The Last Hurrah for Hoops Wizard Darcy Stracke
Darcy Stracke was one of those small town wonders in the world of sports. By the end of her freshman year in high school she was already a legend in her hometown of Stuart, Neb. for her prodigous talent in volleyball, basketball, and track and she only added to the legend her last three years in high school in Chambers. Neb. By the time she graduated she held a batch of state scoring records in basketball. A playmaking and scoring guard in one, she spurned offers from big schools to play hoops at Division II University of Nebraska-Kearney, where she dominated once again. Then, in a move that upset her fan base, she transfered to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and promptly made her mark in her only year there. In a strange twist she set the UNK single game scoring record of 43 points against her future teammates at UNO and then when playing for UNO she broke that school’s single game scroring mark with a matching 43 points against, you guessed it, her former teammates at UNK. She was a multiple all-state performer in high school and a three-time All-American in college. She’s in the athletic hall of fame of every school she competed for. I wrote this piece during her final college season in 2000.
The Last Hurrah for Hoops Wizard Darcy Stracke
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
Scene One: Penetration is her game.
Wherever she is with the ball, her first instinct is to take it to the house. Using a crossover dribble, she first measures her opponent. Then, feinting with the ball, her head or both, she jump-stops inside, double-pumps and either banks a shot in off the glass, draws a foul or else dishes off to an open teammate for an assist. What sticks with you is her fearlessness inside and her uncanny knack for weaving through a tangle of bodies to make something happen.
Before some recent struggles, it seemed UNO’s fabulous hoops star, Darcy Stracke, could do no wrong. Time after time, she took over games, racking up points at will and disrupting opposing teams’ offenses. A case in point came in the Mavs’ mid-season 68-50 home win over NCC rival South Dakota. She scored 29 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field and flashed a variety of take-your-breath-away passes, now-you-see-it-now you-don’t dribbles, pickpocket steals and whirling-dervish drives to the bucket. And all this in only 26 minutes of play.
Afterwards, she stopped by the north bleachers to chat with her star struck fans. There is a definite star quality about Stracke, a 5-foot-7 senior guard whose game intensity belies a quiet off-court demeanor and whose grace-under-pressure endures despite sweaty palms. Among her regular admirers (some sporting her jersey No. 34) are a group from her hometown of Stuart, Neb., including her parents, Marilyn and Del, who have made it to every game but one since her freshman year in high school. She is their small-town-girl-makes-good hoops diva.
That night, Stracke, still dressed in her damp uniform, lingered a long while with the crowd. She seems to savor these moments. Not because she enjoys the attention or adulation (In truth, she’d rather not have all this fuss made about her.), but because she knows the wondrous run she’s been on is finally drawing to a close. For this north-central Nebraska native has enjoyed a legendary athletic career matched by few other Nebraska female athletes. But soon her glory days will be over. The scoring feats, the fancy moves, the late-game heroics relegated to hazy memories or grainy video highlights.
For Stracke, steeped in athletics from an early age (she learned to walk with a basketball) and hooked on competition the way others are on drugs, the thought of not playing (notwithstanding a possible pro stint overseas) is daunting. How could it not be for someone who sleeps with a ball to get “in tune with it”?
“When I step on that court it’s like I’m in another world,” she said. “I get a feeling I can’t get anywhere else. I love that feeling. I don’t feel any aches or pains. It’s just like I’m in a zone. Basketball is probably in my head most of every 24 hours. I watch game films all the time. If basketball’s on TV, I’m going to watch it. If I can get a pick-up game, I’m going to play it. Basketball has always been an outlet for me, so if I’m having a bad day, I always look to basketball to get me out of that funk, even if it means going up to the gym at 10 o’clock at night and shooting. Once I start shooting, everything else is erased.”
More than anything, she’ll miss the competition when she walks away from the game. “I just love to compete.” Then there are the fans who have been there for her all this time. “I have my own little fan section. They expect me to come over and talk. I love the interaction with people after games. It’s those little things I’m going to remember.” Wherever she went the past eight years, her legion of fans followed. They were there at the start, when she led Stuart Public High to the Class D-2 state title as a 14-year-old freshman. Then, after transferring to nearby Chambers Public School, where she played for brother-in-law, John Miller, they saw her spark a 77-game winning streak en route to three more state titles and, in the process, she set the state’s all-time scoring record (boys or girls) with 2,752 points. Along the way she displayed a court savvy beyond her years, anticipating picks, screens and passing lanes for steals and assists and driving the lane for layups.
When she chose nearby Division II powerhouse University of Nebraska-Kearney over several Division I schools, fans kept right on trucking to see how she matched-up at the next level. Just fine, thank you. She broke the school’s single season scoring record (679 points), topped its career steals mark (292), twice led the Lopers’ into the post-season (three times if you count her injury-shortened junior year) and capped off 1998-99 by earning 1st Team All-America honors.
Then the soft-spoken Stracke, 21, surprised everyone last off-season by transferring from UNK (she politely declines discussing why) to UNO for her final year. While rehabbing an injured knee in Kearney over the summer Stracke was deluged with calls, letters and visits from boosters pressuring her to reconsider. The “trauma” all got to be too much. “A lot of people were disappointed I left. I kind of avoided people there for a while, but I stayed because that’s where my friends and family are,” she said. “It was just a better fit here (UNO) for me. I think people who care about me understand it’s something I did for my own happiness.”
Once this season began and the buzz around “the Darcy situation,” as it’s known in Kearney, died down, all was forgiven, and the Stracke bandwagon kept rolling down I-80 as before, only a little farther east, to cheer her on in Omaha, where all she’s done is lead the nation in scoring for much of the year (she is second now with an averages just under 23 points per game) and rejuvenate a program (UNO is 15-10) that had scuffled recently (11-16 last year and 10-17 the year before). Stracke paced the Mavs to a fast start (7-2) and the team held its own in the middle part of the year before slumping down the stretch. Last Saturday’s 74-58 road loss to Northern Colorado dropped the Mavs to 1-4 in their last five games and squashed any remaining hopes of an NCAA regional post-season berth. Stracke, who struggled some herself lately, enjoyed a strong outing with 23 points, 5 boards and 4 steals, although she did have 6 turnovers.
It is a shame her career will end without one last hurrah in the playoffs, especially after her banner junior year ended prematurely when she suffered a complete ACL tear in her right knee during the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tourney. And, yes, it seems unfair Omaha hoops fans have had her such a short time. Seeing her go will be tough. Just ask UNO Head Coach Paula Buscher, who took a chance signing her to play for a single year. It was strictly a one-shot deal. No encore season. No promise things might not fizzle for the scoring phenom (they haven’t). No assurance she would recover from her injury (she has). No guarantee her addition might not upset team chemistry (it hasn’t).
“That was the risk that was out there for herself as well as the people recruiting her when she was transferring with one year left,” Buscher said. “We obviously felt and still feel it was a great decision on our part. There was a risk involved, but we felt like with a player of her caliber and her stature, and with the work ethic she brings, that that was a risk we needed to take. Would I love to have her for another two or three years? Oh, heavens, yes. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. We knew that going in. A great player’s career always ends too short. I just feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her for one year. I mean, let’s face it, the kid can play. She brings it every night. I think she’s helped develop a different mind-set (winning) and raise expectations with our program, and that’s something we’re looking to carry on.”
Buscher, like UNK Head Coach Amy Stephens before her, knew what she was getting in Stracke all right. She closely followed Stracke’s brilliant prep career and then, while coaching against her in college, saw her her light-up UNO twice, including a 43-point explosion last year. Still, once Buscher got a chance to watch Stracke at work, up close, every day in practice, she realized UNO had gained even more in the bargain than what first met the eye.
“Everyone was aware of her athletic ability and what she could do in games, but the bonus with Darcy was seeing how she trains. From the first day of preseason, all the way throughout every single practice, she’s the first one out there for every sprint, every drill, pushing all the time. Bottom line, she’s a competitor who wants to win. That, more than anything, is what makes her a great player,” Buscher said.
Scene II: Whatever it takes.
A perpetual motion machine on the floor, she never stops competing — regardless of the score. On defense, she creates havoc by hounding ball handlers into errant passes or by swiping lazy dribbles. On offense, she sets the tone by hustling down court, chasing after loose balls and constantly working to get open.
Not a great perimeter shooter, Stracke gets most of her points in or near the paint. Because defenses focus on her, she must often create shots where there are none. Her she-got-game greatness was never more evident than in three early season tests. First, she shook off jitters in a much-anticipated Dec. 1 contest against UNK, when, in a bit of perfect symmetry, she led UNO to an 86-71 victory and, in the process, burned her old mates for a school-record 43 points, the exact total she posted against UNO last year (UNK is having the last laugh, however, as the Lopers are rolling along with a 21-4 mark and high national ranking.).
“Actually, that’s probably the one game I didn’t want to play this year just because I still have a lot of friends on the team there,” Stracke said. “I did want to have a good game, though, because it was against the school I’d been at for three years. And I was a bit more nervous for that game than for others.”
Then, on consecutive nights in mid January, she did something she’s made a habit of during her playing career: hitting buzzer-beaters to defeat Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State amid a five-game stretch in which she averaged more than 30 points. Ask her what it’s like to have the ball in her hands when the game’s on the line, and how she’s able to deliver the goods, and she answers:
“When it comes down to making free throws at the end or making that game-winning shot, I think, ‘Darcy, you’ve done this tons of times before in the backyard. You can do it again.’ It’s not like I haven’t taken those last-minute shots before. So, I just shoot it with a lot of confidence and play with a lot of confidence. Plus, when I get in those situations I want to do well because I care about my teammates and I know I’d let them down if didn’t make that shot. The feeling after you make it is indescribable. It’s so exciting.”
She fees her success as a clutch performer and multi-faceted player (she leads UNO in scoring and steals and is second in assists) is largely due to all the hard work she’s put in honing her skills, including keeping the neighbors up while shooting past midnight in her backyard. “I may not have as much athletic talent as some players, but what’s been to my advantage is I do put a lot of hours in at the gym, and I think that’s what makes me a better basketball player and what gives me more confidence. I expect the best out of myself.”
In The World According to Darcy Stracke, effort breeds confidence which, in turn, breeds success. “Everything I’ve competed in (she was also a top volleyball, track and softball competitor) I always believed I could win. And, if I didn’t win, I’d go back and make adjustments or try to work on something that was my weakness, and the next time I was going into that competition I wasn’t going to lose.”
She further developed her game by routinely playing against the opposite sex and by challenging older, more experienced, players to one-on-one contests.
“I think it really helps playing against men and boys. It makes you adjust your game because if you don’t you’re going to get your shot blocked or get your pass stolen. Now, when I go against girls in college, I remember to use that extra fake.”
Since entering college she has experienced more losing than she ever did before, and even though it irks her, she long ago came to terms with that and the fact she can’t dominate every game like she did in high school.
“I just hate to lose. Even if its a card game or playing whiffle ball in the backyard. Then, after my teams went 77-0 my last three years in high school, I lost my very first college game. It was really hard because I wasn’t used to losing. But if I’ve learned anything it’s that you’re going to struggle sometimes at the college level. There are lots of ups and downs. The competition is so much better.”
Like many top athletes, she is somewhat obsessive-compulsive preparing for competition. She has game-day rituals she dares not break for fear of throwing her whole rhythm off.
“I have a routine for everything and, if I get out of synch, it just bothers the heck out of me. It ranges all the way from what I eat to when I step on the court to how long I drill in pregame warmups. I mean, it’s to the point where my routine is the same every single second, every single time.”
It’s that kind of attention to detail that’s made her settle for nothing less than being an all-around player. “If I don’t show up in every statistical area, from steals to assists to rebounding to even shooting percentage, I don’t feel like I had a good game. A lot of people look for me as a scorer, but I want to be a complete player because the only way our team is going to get better is if I can be consistent in every category.”
Despite the fact her new team has fallen far short of what her UNK clubs achieved (Kearney went 80-11 her three years there), she has no regrets about leaving such success behind for the mediocrity she found at Omaha. “I knew what I was coming into. I knew they’d (UNO) struggled. But I wanted to come to a program where I could make a difference. I think it’s worked out really well. My teammates have accepted me with open arms. I’m glad I’m here.”
All too aware the clock is fast running out on her playing career, Stracke acknowledges she has been pressing a bit, going a combined 22-of-79 from the field in a five-game stretch before regaining her touch last week (7-of-14 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line) against UNC. Heading into her final collegiate competition, she is poised to earn All-America honors again and owns combined career totals of 2,211 points, 422 rebounds, nearly 400 steals and 373 assists in 114 games.
Sadly, her last hurrah will come far from home. Local hoops fans who missed her in action are the real losers since the next time she (a K-12 physical education major) takes the court again in front of a crowd, will likely be as a coach.
“I love new challenges, If I don’t go over overseas to play ball I’m going to try and be a grad assistant somewhere to get my foot in the door in college coaching. I’m actually pretty excited to see basketball from a coaching standpoint.”
Still, coaching can never replace the thrill playing has given her.
“Basketball’s always been my first love. I’ve always played with a lot of passion. I’ve been struggling a little bit with the fact that I have less than a handful of games left, and then I’m done. I’ve been counting down the games. I’m just going to go out and play like every game is my last because pretty soon it will be.”
Scene III: In synch.
If there is any lasting image of her, it is her streaking down court in transition — her raised arms extended high overhead, her expectant hands just aching to touch the ball once more. You want to yell, ‘Give her the damn ball.’ Give it to her, indeed. The two were made for each other.
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)