July 3, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - It begins as a swatch of fabric, then stitched in a specific tableau of shape and color into something magnificent. It also starts as symbols on a page, a simple combination of clefs, notes, sharps, flats and chords then blend seamlessly into a rich tapestry of sound. Together or apart, a country's flag and its National Anthem strike at the very heart of what it means to be a proud citizen of one's nation.
This pride has been particularly evident in recent weeks with the global soccer spectacle known as the World Cup. From town squares to corner pubs all around the world, each country's citizens gather to support their teams. Here in the United States, friend and stranger alike gathered to watch a plucky American side battle through injury and the so-called "Group of Death" to advance to the round of 16 for the second consecutive World Cup, a first in U.S. soccer history. Even after Tuesday's heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium that eliminated the Americans, fans from coast-to-coast were buzzing about the play of goalkeeper Tim Howard and the heart and determination of his teammates to battle back after falling behind early in the extra period.
As Americans celebrate Independence Day on Friday, and Canadians come off Tuesday's annual Canada Day gala (similar to the U.S. Independence Day but honoring that country's formation as a single nation within the British Empire), it seems appropriate to honor those men and women who defend our lands at home and abroad, often making the ultimate sacrifice so that we may enjoy such freedoms and simple pleasures as watching a sporting event.
It also gives us in the Notre Dame women's basketball program a chance to note how fortunate we have been to see so many of our players and coaches represent their country on the international stage. Since 1996, when current Fighting Irish associate coach Beth Cunningham ('97) suited up for the USA Basketball Select Team, and continuing through junior guard Jewell Loyd's stint with the USA 3x3 World Championship Team last month in Moscow, Russia, no fewer than 12 Notre Dame players and one coach have competed for their country (either the United States or Canada) either before they enrolled at the University (but had already committed), once they were part of the Fighting Irish program, or after their Notre Dame careers had come to an end.
In that 18-year period, Notre Dame players and coaches have earned 25 medals (including 17 golds), the most notable being Ruth Riley's gold medal as a member of the USA Senior National Team at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"Cheering on our boys in the recent World Cup games made me extremely grateful for the opportunities I had representing my country playing basketball," Riley said. "As an athlete, there's no greater honor than wearing a jersey with U-S-A on the front of it.
"My summers at Notre Dame were times where I saw significant growth as a player," she noted. "My time was spent with strength and conditioning sessions and countless hours in the gym working on individual skills, coupled with the opportunity to join other top college athletes in representing the U.S. in various international competitions. Just like my career at Notre Dame helped shape and prepare me for the WNBA, my collegiate summers with USA Basketball were the first step in allowing me to eventually achieve my dream of playing in the Olympics."
In fact, the Fighting Irish have been represented in two of the past three Summer Olympics, with recently-graduated forward Natalie Achonwa ('14) suiting up for her native Canada at the 2012 London Games, helping the Maple Leafs to their first Olympic quarterfinal appearance in 28 years. Achonwa, who remains a centerpiece of Canada's Senior National Team, has collected three medals (two silver, one bronze), since she first entered the Canada Basketball system in 2008.
"To be able to represent your country, travel the world, meet new people and play the game you love, that means everything to me," Achonwa said. "It's made me a better person and a better player and I have to give all the credit to my two coaches -- Allison McNeill with Canada Basketball, who took a chance on me when I was only 16 and later was my Olympic coach, and Coach (Muffet) McGraw, who did the same when she made me the first international player ever to play for the Notre Dame women's basketball program.
"Playing for Canada and playing at Notre Dame go hand in hand," Achonwa continued. "Competing for my country allowed me to play alongside several veterans and gave me the chance to learn from them. I was then able to transfer all that I learned to playing college ball at Notre Dame, and then add to it by becoming a leader on and off the court."
Meanwhile, Loyd earned her second gold medal with Team USA (and first since becoming affiliated with Notre Dame) and was the Most Valuable Player at last month's FIBA 3x3 World Championships in Moscow, making Loyd one of five players (plus one coach) on next year's Fighting Irish roster who have taken home a gold medal while representing USA Basketball on the world stage.
"Playing for USA Basketball is an awesome experience," Loyd said. "You're with great coaches and great players, just like here at Notre Dame. There are no worries -- you're just kids playing ball. There's nothing like having USA across your chest, and it's an amazing feeling to win and hear that U-S-A chant. It's really unforgettable."
Loyd's classmate, junior guard Michaela Mabrey, suited up for the United States at the 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, helping the Stars & Stripes to a 5-0 record and the gold medal. Weeks before she officially enrolled at Notre Dame, Mabrey started four of five games for the USA, averaging 12.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game with a .500 three-point percentage, quickly paving the way for her transition to the college game and her current role as one of the top perimeter shooters in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"My USA Basketball experience was absolutely incredible," Mabrey said. "Not only was I with an amazing group of girls and coaches, but I was able to represent our country and bring back a gold medal. USA Basketball has the best players across the country to represent them and to be able to say I was a part of one of those teams is a huge accomplishment and honor. To be able to stand there in Puerto Rico and hold a gold medal along with the American flag was one of the greatest feelings in the world and a memory that will stay with me the rest of my life."
Three other current Fighting Irish players have claimed gold medals with USA Basketball. Sophomore forward Taya Reimer won a pair of golds at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship and the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship, earning top honors on the latter squad alongside fellow Notre Dame sophomore, guard Lindsay Allen. What's more, freshman forward Brianna Turner is a veteran of the international game, having collected four gold medals with Team USA during the past three summers and will be looking to add a fifth as part of the USA Basketball U18 National Team at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship Aug. 6-10 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Along with playing experience, Notre Dame has a wealth of USA Basketball coaching knowledge on its roster in the form of associate head coach Carol Owens, who led her team to two gold medals as the American head coach at the 2008 FIBA Americas U18 Championship and the 2009 FIBA U19 World Championship, as well as helped shape two more gold medal-winning squads when she was an assistant coach on the 2006 FIBA Americas U18 Championship and the 2007 FIBA U19 World Championship.
What's more, Owens was recognized for her contributions to USA Basketball and its ongoing success around the world by being named the 2008 USA Basketball Developmental Coach of the Year. Still, for all of her honors and success on the world stage, Owens remains humbled and appreciative of all that comes with seeing her country's flag raised to the rafters and The Star-Spangled Banner played on the loudspeaker.
"When I decided to make coaching a career, one of my professional dreams was to be a part of USA Basketball," Owens said. "There is nothing like representing your country at one of the highest levels and coaching some of the best players this nation has to offer.
"I've been blessed to work here at Notre Dame with one of the best coaches in the game in Coach McGraw," Owens added. "The experiences I've had and the players I've coached within our program have prepared me for the level of USA Basketball and its commitment to excellence, a level of success we continue to reach for at Notre Dame each and every time out."
ACE AND JESSA: A PICTURE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
The 64-photo showdown evolved into an all-women's basketball final with two photos from the same game -- Notre Dame's 88-69 win over Baylor on March 31 in the NCAA Elite Eight at Purcell Pavilion. The pairing featured Matt Cashore's photo of elated All-America guard Jewell Loyd running to hug head coach Muffet McGraw on the sideline late in the game. It went up against Katie Schwab's photo of All-America forward Natalie Achonwa, setting aside the pain from what would prove to be a season-ending knee injury to hug Fighting Irish team ballgirl, Jessa Troy, following Notre Dame's victory and fourth consecutive Final Four berth.
When the votes were tallied, it was the emotion bond between Achonwa and her six-year-old friend that won the day and captured the inaugural Notre Dame Photo Face-Off. However, leave it to Jessa's father, Ben, to summarize the feeling of that night, and the full meaning of the photo it portrayed, as part of a recent blog posting he wrote (the full entry can be found by CLICKING HERE):
"Notre Dame rolled to a convincing win. Unfortunately, the evening ended in a bittersweet manner. With just a few minutes left in the game Natalie came down awkwardly and injured her knee. By the look of the play, and more obviously by her reaction (which later in the car Jessa described as hearing her scream), it became clear that this was not just a simple tweak. As it turned out that would be the last play of her ND career because of a torn ACL.
"Immediately after the game the team began to celebrate on the floor and started to setup for the always great scene of a victorious team cutting down the net. At some moment the flood and variety of emotions became a little too much for a 6 year old (picture Ron Burgundy in a phone booth!) She began to cry, what were mainly happy tears, but little girl tears nonetheless. She was noticed by a couple of the assistant coaches who called Natalie over.
"....A small explanation as to why they called for Ace. Over the last few years Natalie has been extremely gracious and outgoing towards Jessa (and many children as well). Before most home games they have typically embraced as the team came out for warmups and after many games as well. Jessa usually refers to her as "my college friend"......
"Because of the win and the injury, I'm sure there were a thousand different thoughts running through Natalie's head immediately after that game. But when a coach calls you over, you come right? So Natalie made her way to them, with a bulky knee brace under her warmup pants, and bends down to give the hug from the picture.
"A fairly simple, but yet so genuine and meaningful of an act. And also a great synopsis of the program Coach McGraw has built. That moment doesn't happen without a wildly successful team. And it doesn't happen without high character people (this could be said about so many of the ND teams as well). As a father, physician, alum and youth coach I cannot think of a better organization and group of young women for my daughter to have the privilege of seeing up close.
"I am fond of the saying that `Your actions speak so loudly, I can't hear your words.' We have seen the impact that the program's culture can have. Those actions might be taking time to make a fan's day with a simple picture. Or by carrying a confidence when other teams think the league newcomers don't have the goods. Or by having your daughter come to you in the middle of her game and say `I'm going to shut that girl down just like Jewell.' (sorry for the dad brag :) ). Whatever they may be, it surely helps show why We Are ND is more than a simple twitter hashtag."
THE NEXT STEP IN THE LIFE OF RILEY
Instead, Riley -- who has confessed that her personality doesn't allow her to sit still for long -- has a full summer of activities planned, starting with her accepting an award as part of the group of 2014 Ten Outstanding Young Americans (TOYA) selected by the Jaycees (the United States Junior Chamber). These awards have been presented annually since 1934 to a select group of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 who "exemplify the best attributes of the nation's young people."
This year's black-tie TOYA awards ceremony took place June 28 in Baltimore and in addition to Riley, other honorees in the 2014 class included singer Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. (winner of the sixth season of the NBC series "America's Got Talent" in 2011) and aviatrix Amelia Rose Earhart (no relation to the 20th century aviation pioneer of the same name).
Previous recipients of the TOYA award from the Jaycees have included such luminaries as future U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy, famed recording artists Elvis Presley and Wayne Newton, and two Notre Dame football greats -- All-American and Hall of Famer/current Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, and Elmer Layden, a member of the legendary Fighting Irish "Four Horsemen" backfield in the 1920s, who later served as Notre Dame's head football coach and athletics director (the posts he was filling at the time of his selection in 1938) before becoming commissioner of the National Football League in the 1940s.
On Wednesday, Riley penned an espnW blog with additional updates on her summer travels that will take her around the world before she returns to South Bend next month to begin orientation activities for the Executive MBA program in Notre Dame's top-ranked Mendoza College of Business. Riley also recently participated in an extended interview for the national women's basketball podcast, "Dishin' and Swishin'", with the full interview available by CLICKING HERE..
STAFF MEMBER HOSPITALIZED
Following her hospitalization, Schwab initially was placed in a medically-induced coma to help speed the healing process. However, as part of her rehabilitation protocol, doctors have transitioned her away from those medications and she has begun to show small, but promising signs of recovery.
Schwab's family and friends have set up a page on the CaringBridge web site to provide well-wishers with updates on her condition. Supporters who would like to send Schwab notes, cards or other words of encouragement are asked to send them to the Notre Dame women's basketball office (C113 Joyce Center, First Floor, Notre Dame, IN 46556) or to stop by the women's basketball office located at Gate 1 of Purcell Pavilion weekdays from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (ET). Members of the Fighting Irish staff make regular visits to see Schwab and her family at the acute-care facility and will be happy to deliver your messages, which we are confident will help her on the road to what we hope will be a full and complete recovery.
FIGHTING IRISH IN THE WNBA
The starting five for both the West and East will be announced next Tuesday, July 8, during ESPN2's live broadcast of the Los Angeles Sparks-Minnesota Lynx game (9 p.m. ET). One week later on July 15, the All-Star Game reserves for both conference teams will be named during ESPN2's live broadcast of the Sparks' game against the Indiana Fever (8 p.m. ET).
Meanwhile, Diggins is back in action at 7 p.m (ET) Thursday when Tulsa completes an East Coast road swing with a visit to the Connecticut Sun (watch it online at WNBA LiveAccess). Diggins, who currently ranks second in the WNBA in scoring (20.9 ppg.) and fifth in assists (5.3 apg.), also is one of the leading contenders for the WNBA's Most Improved Player award this season, having more than doubled her scoring output while showing noticeably higher totals in every major statistical and shooting percentage category.
Also on Thursday, McBride and San Antonio begin a two-game Midwest road trip, matching up against another Fighting Irish All-America alum, Devereaux Peters ('11) and the Minnesota Lynx at the Target Center in Minneapolis (8 p.m. ET on WNBA LiveAccess). McBride and the Stars then come to Indianapolis on Saturday for a 5 p.m. (ET) contest against the Indiana Fever at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (also on WNBA LiveAccess; tickets still available at the door).
McBride ranks third among all WNBA rookies in scoring (10.7 ppg.) and three-point percentage (.400), the latter among those averaging at least one three-point attempt per game.
At the same time, Peters continues to look stronger with each passing game following a delayed start to her season due to knee surgery. She is coming off a season-high 12 points, seven rebounds and four steals in a home win over Seattle on June 29. Peters currently is averaging 4.0 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in 11 outings this year.
Peters and the Lynx will also play on ESPN2 twice in the next week. Prior to its July 8 home game with Los Angeles that will feature the All-Star starters' announcement, Minnesota will be on "The Deuce" this coming Sunday for a 2 p.m. (ET) matinee against the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden.
FOLLOWING THE FIGHTING IRISH