We’re at a gym nestled among some hills on a Saturday afternoon in late February. The perfect occasion for a 5-10 wisp of a sharpshooter, with enough metal in her arms to make Wolverine blush, to banish some demons.
Wait, slow down a minute. First, the scene must be set.
The Santa Clara women’s basketball team has made the quick trip north to McKeon Pavilion to take on rival Saint Mary’s in a late-season West Coast Conference tilt. The Broncos haven’t won here in five years. And there’s this guard wearing SCU burgundy with this ponytail swishing as she shuttles about the perimeter, knocking down jumpers with consummate ease.
To Ricki Radanovich, a win here would mean a whole helluva lot.
Three years and 50 weeks before, on this very court, Radanovich (ra-DON-o-vich) fractured her right forearm. As she’ll put it months later, and only partly in jest, “I hate playing there.” Three years and 50 weeks before, Radanovich was a high school senior keen on leading Carondelet High to a state championship. There was feeling that this was the strongest team in her four years. The year before, they’d lost in the state finals to Brea Olinda. This year, they’ll likely have to go through Mater Dei, the No. 1 team in the nation.
But things are looking good against Northgate in the fourth quarter of the North Coast Section final, one of the precursors to a state run. A seventh NCS title in eight years seems a mere formality. Carondelet is up by 20 points with just over four minutes to play. Head coach Margaret Gartner is preparing to switch her starters with subs, to see this thing out.But then Radanovich launches out on a fast-break.
Carondelet sophomore guard Hannah Huffman is trailing behind when she sees Radanovich go skidding into the stanchion. Hard. A Northgate defender had fouled her. Radanovich recalls getting shoved from behind. Everything was happening so fast, and her right forearm was suddenly a blur of bone and skin. Huffman remembers coming upon the scene and seeing two snaps, the bones breaking through skin. “The girl that broke it was just absolutely devastated,” says Radanovich’s mother Laurie, who was sitting in the stands with Radanovich’s father Bo. “It was,” says Gartner, “a horrific blow.”
Radanovich was rushed to John Muir Health Center, about eight miles away in Walnut Creek. She had surgery that night. When she awoke, 14 screws and two plates had been inserted into her right forearm. “Ricki’s senior year had been so idyllic before that happened,” says Laurie. “It was just devastating.”
The next morning, Gartner came to visit her fallen leader. “She told Ricki, ‘I know this isn’t the way you envisioned your season ending, but we want you on that bench going forward. We see you as a coach, helping us.’ It made Ricki feel so much better.”
Says Radanovich, “I still wanted that state championship, whether I was on the court or not.”
“It was so hard for her to go back to that first practice, not playing, and knowing her high school career was over,” says Laurie, “but Margaret made her being on that bench feel just as important for the team. It was probably the most support she’s ever felt in her whole life.”
Huffman remembers the first time Radanovich returned to practice after her surgery. “She was more calm than any of us were. We were flustered, but she sat us down and told us that the goals hadn’t changed. We had to use what had happened as motivation, not as an excuse. If we were going to do this, new players needed to step up. “Huffman, who now plays for Notre Dame, took over one of the lead guard roles. “She’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met, so I wanted to make sure that along with her competitiveness, she was still leading the team,” says Radanovich. “She did a really good job.”
Radanovich, who calls Huffman one of her best friends, drew upon her own experience to bolster her leadership. In her first year at Carondelet, Radanovich had been the lone freshman on the Cougars varsity team. It could have been terrifying going toe to toe with older girls who’d won state championships.
But the environment was a welcoming one. Radanovich could talk to Gartner whenever she needed help. “She was an incredible support system,” Radanovich says. “She’d stay after practice and talk with me. She had this soothing, quiet demeanor. I loved playing for her.”
Says Laurie, “Coming in as this little freshman the year after (former Stanford and current WNBA star) Jayne Appel graduated, with this team that had accomplished so much, Margaret just took Ricki under her wing. She didn’t care if she went 0-6 in a first half. Right out of the gate, she told Ricki to start shooting No. 7 like she hadn’t missed a shot beforehand.”
Radanovich’s goal had been to win a state title. That she might not be on the court in no way stanched her competitive spirit. She threw herself into helping her teammates prepare for their games. She was going to do everything she could to maximize this team’s chances.
It became an emotional journey. Huffman and the rest of the Cougars wanted to win for their fallen friend. Carondelet rattled off three consecutive victories, including a grinding 40-38 battle over Archbishop Mitty in the NorCal championship game. Radanovich was a calming presence in the huddles. Huffman provided incandescent play. They met Mater Dei in the state final, and came up just short against one of the better high school teams in recent memory.The 58-43 loss still burns, but Radanovich adds a sprinkle of stoicism. “I mean, we were playing against the No. 1 team in the nation, so if you’re going to lose one game…”
Now, back to that doggone court at McKeon, with so many painful memories still festering among the rafters, waiting to be released in a grand gust of victory.
On this February afternoon, Radanovich is helping Santa Clara to that win. She’s hit threes from different spots, darting this way and that about the perimeter. That’s her calling card—has been since she began torching nets in the East Bay Area with that compact motion punctuated by a quick trigger. The right arm looks fine, but she’s wearing a black brace that extends midway up her left forearm, with white tape underneath.
More on that later.
As was the case at Carondelet, a shot from Ricki is a pretty good bet, and her Broncos teammates often oblige her. Throughout her time at Santa Clara, she’s worked fastidiously to implement new weapons into her offensive arsenal, but perimeter shooting remains her bread and butter. Seventy percent of her shots in 2013-14 came from beyond the arc.In fact, there was a home game against BYU this past February when Radanovich shirked her defender and drove to the hoop, where she missed a layup.
Several offensive trips later, she got to the foul line, only to hear a voice in the Leavey Center crowd call out—in jest—”Ricki, go back outside the three-point line! It’s OK! You’re more comfortable there!”
Radanovich couldn’t help but laugh. After all, it was kind of true!
Against the Gaels, she offers the faintest sliver of a smile when play gets a bit chippy. Ask anyone who knows Ricki: Sarcasm is as synonymous as her shooting. “I think you have to love that about her,” says Laurie. “She doesn’t like to take anything too seriously. If there’s, say, a brutal practice, she’d rather joke than complain about how hard it is. She just has a lightness about things.”
Late in the game, she grabbed a huge steal with the Broncos nursing a 76-69 lead. With 30 seconds left, she snatched an inbounds pass and fired a pass for a layup that seals it.The Broncos won 89-83. Radanovich finished with 8 points (2-2 from three.) Junior dynamo Nici Gilday pours in 23—including a clutch banked three—and freshman Montana Walters ends with a game- and career-high 26, including 5 three-pointers. It was the Broncos’ first win over the Gaels since the 2008-09 season.
Whenever Radanovich played at Saint Mary’s, she’d have these horrible flashbacks. That layup in Norcals, that fall, the rush to the hospital in agonizing pain. This was the game she’d circled on her calendar. And to do it on the Gaels’ Senior Day…Radanovich offered a sly smile. “I’d never beat them there,” she says.
Laurie and Bo were in the McKeon Pavilion stands, just as they’d been four years earlier. “I think that win was so great for her senior year,” says Laurie. “That team had just beaten up on them for four years. It was probably the biggest win of her career.”
It turned out to be a welcome respite in what had been, according to Santa Clara head coach Jennifer Mountain, “a roller-coaster ride of a season.”
That might have applied most readily to Radanovich.
When Mountain took the Santa Clara job in 2008, she’d been told by the athletic department to “go get local talent.” And there was this sharp-shooting guard just a quick drive up the interstate that played for one of the most prestigious high school basketball programs in the country.
Radanovich’s grandfather, Bob, played for the 1956-57 University of San Francisco team that cracked the Final Four (the Dons lost to Kansas, but defeated Michigan State in the third-place game.) He was a teammate of Bill Russell during the Dons’ heyday.Radanovich began playing in second grade, and quickly fell in love with the sport. Before long, she was working with a shooting coach three to four times a week, hoisting 300 to 500 shots in a single session. “It was something she really liked to do,” says Laurie. “She was happy to put in the time. It was a lot of work, but she was fully committed.” .
As college recruiting heated up at Carondelet, Radanovich leaned heavily toward Princeton. Before her junior year, she hadn’t even considered Santa Clara.
But a sea change occurred once Mountain took the Broncos job. Radanovich attended one of her first camps at the Leavey Center, and from the first time she set foot on the campus, she felt at home. Leigh Gregory, an SCU assistant, had attended and played basketball at Carondelet, and was an assistant coach on girl’s varsity when Radanovich played as a freshman. Everything seemed to fall into place.
“Ricki wanted to commit immediately to Santa Clara, and (Bo and I) asked her to hold off,” says Laurie. “We wanted her to look at what’s out there. There were five or six schools that were very interested in her. She did what we asked, she went on visits, but nothing compared to what she felt at Santa Clara. It just felt like the coaches really respected her and loved her, and the academics were so strong. It had the whole package.”
Radanovich quickly bonded with Mountain, who embraced her sarcasm and even dished out a healthy dose of her own. Mountain couldn’t get enough of her marksmanship. “Her shooting stood out as a prospect,” Mountain says. “She’s got range…like really, really deep range, probably the most of any player I’ve coached.”Radanovich made an immediate impact for the Broncos. She started the final 25 games of her freshman season, and finished with 54 three-pointers, fifth-best in conference for 2010-11. As a sophomore, she helped the Broncos to 12 wins. In 2012-13, Radanovich averaged 2.3 three-point field goals per game, which led the WCC. Santa Clara finished 14-16, the most wins of Mountain’s tenure.
The Broncos had built steadily, and though there was a heavy helping of youth on the 2013-14 team—three freshmen became starters—Radanovich was confident the five seniors could help spark something. This team wanted a crack at a post-season tournament.
But remember that roller coaster Mountain spoke of, and the black sleeve on Radanovich’s left wrist? The Broncos had been sent for a loop before the season had ever really gotten going.Two days after Santa Clara’s second game in November, Radanovich took part in a fast-break, full-court press drill during practice. Standard stuff. Then, she went to block one of her teammate’s layups. She got up in the air…and lost control.
She slammed down to the floor. Her left wrist became trapped underneath her. Lightning had struck twice. “It was very graceful,” Radanovich says now, laughing.
Trainers rushed to Radanovich’s side. As Mountain approached to observe the damage and console her player, they turned to her and said, “She’s done.”
In high school, it had been a clean break to her right forearm. Her left wrist, however, was a jumble of floating bones, and had to be set before surgery.”I went to the doctor’s office—I should’ve gone to the hospital—and I wasn’t allowed any painkillers, and they had to set my wrist because it was broken into a bunch of pieces, and it took a couple of minutes…without painkillers…so there was a lot of yelling going on in that room,” Radanovich says. “Then they set it, wrapped it up and said, ‘See you in a day and a half.’ That was when I went back in for the surgery.”
Now, Radanovich had eight screws and a plate in her left forearm. Another severe injury during a senior year. Again, the timing could not have been crueler. She’d poured herself into strengthening her game in the offseason. Her handle felt tighter, and she was adding different elements to her offensive arsenal. Now, she had a choice to make: redshirt or rehab. But there were further wrinkles complicating the decision.
Over the summer, Radanovich had worked for eight weeks in the San Jose office of Deloitte, a firm that specializes in audit, financial advisory, tax and consulting areas. There were 5:30 a.m. wakeups, followed by workouts at Santa Clara. Then, she was off to Deloitte for a 9-6 workday before returning to campus for more conditioning, weights and pick-up runs.
Deloitte had offered her a full-time job, beginning this September. At Santa Clara, Radanovich lived with four other senior athletes who were also moving to San Francisco to start jobs. After careful decision, she decided to keep her post-school plans intact and throw herself into recovery.
“It was a really hard decision,” she says. “I’d just been made senior captain, I was the returning leading scorer…I had so many ideas of what I thought this year was going to be, and it wasn’t.”But Radanovich refused to mope. She wanted to help lead this young team on the court. She wanted to reclaim as much of her senior year as she could. She hoisted endless series of one-handed jumpers. Before long, trainers were in sync with her sarcasm.
Though she couldn’t do any cardio—there were worries of complications with blood flow into her wrist—she attended practice and worked to become a better leader.
The injury pulled her out of herself. “I learned a lot about leadership, how when you’re part of a team, it’s not about you,” Radanovich says.
She made the quickest recovery from that type of injury the Santa Clara training staff had ever seen. Mountain says she’d never seen anything like it. Says Laurie, “The day she broke her left wrist…and [Bo and I] thought maybe that was it for her career…she told us, ‘This will not be my last game.’ If I cannot get back on the court this year, I’m coming back next year.’”
Radanovich returned for a January 11 conference game against Pacific, and scored 11 points on 4-6 shooting, 2-4 from three. She followed that up with 13 points and 5 rebounds against Portland. Along with 3 threes, she had 2 steals, a block and an assist.
Radanovich started the final seven games of the season, including that Saint Mary’s game. There was no chance she was going to miss it.
When it gets cold—see: conference trips to Spokane, Wash. or Provo, Utah in the dead of winter—the metal in her arms cools and tenses up. “It just makes my bones, like, ache,” Radanovich says.
Strength remained an issue, after such an accelerated recovery.
“When I was playing, and my wrist got hit, I just wanted to scream,” Radanovich says. “But the hardest part was getting the feel of the game back. Like on the defensive end, not being so reactive to anything. This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
To be a great shooter is to forget your last miss, and Radanovich excels at being continually present. Her only thought is that the next shot is going in. Gartner, her high school coach, has a number of stories that burnish this mentality. There was that game in the Norcal playoffs in Radanovich’s junior year at Carondelet when she hit 10 threes and poured in 35 points. Or the one when the Cougars tripped to Deer Valley in the West Coast Jamboree.
Radanovich started 0-15 from the field against the Wolverines. With the final seconds ticking down, the game hung in the balance. There was no question who was taking the last shot for the Cougars. (She sank it.) “I still had the confidence in her,” Gartner says. “And she still won the game for us. I have stories like that I can tell my younger shooters. You have to believe that every shot is going in. You can’t remember the misses.”
“I think that’s why her shot was so consistent in high school,” says Laurie. “Her coach and teammates had complete confidence in her. They wanted her to fire at will.”
Humor is a marker of intelligence, says Gartner, and there’s a sense that Radanovich’s fabled handle on the stuff, with just enough of a sarcastic kick to spice things up, has helped her weather any protracted shooting slumps. When she was immersed in her rehab this season, she joked around with the training staff. It made the endless series of exercises more manageable. Says Gilday, “Ricki’s just fun to be around. She’ll always make light of different situations. Obviously she has her game face on when she takes the court, but when funny things happen, she’ll definitely throw in a one-liner. It’s nice to have that personality thrown in there.”
On Senior Day against Pepperdine, Radanovich scored the first points of the game with a three at the top of the key. She hit her next attempt, another three, then missed her next three shots. But she remained active in the Broncos’ full-court press. She drove and gets to the line, where she hits four free throws. After she hit a three on the right wing, with just under two minutes until halftime, she had 13 points, 2 rebounds and 3 steals.
It was a marker of what might have been, sans injury. She showed glimpses of the work she put in, using a crossover to get past a defender at the top of the key ahead of a smooth left-handed floater.
Four days later, the Broncos played the Waves in the first round of the WCC tournament, in Las Vegas. This time, they lost. Pepperdine played its best game, Santa Clara, one of its worst. Radanovich headed with Mountain and Gilday to answer some questions from the media on a podium in a room, and then it was done. A 10-20 season (6-12 WCC) was in the books.
A few days later, reports surfaced that Mountain’s contract would not be renewed for next season. Radanovich and her teammates hadn’t been focusing on their coach’s job status, but it hurt to see the way the season had gone. Santa Clara lost five games by six points or less, and dropped three games in overtime. If they’d come out on top in some of those…
Radanovich shot just 29.2 percent from the field, and 28.5 percent from three. She never made a full recovery, never quite got in gear. Still, when she was on the court, defenses had to adjust. She’d earned that level of respect over the years.
Had she not suffered the injury, there’s a great likelihood she would have become the 22nd 1,000-point scorer in program history. But she refuses to focus upon that.
She’d rather talk about where Santa Clara is headed. JR Payne was hired in mid-April after five years spent building Southern Utah into one of the surprise stories in ’13-14.
It’s been a fun reunion for them. It was Payne who’d first begun recruiting Radanovich to Santa Clara. She spent just one season on Mountain’s staff, in ’08-09, but it was enough to convince Radanovich to commit midway through her junior year of high school.
It began in earnest during the ’08 July evaluation period. “We were looking for people that could come in and make an impact,” Payne says. “Ricki was a great shooter, and even though she had a slight build, she had this experience and toughness. She was really competitive, and she played with an edge.”
As she shuttled to different tournaments around the country, Payne made a point to watch the East Bay Xplosion, Radanovich’s club team. She frequently bumped into Bo and Laurie at these events and Payne, who was eight months pregnant at this time, laughs when she recalls Laurie exclaiming, “You’re getting bigger!”
“We had that joke at all the tournaments,” Payne says.
She couldn’t get enough of Radanovich’s shooting ability. “The way I’d describe Ricki, is she’s in range from the minute she steps inside the gym. Some would call it parking-lot range,” says Payne. “And the best thing is, she’s extremely confident. She’s definitely one of the best shooters the WCC has seen in this era.”
Radanovich loves the way Payne sees the game. Next season, Gilday, coming off one of the best seasons in recent Broncos history (she averaged 17.1 points), will be a senior. The talented four-person class of incoming freshmen that Mountain had recruited will reportedly remain intact. Radanovich raves about these “youngsters.” A foundation has been poured. The future holds promise.
And yet, it’s juxtaposed by change. Mountain is gone from SCU. Then, in early April, Gartner stepped down as head coach at Carondelet. She’s getting married and looking to start a family. Radanovich knew that she had been mulling this decision for several years now.
Gartner remembers when Radanovich did the 180 in her recruitment, eyes that had once been set solely upon Princeton turning irrevocably toward Santa Clara. The vision of the new coaching staff played a vital role in that decision. So did family.
Senior Day provided a manifestation of those ties: Radanovich’s 99-year-old great-grandfather was in attendance, sitting alongside her parents for her final game at the Leavey Center. Bo and Laurie, who’ve gone to almost every one of her games, could celebrate Ricki’s accomplishments. She ends her Broncos career ranked in the top-five for three-point field goals and attempts. Over four years, she hit 80 percent of her free throws.
This September, the next chapter begins. Radanovich will begin her job with Deloitte. She’s thankful she found an agency that not only accommodated her athletic commitments last summer, but encouraged them. She’s always wanted to work in San Francisco’s Financial District. Her manager is already recruiting her to join the company basketball team.”That’s what you want for your players, to go on and have a positive experience and keep growing as a person,” says Gartner. “And if you don’t have to leave San Francisco, why would you?”
Those 22 holes in her arms, with screws and plates interspersed, serve as vestigial imprints of her operations. Doctors say that if the holes become painful, they can remove them, but Radanovich isn’t rushing to do that.
“I never want to have surgery again,” she says.
Radanovich will miss the competition inherent in DI basketball, but there’s something she’ll miss even more. The bonds that develop over the course of three-a-day workouts in spring and pre-season conditioning in fall. “That’s the one thing I reflect upon the most,” she says. “I’ll miss my teammates.”
A few weeks ago, Radanovich attended a dinner that celebrated the departing Santa Clara student-athletes. Payne was in attendance, and she sat at the same table as the Radanoviches. As the evening wore on, old friends reconnected. “They’re so welcoming. It was like I’d never really left. I was there at the beginning of Ricki’s career, and now I’m sort of there at the end. It’s unique, and pretty neat,” Payne says.
Graduation is just two weeks away. The days to come will be filled with that unforgettable bustle, freighted by that ever-so-poignant sense of an ending. There was a hint of it following the win over Pepperdine on Senior Day on that first day of March. Outside the Leavey Center, winter clung in the form of swirling, biting gusts. The game was over, and underneath the far basket, an interview ended. Radanovich chatted with teammates, then headed off with her parents. She toted signs that had been made for her to commemorate the occasion. Some flowers, too. Then, she pushed through the doors and stepped outside. Possibilities abounded.
And isn’t that a fun way to begin.
Images courtesy of SCU athletics