By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In a way, as the bus pulled out from the curb at the Coliseum on Wednesday it was taking the West Virginia University’s ninth-ranked women’s basketball team on more than just a trip to Villanova to see if the Mountaineers could win at the Wildcats’ gym for the first time ever, but on the first leg of a journey to meet the fate.
The Villanova game marks the Big East Conference opener, and for Madina Ali, a senior co-captain along with Liz Repella of this team with national championship aspirations, in a way it began the final leg of a long, strange journey that brought her to this moment.
In a way, she had always been a member of a team, being one of 10 children born to Abdul-Rahim and Atiya Ali in Williamsport, Pa.
She had been a star athlete in high school and had even made decent grades, but her SAT scores kept her from qualifying for major college basketball.
“You’ll never hear me say I’m a great test taker, because I’m not,” she said before boarding that bus to her future.
And so she had to take the junior college route, winding up at Daytona Beach Junior College, which when you think about the winters and snow that is laying on the ground here, isn’t such a bad thing.
“The coach at Daytona State came and met with me and my father at our high school. I felt she took the time to drive 18 hours to visit me, so why wouldn’t I take the time to go out there and play for her?” Ali said. “I knew the girls there and the coach were the right ones. She taught me things and maturity.
“I could have been a hard-headed high school kid. They all made me work harder and molded me into becoming a leader.”
After averaging 19 points a game, major colleges came knocking, but it was Mike Carey at West Virginia who won her over.
Making a decision like the one she was about to make is never easy, not with all that is tied into it, but the combination of Carey and WVU sold her.
“When Coach Carey came and visited me at Daytona, he was so straight forward about what he wanted. He wasn’t beating around the bush and selling me false hope,” she said. “I knew deep down that his personality, mentality, his accomplishments, his goals he wanted to reach … I just wanted to be part of that. He had so much I liked.
“Then when I came here on my visit, I talked to my parents, I figured this was the right spot.
“The campus was beautiful. I went to a football game. Everything I saw was perfect. The girls were wonderful. The coaching staff was amazing. It was like I was part of it even before I signed my papers.”
Recruiting is never an easy job for a coach, having to sell the good points but not really deny any of the bad ones. This is truer in Carey’s case than many because he is a demanding coach, one who pushes and pushes in practice. He has to make that part of the pitch, for without it he could wind up with people who do not belong there.
“I think you have to be honest, whether it’s good or bad for you, because the bottom line is when they get here, reality sets in. I’m the same way with the area, the school, what we have, this is how we do things in practice,” he said.
“He said practice was tough, but I got the real end of it from the girls,” Ali said. “Coming from Stephanie Smith, my juco coach, she was no one to be playing with. And she was a lady. You figure if you can deal with a lady, you can definitely deal with a man.”
Which, in a way, was a strange thing to say, but then Carey understands that there is a difference for him dealing with women than when he dealt with men as coach at Salem.
And sometimes it’s harder. Men can have men talk. The coach can hang in the locker room after practice and talk the talk.
It’s far more difficult if you are coaching a women’s team.
“I try to do that with them,” Carey said. “They need to see a different side in me, too. The Mike Carey on the floor is not the same Mike Carey off the floor and they need to realize that. I tell them straight up when I’m recruiting them. I’m the toughest son of a gun you’ve ever been in front of on the floor. Off the floor, I’m one of your best friends.”
Ali has bought whole-heartedly into that.
“Coach Carey has been tough, but I love his mentality. I love his enthusiasm, the way he encourages us to do everything,” she said.
There is another difference between the men’s game and the women’s game. The men are dreaming of the NBA or an overseas league. There is a lot of money to be made through an extended basketball career.
On the women’s side it is far more limited, and they must understand that.
“I’m sure every senior athlete, whether it’s basketball, soccer or whatever wants to go to a professional league, but you have to understand that’s not going to be your whole life,” Ali said. “You have to have what’s after basketball. Reality, is that you have to be prepared for that. Being here, they prepare you.
“Coach has told me the reality. He says, ‘You have to know what the reality is. Don’t live in false hope and false dreams. Anything can happen and you have to be prepared for that.’ It’s not just him. You learn that from other teammates, other staff. This place really prepares you for everything.”
“I always tell them you want options. You have to get a degree, No. 1. If you are good enough to go overseas or WBNA, great, but you have to options. I stress academics as much as I do the basketball.
“It’s not like the guys, where they go out and make big money. The girls will make more money with their degrees than they will in basketball,” he said.
So Ali and Repella understand that this is the senior year, maybe the last time they really do compete.
“Playing for this program and for Coach Carey you just have to go out and give it your all,” Ali said.
“In the back of my head I hear Coach (George) Porcha saying, ‘This is your last year, your last opportunity. Every time you have to go out there and prove yourself and make something of yourself. You have to give something to the team on defense or offense,’”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.