UConn: Family now, family for life
RENO — Ask any player from any era, and each athlete who played women’s basketball at the University of Connecticut will say the team is family from the time a recruit signs on the dotted line to years — even decades — after graduation.
Those thoughts raced through Paige Sauer, a former UConn center who pounded the boards almost 20 years ago for the Huskies, who play their home games in the picturesque New England town of Storrs,
For Fallon residents, the 39-year-old Sauer is not just another former player for UConn, the most successful women’s basketball program in the country. To this day Sauer retains those small-town roots, the roll-up-the-sleeve attitude for working hard, and impeccable ethics that made her one of the nation’s top players in 2000.
These are characteristics developed in a small, rural hard-working farming town complimented by a sprawling naval air station where commitment and ethics are hallmarks of military service.
Sauer, who grew up in Fallon and played ninth-grade basketball for the Greenwave, made a monumental decision with her family before heading into her second year of high school. She was becoming serious about playing basketball, and at the invitation from her godparents in Oklahoma, she enrolled in high school in Midwest City and led Carl Albert High School to a state championship in her senior year. In an article about UConn hoops legends, Sauer said moving to Oklahoma was the best decision she and her parents made despite more than 1,500 miles separating them.
“I knew I wanted to win a national championship,” she said in her profile.
When the nation’s No. 1 ranked Huskies came to Reno this week to play the improving University of Nevada women’s basketball team, Sauer reflected on her playing days, her closeness with her roommate and the lessons learned from UConn coach Geno Auriemma, now in his 33rd year with the Huskies’ program. UConn played Nevada at Lawlor Events Center on Tuesday to give senior Reed (Sparks) High School’s Gabby Williams an opportunity to play one more game in the athletic facility her father played when he was a forward for the University of Nevada men’s team from 1988-1992 and her sister patrolled, also as a forward, from 2008-2012.
“I’m excited. I think it’s great for Gabby,” Sauer said before the game from her Michigan home. “It will mean so much for her and it’ll be cool for Reno.”
When Sauer played for UConn, the closest she came to Fallon was when the team played in a tournament at UNLV, fewer than 400 miles for her friends and family to make the winding pilgrimage down the lonely two-lane road and through small towns along Highway 95 to Las Vegas.
Sauer sees parallels between her and Gabby, a fellow Nevadan. The late Deanna Deuerson tapped into Sauer’s inner thoughts and became a catalyst for pushing the Fallon teen to the next level — an intense love for the game. Likewise, both Kayla and Gabby Williams had their own catalyst — their father Matt who has developed hundreds of youngsters over the years to become better players through his Jam on It — AAU baseball camps which have made players from Fallon to Reno much better athletes.
It seems like years ago, though, when the former Nevada star traveled to Fallon to work with Terrin Johnston, Tristin Adams, Carly Sorensen and other girls to make them more solid, complete players for the Greenwave basketball team at about the same time Sauer graduated from UConn.
As Sauer developed at Carl Albert, she began to add inches to her 5-foot 11-inch frame. In her senior year, she sprouted to 6-5 and was entertaining offers from both UConn, and another storied program, the University of Tennessee coached by the late, great Pat Summit. Sauer said the decision was tough, but she had a good gut feeling about the UConn program and Coach Auriemma.
When Sauer visited Fallon in June 2014 during the state’s sesquicentennial activities, she didn’t regret her decision to attend UConn where she obtained a degree in psychology. She called it the best four years of her life.
“It was also the toughest four years of my life,” she said. “Winning a national championship my senior year was the best thing ever. I’m diehard UConn forever.”
And don’t forget the UConn family and roommate Shae Ralph, who has been the Huskies’ assistant coach for the past 10 years.
“We keep in touch,” Sauer said of her roommate and one of her best friends on the UConn team. “I saw her and UConn play two weeks ago in Ohio.
They both emerged as part of the senior leadership that led UConn to its second national title during the 2000 season, and they both graduated during the spring of 2001. The two players then headed in different directions — Sauer to play in professional women’s basketball in both the United States and later in Europe and Ralph to coach on the collegiate level.
Ralph said after all these years, their friendship is still strong although times have changed when they were college roommates.
“In college, we went to class together, lived together and were with each other every day and on the court,” said the UConn assistant before the Huskies played Nevada. “We have evolved to adults, and we have our own lives. The one thing I appreciate about Paige is she’s a very hard worker. She has built a great reputation in her job now.”
Sauer remains associated with basketball and works with the youth.
That great UConn family keeps Sauer and Ralph in contact with a phone call, text or a visit to where the team’s next playing.
Auriemma, who looked tired after a rigorous three-state swing through the West with the final stop in Reno, remembers every detail of Sauer’s career from the time she played to now, embraces the family concept with every woman who had a role with the Huskies.
‘It’s a great feeling at UConn,” he said of the camaraderie that keeps building with every passing year. “You are family when you play and family after you play.”
When UConn plays its preseason schedule and travels to different regions, Auriemma said 35 to 40 former players — many from previous championship teams — will attend the game, see old friends, catch up on their news and talk with the new players.
This family has been four decades in the making and that thought evokes the longtime touch to say respect and appreciation adds to the increasing size of the program’s center.
The UConn family also encompasses an extended family of parents and siblings and friends. Mary Sauer, who traveled thousands of miles to watch her daughter Paige play for UConn, and her son Bryce, who played Greenwave basketball and continues to play golf, attended Tuesday’s game and mingled with their “extended” family.
Her career is in Michigan, her friends are spread out around the country, her current UConn family is in Storrs, but her heart has remained in Nevada, especially with her family and friends in Greenwave Country.
“How grateful I am for the support and nurturing received while I went to school in Fallon,” Paige Sauer reflected. “People there were important in my growing up.”