said. "She'd go up, and it looked like she was trying to head the ball in. I'd be like, 'You know, you can grab it here.' Next thing you know, she's ripping rebounds."
In a culture of youth athletics ever more bent on year-round training and specialization for its best and brightest, Wann remains an old-fashioned special case. Growing up in Virginia, she loved playing soccer. She also loved playing basketball. She didn't play much AAU basketball lest it intrude on her soccer exploits. She didn't play club soccer lest it interfere with her basketball endeavors. As a result, she nearly slipped through the cracks in both sports.
As the most physically demanding year of her life moves toward a close at the end of basketball season, she is difficult to overlook in either uniform.
Richmond soccer coach Peter Albright first saw Wann when she was 12 years old and played on the same soccer team as his son. Even amongst the boys, she was just about the best player and the best athlete on the field, where she would often play one half in goal and then pile up goals at the other end as a forward in the second half. At the time, Albright got the impression she would eventually drift in the direction of basketball (she did, in fact, play two years of AAU basketball before she returned to playing exclusively for her high school in both sports). Their paths drifted apart. A few years later, perhaps providentially, he ended up at one of her high school games.
Just as it had been on that youth team years earlier, she was the best player on the field.
"You have to see Becca to understand the influence she has on any game she plays in," Albright said. "She's just different. She's just got this unique combination of qualities -- they're breathtaking, to be honest."
She wanted a chance to play both sports at the Division I level, but nobody seemed all that eager to let her pursue such an effort. She looked at the likes of Longwood and Campbell, reasonable choices for someone whose faith is important to her but schools that operate on the athletic fringes of Division I. Albright knew she could hold her own and more at a higher level and offered her a scholarship. He just needed to convince Shafer to sign on.
"If she's your 12th player, she's going to make your team better -- and I don't think she's going to be your 12th player," Albight recalled of his pitch to the basketball coach. "She plays great defense, she rebounds, she fights for loose balls. Even if she doesn't score, she's a glue kid, a chemistry kid. I don't know a lot about basketball, but I really felt that her athletic character was such that she was going to be valuable."
Shafer proved willing to give it a try, but when he sat down with Wann and her family, he made it clear it wouldn't be easy. He already had a roster stocked with guards, players he had recruited and who were on scholarship. She would have an opportunity, he told her, but they might have to take the arrangement year by year. A golden ticket it was not. But it was enough.
"As long as she heard the words 'I get a chance,' she was OK," Shafer recalled.
Wann scored 10 goals as a freshman on the soccer field (the rest of the team scored seven) and was recognized as the Atlantic 10's top rookie. Catching up from a late start in basketball took time, but she quickly won over Shafer.
"Right away when she walks on the floor, bodies start flying," Shafer said. "So I knew right then and there we had competitive spirit. Let's face it, in today's world that will get you a long way because it's not there as much as it used to be. She has it."
Now in her third season, she's one of the most valuable players in the conference. She leads Richmond in rebounds and assists and has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, the only player in the Atlantic 10 to do all three. She is a guard who can hit 3-pointers, but she's also one of just eight players in the nation listed at 5-foot-10 or shorter averaging at least eight rebounds per game. It's a mix of power and vision that serves her well in her other life.
"She's always been a tremendous passer, and I think that has a lot to do with soccer, seeing the field, understanding the ball needs to move, it needs to swing side to side," Shafer said. "I don't claim to know anything about soccer, but I've heard the ball needs to switch sides of the field. So I try to equate the two at times, so there's just a consistency with what people are teaching her, as best there can be. She sees things that maybe a lot of kids don't."
She long ago proved she belonged on Atlantic 10 basketball courts. And this past summer, she proved she belonged on any soccer field in the world.
Wann was a first-team All-American in soccer as a sophomore, but she was still an outsider in a sport where elite players compete with and against each other from early in childhood through both the club and youth national systems. When she was invited to attend a training camp in California with the U-20 U.S. national team in May, she knew of all the players -- household soccer names like recent Hermann Trophy winner Crystal Dunn and Virginia star Morgan Brian. Yet she didn't actually know any of them. She figured she would soak up as much as she could from the week and return to Richmond. But when injuries depleted the roster for a team that had been training and playing together for more than a year, she was called into another camp in Florida in July. On the last day, coach Steve Swanson told her she made the final roster and needed to be ready to leave for Japan in 10 days.
Wann was a reserve on the gold-medal winning team, but even making that roster was almost unheard of for someone not committed to soccer 12 months a year. She opened a lot of eyes, including her own.
"Every female soccer player after the '99 World Cup, obviously that's your dream," Wann said of perhaps playing for the full national team. "Honestly, for me, it felt kind of like a pipe dream, pretty distant, up until this summer. Knowing I could hang, that I was part of this team that won a World Cup already, and now with the pro league coming up, it's definitely encouraging going off from this point."
She knows that step will finally force her to leave one sport behind. Until then, she still has the rest of this season and next on the court for Richmond.
There's only one thing that could make the experience better.
"I'm pretty sure if there wasn't heading in soccer, I wouldn't, first of all, make a team, and second of all, enjoy it as much," Wann joked. "I think if you could head in basketball, that would be a great rule change."
She keeps her head out of it. Her heart, on the other hand, exists comfortably in two places at once.
12dBonnie D. Ford