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  • sophia Surprise Find
    By John Hillman

    Very little surprises Sophia Young these days. After a season of rugged NCAA Division I competition, the 6-1 freshman forward for Baylor University faces every situation in stride. But the leading rebounder in the Big 12 didn't travel the traditional road to success.

    Only four years ago, Young applied for a student exchange program at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana. Until that time, the native of St. Vincent in the West Indies had never dribbled, shot, or passed a basketball.

    "I had run track and played volleyball at home but didn't know anything about basketball," the Baylor University freshman admits. "I had to start from scratch and learn every little detail."

    Young's natural athletic ability enabled her to grasp the game quickly. She earned a starting position at center for the Lady Eagles as a sophomore.

    "We immediately knew Sophia was an outstanding young lady," Linda Bass, Evangel Christian's principal says. "She was intrinsically motivated, focused on both academics and sports, and goal-oriented. When practice ended, the other girls would dash off, but Sophia would stay and practice shooting free throws."

    The Louisiana High School Athletic Association rules regarding exchange students threw the rising basketball star a curve, however. Regulations don't allow foreign athletes to compete in consecutive seasons, so she was forced to sit out her junior year.

    Although she continued to practice her skills, the season-long layoff prevented most colleges from discovering Young's talent. In addition, she elected not to play AAU basketball the summer prior to her senior year, and her lack of exposure meant few scouts or coaches ventured to the Evangel campus.

    "I watched her practice and I thought, either I'm slipping on my ability to evaluate talent, or why aren't more people recruiting her?" Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson says. "Nobody knew about her."

    Young's statistics spoke for themselves, however. Playing in only her second year of high school competition, the senior post averaged 33 points and 12.7 rebounds per game and set a school record with a 48-point performance against Ruston. Her overall play garnered her District 1-5A's Most Valuable Player award. At the season's end, the Louisiana Sports Writers Association named her to its All-State first team, and the United States Junior National team selected her as the team MVP following its July trials in Columbus, Ohio.

    "Everyone looked up to Sophia both in the classroom and on the court," says Evangel counselor Pat Chapman. "She was such an unselfish player and excellent student.

    "Sophia was outgoing and had no problem making friends," she continues. "Although she's somewhat quiet, she was very determined to get a quality education and go to college."

    With only the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, Centenary, Nicholls State, and the University of Arkansas-Monticello recruiting her, Young signed with Baylor University in November 2001. Although many basketball analysts considered her scholarship a reach, Coach Mulkey-Robertson felt she had discovered a diamond in the rough and snatched her away before better offers surfaced.

    "We needed to sell this kid on Baylor quickly," she recalls. "If anybody else found out about her, it would be hard."

    Taking Young's inexperience into account, Mulkey-Robertson used her unheralded recruit sparingly as the 2002-03 season opened. She started only three of Baylor's 12 non-conference contests and averaged between 20 and 25 minutes per game.

    However, once Big 12 competition began, Young stepped to the forefront and established her presence as a legitimate offensive and defensive threat. She scored 237 points and grabbed 150 rebounds in 16 conference games, an average of 14.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. On two occasions, an 86-72 overtime upset over No. 7 Texas Tech and a 97-54 road win at Texas A&M, she reached her season-high of 26 points.

    She garnered Big 12 Rookie of the Week honors three times, and collected 13 double-doubles for the season. After she led the conference in rebounding and finished first among Big 12 freshman in scoring and steals, the Dallas Morning News named her the Conference Freshman of the Year.

    "I think Sophia Young is one of the premier freshmen in our league this year," Kansas State coach Deb Patterson says. "I've been so impressed with her."

    "I can see why Kim (Mulkey-Robertson) has talked about her so much," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly agrees. "She's a kid that I think can really impact a lot of games for them over the next few years."

    Currently, Young's offensive and defensive strengths stem from her outstanding leaping ability. In high school, she once dunked a basketball, and many of her Big 12 points came off putbacks or lob passes fed to her by Baylor's guards.

    "She's got tremendous athleticism and quickness," Mulkey-Robertson says. "I'd love to tell you I coached her into that [jumping ability], but she was born with it."

    Although instinct rather than training now fuels Young's game, Baylor coaches remain confident her skills will improve. With additional practice and playing, she should learn to judge caroms and position herself better, plus sharpen her defense and her moves around the basket.

    "I think she can continue to get better and better," Mulkey-Robertson says. "Before she leaves here, I'd like for her to be a player that when we need a basket, she's someone we can go to."

    Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Young's success story is that her accomplishments have been achieved with little family support. Her father, a plumber, lives in New York, and her mother still resides in St. Vincent. The Texas transplant spent last summer with her dad and two older siblings, but she hasn't seen her mom and two younger siblings since leaving the West Indies to enroll at Evangel.

    "It is very tough," she says. "I think about how much fun my childhood used to be because I'm not a kid anymore."

    But family ties have drawn a bit closer since she entered Baylor. Her father catches a few games on television and stays in touch by telephone and e-mail. He also journeyed to Waco for Parent's Day and watched his daughter tally her season-high 26 points in an overtime upset over Texas Tech.

    For the first time since bidding farewell to the Caribbean, the freshman sensation will spend a portion of the summer with her mother. Thoughts of returning home--especially those concerning the island's sunny shores--leave her giddy with excitement.

    "In St. Vincent, I went to the beach every day, even on Christmas," she says. "I really miss it a lot and look forward to going back in May. But in July, I will return to Waco and start practicing for next season."

    Baylor fans will anxiously await Young's sophomore season. If the results from her promising first year continue on an upward trend, the surprise recruit may develop into a consensus All-American.




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