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The New Pressure-Cooker Sport
Kelli Anderson
March 05, 2007
Women's hoops, with its increasingly high stakes, is mirroring the men's game
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March 05, 2007

The New Pressure-cooker Sport

Women's hoops, with its increasingly high stakes, is mirroring the men's game

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BY MOST measures, 2005--06 was a banner season for Hillary Klimowicz, then a 6'2" freshman center at St. Joseph's. Thanks in large part to her play--she averaged 8.9 points and 7.3 rebounds and blocked 60 shots--the Hawks went 20--11, earned a WNIT bid and were recognized as the nation's most improved team. But soon after she had collected her Atlantic 10 and Big Five rookie of the year trophies, Klimowicz made what she calls "the hardest decision of my life": She gave up her $38,000-a-year scholarship, said goodbye to a coach she loved and transferred to The College of New Jersey, a nonscholarship Division III school in Ewing, N.J. The issue wasn't playing time, academic struggles (she had a 3.2 GPA) or bad chemistry with teammates. Klimowicz was frustrated by the time demands of her sport, which, including the team's mandatory study hall for freshmen, ate up as many as seven hours a day.

"Practices were up to 3 1/2 hours; then there was weightlifting, study hall and outside shooting practice," says Klimowicz. "I had to do extra workouts because I wasn't as naturally athletic as everyone else. It wasn't mandatory, but it was expected. I had always been big on extracurriculars but wasn't able to do them at all. I didn't feel I was getting all I wanted out of my college experience."

The demands made on St. Joe's basketball players are fairly typical among top Division I women's programs. Though the women's game isn't driven by the same economic forces that spur the men's--few programs turn a profit, and none get a cut of TV revenue for making the NCAA tournament--it has become a supercompetitive, high-stakes enterprise that increasingly mirrors the men's game in TV exposure, coaches' escalating salaries, pressure to win and time demands on student-athletes.

"Following the men's lead, everything in women's basketball has increased," says Division III Colby College coach Lori Gear McBride, a member of North Carolina's 1994 NCAA title team and Klimowicz's senior-year coach at Scotch Plains--Fanwood High in New Jersey. "Do I see it as a positive for every student-athlete? No. I think you have to figure out what you want from your college experience."

If it's a free education and the challenge of D-I competition, be prepared for long hours in hightops. "Being competitive in women's basketball today requires a huge commitment," says Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour. "And with the resources schools are pouring into programs [the average D-I team's budget has tripled in the last decade], there's no excuse for not winning."

Promising players feel the pressure early. "Recruiting is a whole other game now," says one longtime college assistant. "It's intense, it's personal, and now, with text- and instant-messaging, it's constant." Colleges are not allowed to call prospective recruits before their junior year, yet female players (often wooed through their AAU coaches) have made oral commitments to schools as early as ninth grade, long before they've made any official visits. Coaches point to this phenomenon as a reason the women's game is starting to reflect the men's in the number of players who transfer.

"Choosing a school is such an educational process," says Cal coach Joanne Boyle. "What's the system like? What's my position? Who am I going to be playing with? With technology the way it is now, a kid thinks, I've known this coach a year and a half--that's who I want to play for. But a 15- or 16-year-old probably isn't mature enough to make that decision."

Klimowicz's interdivisional transfer was different from most, and so was her motivation. As a high school player she had made three official visits and signed with St. Joe's in her senior year. Thanks to McBride, she had a pretty good idea of the commitment she would be making at the D-I level. She just didn't know how it would feel. "As soon as [scholarship] money gets involved, your sport does become a job," she says. "You have to perform, and if you don't, there are consequences, like sitting on the bench. That pressure was there all the time."

Not that Division III is pressure-free. "We still have goals and struggles at this level," says Klimowicz, who has taken out loans to help pay TCNJ's $20,000-a-year total tab, "but it's not as demanding. I have a much better balance in my life now." At TCNJ she spends about three hours a day on basketball-related activities (she averaged a team-high 12.4 points and 7.4 rebounds this season for the 13--14 Lions and was named first-team All--New Jersey Athletic Conference) and is minoring in sociology and women and gender studies in addition to her psychology major. She has plans to join the school band--she has played trombone since fourth grade--and is now rushing a coed service fraternity. "I have a lot of respect for the people who play Division I sports," she says, "because it takes a lot out of you. People who can stick it out for four years are very strong."