AN APPRECIATION

Shea Ralph, guard, University of Connecticut

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It was about 45 minutes after a Big East Conference regular-season game in 2000, and the usual post-game rituals occurred. News conferences, the handing out of game stats, television cameras and radio microphones at play.

Connecticut had visited Rutgers University that day, and had beaten their Top 10 rival thanks to good shooting and a stifling defense that caused more than a half-dozen violations of the 30-second shot clock.

The main figure in that defensive effort that day was the woman with prominent arms, a wavy ponytail, a visible sense of purpose, and a sizable knee wrap.

Long after the game was over, Shea Ralph sat in the bleachers -- sans knee wrap -- innocuous to the media attention being showered on everybody else, not wondering why the media wasn't interested in her.

Since she stepped onto the Connecticut campus in 1996, Shea Ralph has attacked the game of basketball like (what else?) a husky attacking a snowy trail. Diving after loose balls, playing defense, and scoring -- either off the bench or as a starter.

Ralph was the "sixth woman" for Connecticut in the 1996-97 season, coming off the bench in all 31 games in which she participated. She was third on the team in scoring before shredding her right anterior cruciate ligament after playing a scant three minutes of an NCAA Tournament game against Lehigh.

She had a rough time in her rehabilitation -- in more ways than one. Shea Ralph had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa as a teenager, and the condition came back during her rehabilitation.

Ralph had a second injury to the same knee in the 1997 preseason workouts, which may have been caused by her not eating properly. She missed the entire 1997-98 season because of re-rehabilitation.

''I have a certain sense of responsibility as far as my teammates are concerned,'' she told the Hartford Courant. ''I owe them. Because they helped me get to the only place I ever wanted to be in my life.''

She came back after her redshirt season and became the heart and soul of the UConn team. She injected fire into everything she did, setting the pace for teams that won five straight Big East titles and the NCAA title in 2000. Head down, chin up, eyes narrowed, not backing down from anything.

And, after the Rutgers game, she was as personable as could be. She showed a journalist her knee scars and talked at length about her rehabilitation. Her knees, elbows, and disposition showed that she had been through a lot in her first two decades on earth.

But fate was to deal another cruel blow to Ralph. In her final Big East title game in 2001, she hustled after her own missed layup attempt underneath the basket. She crumpled in a blue-clad heap.

This time, it was the left ACL that buckled.

Shea Ralph would have been a definite first-round pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, and she had been looking forward to perhaps playing near her home fans with the Charlotte Sting. That dream, however, is going to be another several months of rehabilitation away.

Shea Ralph is the total embodiment of the female athlete in the 21st Century -- great at what she does, winning attitude, personable, and a little fragile. The game of basketball is diminished with her absence.

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