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After several winning seasons on the court, Boyle has parlayed her success on the recruiting trail. According to Glenn Nelson of HoopGurlz, a web site that chronicles college basketball recruiting, Boyle and her new assistants, Charmin Smith, a Stanford player who went on to play in the WNBA, and Kevin Morrison, a successful prep coach with an extensive background in Southern California and on the AAU circuit, have mastered the process. Seven new recruits, all rated in the top 150, have joined the Bears this semester. Last week, three more blue-chippers committed for 2010. Nationally, Cal is the only school to attract consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. At the highest levels of college basketball, there is no substitute for top-notch talent.
But attracting ten top talents in a two-year span creates a delicate balancing act for Boyle. Big-time players don't like watching from the sidelines, and in the coming years that likely will be the case. Following last year's breakout season, three reserves transferred, stating that they were looking for a campus that was a better fit. In the college game, that's often a euphemism used by players who want more time on the court. Boyle adroitly doesn't make any promises in the recruiting process, and with increased numbers, the Bears will play faster and make more substitutions, in attempt to wear down opponents in a transition game. And that's no small point. Boyle's Cal teams thus far have been talented but thin, suffering several notable late-game collapses.
Tierra Rogers was the most heralded of the seven freshmen. She made her mark as the defensive whiz for San Francisco's Sacred Heart Cathedral, a team so talented that it was undefeated and ranked number one nationally in Rogers' junior year. Like a lot of coaches, Boyle had Rogers in her sights early in the process. With proximity in Cal's favor, Rogers and her father, Terrell, became regular visitors to Berkeley, enamored with Boyle's successes.
But on a crystal-clear January night in 2008, during one of Rogers' games on the school campus, Terrell was murdered across the street from the gym as he took his customary halftime cigarette break. Two gunmen approached Terrell and another man, and opened fire. Terrell's acquaintance, unharmed and untargeted, watched in horror. When the game resumed, Tierra was removed by her coach and notified by her principal in an adjacent classroom. Inside the gym, a gloom enveloped the crowd as the news spread.
Terrell's role as a community activist and mediator between gangs in San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood apparently led to his murder. And nearly two years later, the murder remains unsolved. On an ESPN Outside the Lines report, Guy Hudson, Terrell's close friend and Tierra's godfather, eerily declared that "everyone knows what happened." Sadly, in Terrell's case, the code of the streets trumped a murder investigation.
Boyle was there at courtside for Rogers' first game following her father's death. According to a column in Sports Illustrated by Chris Ballard, Rogers started the game, but looked uncomfortable and never returned to the court once the second period began. But after the game, outside in the parking lot, Boyle and Tierra spoke.
The coach's dialogue with Rogers continued after the murder, but Boyle says the conversations between her and the young player never touched on basketball. Boyle came to know a girl who spoke in the undeveloped rhythms of a teenager, but with the depth of an old soul, the product of her difficult circumstances. Without her mentor, cheerleader, and father, Rogers considered giving up basketball entirely. But eventually, her evolving relationship with Boyle won out, and she committed to Cal during her senior year.
During an unsupervised on-campus workout this semester, Rogers, playing with her Cal teammates, grew short of breath and then collapsed in the hallway of the gym as medical staff attended to her. Rogers was hospitalized for more than two weeks and it was discovered she has a rare heart condition that could have been fatal under the physical stress of a college season. Rogers was implanted with a defribillator to maintain her heart's rhythm, and doctors told her she can never play basketball again.
A press conference was arranged, at which Boyle and Rogers made statements about how Rogers would have to give up the game she loved. By the conclusion, Boyle was in tears, no doubt thinking about her own 2001 brush with mortality, when she was diagnosed with a genetic neurological condition that required brain surgery and a lengthy recovery process. Within that fight, Boyle gained an increased focus, which eventually brought her to Berkeley and kept her at Cal when Duke came calling.
"This is obviously devastating news for Tierra and her family," Boyle said in a statement. "We are here to stand by her 100 percent with whatever she needs. Obviously, basketball was a very precious part of her life, but she has a higher purpose here than just being a basketball player, and her health and well-being are our primary concern. Right now, she can really use all the support and prayers she can get to help her through these trying times."
Privately, Boyle has tried to help Rogers realize a new purpose, a journey that she herself was quite familiar with. Rogers seems likely to retain her scholarship, and if the school needs that funding at some point, her education evidently will be paid for by a medical hardship program. Rogers also continues to attend team practices, and she and Boyle have apparently discussed coaching as a possible option.
The loss of Rogers on the court has left the Cal basketball family needing to fill a void. At a recent practice, while Rogers was away for a medical appointment, Boyle stood at the court's perimeter, teaching the intricacies of the trap and the full-court press. Unlike previous years, when Boyle's passion in teaching might cross into menacing yelling, the coach's voice was calm; only the player she was instructing could hear her words in the cavernous gym. Eventually, each of the six freshmen received patient advice from Boyle during breaks. Meanwhile, assistants Smith, Morrison, and Jen Hoover focused on getting the team to react to how the opponent is moving the basketball, getting their feet pointed in the right direction and having the correct stance. These defenses are central to the Bears' new, faster scheme, and on this day, the process of absorption took the lion's share of the team's time on the court. It was at these very defenses that Rogers excelled at in high school.
Like the transition from defense to offense, Rogers now has Boyle to lead her in the transition from athletics to whatever comes next. Boyle went through a similar transition after leaving Duke as a standout player, and since then she's helped steer numerous other players through the process. The difference is Rogers' transition will be more dramatic, and filled with highs and lows. Already, Boyle says Rogers has had tough days coping, but on those days the coach makes sure she's with the team, still a part of Boyle's structured environment.
"I'm so glad she's here," Boyle confided. "I'm sick to my stomach about what's going on with her. She's supported, she's got great teammates, an administration that cares about her. What if she was somewhere else and didn't have the support system, sort of the new freshman on campus?"
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