Four Autumns ago Penn State coach Rene Portland drove the half hour it takes to get from Doddridge County High in West Union, W.Va.—HOME OF THE MOST FRIENDLY AND COURTEOUS STUDENTS IN WEST VIRGINIA, or so it says above the school's front door—to the home of Susan Robinson. Portland traveled two state routes and a gravel road into a hollow, carefully following Doddridge coach Craig Kellar, who was in another car, to make sure she didn't miss a turn and wind up clear in the next county. The Robinson place is nestled picturesquely on the family's 170 hilly acres in Center Point (pop. 85); a cherry tree shades the front porch, and a weathered hoop stands by a shack out back. By the time Kellar and Portland arrived, Portland's vehicle was so caked with dust that she could hardly tell its color.
No matter. After what she had seen of Robinson at the high school gym the day before, Portland would have crawled to the top of Spruce Knob—the 4,863-foot peak is the highest point in the state—to recruit her. In the game, Robinson at times bulled her way to the basket, at other times handled the ball like a guard. Center Point, it seems, is a name that nicely describes the range of her skills. "As soon as I saw her, I was embarrassed I had never seen her before," Portland says.
Robinson enrolled at Penn State in 1988, and last year she helped the surprising Lady Lions to the No. 1 ranking in the final regular-season Associated Press poll. Her signature is a bludgeoning consistency. Robinson, a 6'1" power forward, has started each of Penn State's 91 games during the past three seasons; she has scored in double figures in all of them. She has never averaged fewer than 18.0 points or 8.4 rebounds in a season, never shot less than 50% from the floor or 82% from the free throw line, and never allowed her GPA to slip below 2.8 (out of 4.0) during any semester.
Virginia coach Debbie Ryan has characterized Robinson as a distaff Larry Bird. She can break the press (passing), bust a zone (shooting) or crush a nose (elbow). "Susan does the right thing at the right time," says guard Dana Eikenburg, one of four senior starters. "She packs the big punch."
The Lady Lions went from a mediocre 14-14 record during Robinson's freshman season to an eye-popping 29-2 in '90-91. Now Robinson and her teammates want to make up for their disappointing second-round, 73-71 upset loss to James Madison in the NCAA tournament last March. "We want to make sure it's still fun, to be ourselves and to play our game," Robinson says. "We want to have our shot at the national title."
Shortly after last year's frustrating finale, Robinson handed Portland a framed poem that ends, "Dreams that are easily shattered can just as easily be rebuilt."
"The small-town environment did such a great job of raising Susan's self-esteem," Portland says. "Obviously, it somehow gave her a license to challenge the world. It gave her a license to dream."
It certainly didn't inhibit Robinson's reveries that she led the high school to two state basketball titles, set a state schoolgirl record in the discus (125'0"), killed a few buck while deer hunting with her two older brothers, graduated first in her class of 90 and was chosen homecoming...what?...princess? But some colleges still weren't sure that this smalltown girl could make good in a big-time program. Tennessee, a perennial national title contender, politely returned a Robinson video to Kellar; powerful Southern Cal sent back its copy with a note saying that she was only a marginal prospect.
Soon, Robinson began to wonder herself if she could measure up in a program of Penn State's high profile. "I finally just had to take the chance," she says. Her father, Bill, a retired lineman for a gas company, was less ambivalent about his daughter's skills. "She might have had doubts," he says, "but I didn't have any."
Neither did Portland, especially after Robinson's first practice at Penn State. Portland was a star at Immaculata College in the early '70s, but she was in for a surprise when she tried to demonstrate low-post defense against Robinson. "Susan gets the ball and turns to the basket," recalls Eikenburg. "Rene gets an elbow right in her chin, and she's on the floor, still gasping for breath five minutes later." Portland now stays out of the paint.