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Original Issue

The New Pressure-Cooker Sport

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

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

"Practiceswere up to 3 1/2 hours; then there was weightlifting, study hall and outsideshooting practice," says Klimowicz. "I had to do extra workouts becauseI wasn't as naturally athletic as everyone else. It wasn't mandatory, but itwas expected. I had always been big on extracurriculars but wasn't able to dothem at all. I didn't feel I was getting all I wanted out of my collegeexperience."

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

"Followingthe men's lead, everything in women's basketball has increased," saysDivision III Colby College coach Lori Gear McBride, a member of NorthCarolina's 1994 NCAA title team and Klimowicz's senior-year coach at ScotchPlains--Fanwood High in New Jersey. "Do I see it as a positive for everystudent-athlete? No. I think you have to figure out what you want from yourcollege experience."

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

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

"Choosing aschool 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 playingwith? With technology the way it is now, a kid thinks, I've known this coach ayear and a half--that's who I want to play for. But a 15- or 16-year-oldprobably isn't mature enough to make that decision."

Klimowicz'sinterdivisional transfer was different from most, and so was her motivation. Asa 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 thecommitment she would be making at the D-I level. She just didn't know how itwould feel. "As soon as [scholarship] money gets involved, your sport doesbecome a job," she says. "You have to perform, and if you don't, thereare consequences, like sitting on the bench. That pressure was there all thetime."

Not that DivisionIII is pressure-free. "We still have goals and struggles at thislevel," 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 betterbalance in my life now." At TCNJ she spends about three hours a day onbasketball-related activities (she averaged a team-high 12.4 points and 7.4rebounds this season for the 13--14 Lions and was named first-team All--NewJersey Athletic Conference) and is minoring in sociology and women and genderstudies in addition to her psychology major. She has plans to join the schoolband--she has played trombone since fourth grade--and is now rushing a coedservice fraternity. "I have a lot of respect for the people who playDivision I sports," she says, "because it takes a lot out of you.People who can stick it out for four years are very strong."




Klimowicz found that playing at the Division I level (right) was afull-time--but not fulfilling--job.


Photographs by Al Tielemans

[See Caption Above.]