Story last updated at 1:37 p.m. Thursday, November 28, 2002

Homer's Brooks leaps onto the big stage with UAA
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: sports

  Photo by Mike Dinneen, University of Alaska Anchorage
Sara Brooks plays some defense during her first minutes of collegiate action with the University of Alaska Anchorage last week. The Seawolves won the game 75-46 over Warner Pacific College.  
For eight years, Sara Brooks' basketball season began with a little Thanksgiving holiday ballet, as she performed in the community's annual production of the "Nutcracker Suite." High school and junior high practices typically ramp up just prior to or just after all the "Nutcracker" activity.

This year, Brooks, now in her second year at the University of Alaska Anchorage, will get the basketball season kicking with an altogether different sort of dance -- the Great Alaska Shootout.

When UAA took the court against Nevada on Tuesday night in the Shootout's opening round, Brooks was once again suited up for the big holiday weekend entertainment. The stage -- Anchorage's 6,000-seat Sullivan Arena -- is a little bigger than Mariner Theatre.

In addition to former East Anchorage High standout Laura Ingham and Nevada, Brooks will have a chance to play against Eastern Kentucky and Indiana during the two-day tournament. All three schools are NCAA Division I programs.

Because of her involvement with ballet, Brooks had never spent a Thanksgiving weekend in Anchorage, until now.

"It's amazing, but I've never even been to the Shootout," Brooks said from her Anchorage apartment last week. "So I'm just excited to be there -- and a little intimidated."

Now, with several college games to her credit, Brooks, a guard, admits her basketball career has taken a giant step up the basketball ladder. And for a 5-foot-3 former ballerina, the heights can be a little dizzying.

Suddenly the plays unfold faster. Everyone is quicker and stronger. Players in the middle are taller.

It takes a lot more work to find a shot, she said.

Brooks, a 2000 Homer High School grad, did not play for UAA her freshman year. She made this year's Seawolves squad as a walk-on following a week of tryouts last spring. She said she kept her skills sharp by playing in the intramural co-ed hoops league at the college as well as in pick-up games at the Alaska Club gym.

Still, her first taste of college ball was an eye-opener.

"The level of play (at the tryouts) was really intense, and I was a little out of shape," she said. "But the intensity definitely encourages you to play really hard."

UAA women's basketball coach Brandi Dunigan, who said she had seen Brooks play when she was in high school, heard through the grapevine that she was interested in coming out for the team.

Dunigan said Brooks' work ethic and motivation was apparent from the start.

"She felt like somebody who was willing to work hard," Dunigan said. "It's nice to have good people around -- like the walk-ons -- that just want to be part of the team."

There is no question about working hard, Brooks said, neither the coaches nor her teammates would tolerate anything less. For Brooks, the level of motivation in her fellow players is one of the biggest differences between the high school and college game.

"Everybody wants to be there, that's what I like the most about it," she said. "Everybody lives and breathes basketball.

"In Homer we were lucky if we had enough girls to come out, let alone if they really wanted to play."

Brooks got her chance to play in the Seawolves second game of the season, subbing in during a 75-46 rout of nonconference opponent Warner Pacific College.

Her numbers in her first game were telltale -- she was taking her first college shots for a new coach in a new offense. During her nine-minute debut, Brooks went 0 for 2 from the field and committed three fouls. But on the positive side, her hustle earned her four rebounds, including one off the offensive glass.

"I was amazed," Dunigan said. "Here's Brooksie, grabbing four rebounds. And she's one of the shortest players on the floor."

For her part, Brooks said she wasn't too nervous, just anxious to finally get a chance.

With her first minutes behind her, she said she understood that she still had to earn her playing time off the bench.

The goal is simple, she added -- to improve her basketball skills with every practice and every game.

With her teammates and her coaches pushing her to get better, Brooks said, there is no choice but to improve.

The level of commitment the program requires of its players also extends to academics, with scheduled study periods every bit as mandatory as practices. This structure, Brooks said, has made her much wiser with her time.

"It's really helping me to become a better student," said Brooks, who has not chosen a major. "And I've got 14 girls that are my really good friends."

For Dunigan, having 15 players on her roster is a luxury, following last season when she had nine players and the team finished at 5-22.

"It's nice to have enough kids to push each other," she said. "If they're not challenging each other every day in practice, they're not here for the right reasons."

While the Seawolves only returned five players, Dunigan said the addition of some experienced junior college transfers will help instill the right attitude in her younger players.

This season, Brooks will play as a freshman, allowing her to have a full four years of college eligibility.

Brooks is one of five players on the Seawolves roster who came out of the Alaska high school ranks. During her high school career, Brooks played against current UAA teammates Sarah Larabee, a Dimond grad, Nicky Bean, from Colony, and Jessica Reilly, a Kenai standout.

Brooks said she expected to benefit from the experience of fellow guards Reilly, who started 23 games as a walk-on last year, and junior Tanya Nizich, a former star player for Juneau-Douglas.

Dunigan said Brooks will earn her keep as an outside shooter, a role that the former Mariner MVP said suits her just fine.

Coming off the bench, Brooks said she knows she'll have to make the most of her opportunities.

"I know all the plays, it's real comfortable," she said. "I've just got to play my heart out every time I'm in there, because (coach) could pull me at any moment."

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homernews.com.

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