Oct. 20, 2015
By Curt Rallo
They came in as a class of three, and at their backs, they have an army of support and resources as they transition to academic and athletic life at the University of Notre Dame.
Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale and Ali Patberg will be suiting up to help the Fighting Irish women's basketball team pursue a national championship, and likewise, they will be pursing academic excellence in the classroom.
It will not be a solitary journey for any of them.
"The coaches have been great," Patberg said of the way the Notre Dame women's basketball program has been looking out for the freshmen. "I picked the right school. The resources, the people here, the coaches ... they've been great.
"The coaches told me that it takes time, that it's a process, and you'll make progress every day," she added. "The upperclassmen have been so helpful, telling us how to do things, and making sure we're on top of everything. Outside of basketball, there are so many helpful people, professors and classmates, who are supportive of us just as people That's what has been great for me, knowing that people are looking out for me at Notre Dame."
Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame's Karen and Kevin Keyes Head Women's Basketball Coach, said that she and her staff are committed to the person, not just a player.
"The big picture is so important," McGraw said of the care and guidance that freshman players receive at Notre Dame. "Basketball is a small part of their lives. It's a great time for them to grow as women. We really want them to get a full experience of all of Notre Dame, not just a basketball experience.
"There's so much more that they can experience, and so many people they can meet, in the dorms, in the community," the Hall of Fame Fighting Irish coach noted. "We were anxious to really help them on their journey. It's a fun time to see how much they're going to grow and what we can do to help them."
Ogunbowale loves the fact that she has plenty of support as she begins her collegiate journey.
"It's very important that Notre Dame has so many people and resources to help, especially with the academics," Ogunbowale said.
"There are tutors for everything, so you just talk to your academic advisor, and you can get a tutor for any subject. We don't have as much time as regular students, so getting the extra help is always needed, because we have practice and workouts and lifts, and we have a lot of other obligations. Having someone one-on-one to help us is really nice."
Mabrey has the added bonus of having a sister, Michaela Mabrey, on the team. She said that her older sister, who also is a guard and senior tri-captain, and all of the other Irish upperclassmen have been making sure she doesn't make `freshman' mistakes.
Marina Mabrey pointed out that Notre Dame's support system has eased the path from high school to college.
"There are a lot of resources at Notre Dame that help you transition to college," she said. "Compliance is always there for you. The coaches are always willing to talk to you and want to know how you're doing outside of basketball. You get a lot of academic help."
Mabrey, Ogunbowale and Patberg are looking to make an immediate impact on the court. They each crafted remarkable high school careers highlighted by All-America honors and success on the international stage with USA Basketball.
Mabrey, the co-MVP of the 2015 McDonald's High School All-America Game, graduated from Manasquan High School, and the Belmar, New Jersey, native had career averages of 22.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.0 steals. She scored 2,525 points in her high school career.
Ogunbowale was a three-time Wisconsin High School Player of the Year and finished up at Milwaukee's Divine Savior Holy Angels High School with career averages of 22.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.2 steals, and scored 2,240 points in four prep seasons.
Patberg, the reigning MaxPreps National High School Player of the Year and Indiana Miss Basketball, ended her career at Columbus North High School in Columbus, Indiana, with 18.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.6 steals per game, scoring a total of 2,026 points in her four prep seasons.
"This is the most talented class that we've had in terms of three All-Americans, and we're expecting all three of them to contribute, and we need them really, really quickly," McGraw said. "It's a good time for them to come in and have an opportunity to play right away and certainly to contribute in a really big way. We have some holes to fill. I'm really hoping they make the transition a little bit quicker.
"I think they are a very confident group, so I think that makes them a little bit fearless. I think they get over their mistakes quicker, which is a good thing," McGraw added.
Ogunbowale embodies the fearless and physical play of the Irish freshmen.
"I think we're all just really physical," Ogunbowale said. "We've all played USA Basketball, so we have experience in playing the top athletes, already. We've played in the McDonald's All-America Game, so we know how a lot of these players play, and what to expect. We just want to go in and play. The coaching staff has been great about helping us transition. They have a lot of faith in us. They have a lot of trust in us. That helps us elevate, that we know that our coaches are looking to us to score, and drive, and make things happen as a freshman.
"We really want to do well this year," she added. "We have to be able to put our fears aside and just go out and act like we've been here forever."
Patberg loved the fierce competitiveness of the freshmen class.
"Our drive to win is special," Patberg said. "We want it bad. We're talented. Arike and Marina can score whenever they want. I think our work ethic also stands out."
Mabrey said that the freshmen have entered the Irish program with a willingness to work.
"The thing that stands out about us is how hard we work," Mabrey said. "We're always in the gym. We're always trying to get better. We're really aggressive, even kind of hard headed in a way, as if to say, `we're not going to lose to you.' I feel that by the time we're juniors and seniors, we're going to be setting the example. I think that will lead to more aggression and more edges. We all have edges to win."
Aggressive play by the freshmen gives them an edge, according to Mabrey.
"We've come in and gone at people," Mabrey said. "Sometimes we miss a boxout, but we're looking for it, looking to hit somebody. If the ball is on the ground, we're going to go after it. I hope the team is getting a spark of energy from us.
"The coaches give us a lot of confidence," she noted. "They're telling us, go do it. We'll tell you if it's wrong. That gives us an added boost."
Notre Dame plays an exhibition game at 1 p.m. (ET) Nov. 7, welcoming NCAA Division II foe Wayne State to Purcell Pavilion. The Irish also open the regular season at home at 1 p.m. (ET) Nov. 15 against Bucknell.
For Patberg, starting her Notre Dame career will be special, because she knows she's in it with a force of players, coaches and support staff.
"The freshman year is hard, in school, on the court," Patberg said. "When we have to go through those hard times, we know we're really there for each other. I think that's where we really built the bond and have each other's back. When someone is not having the best day, whether it's on the floor or in general, we've grown in that area, by having each other's backs, and pushing each other."
This season, the Irish hope that push on the court is to college basketball's mountaintop, and the Notre Dame freshmen will be prepared for every challenge on the way to the summit.
Curt Rallo is a special correspondent for Fighting Irish Media and served as the South Bend Tribune's women's basketball beat writer from 2009-14, covering four of Notre Dame's seven NCAA Final Four appearances, including national championship game berths in 2011, 2012 and 2014.