Jan. 3, 2013
By Mike Sheridan
Villanova Media Relations
When do five years fly by as though they were five hours?
Often times, it happens when a person is utterly content in their surroundings while learning more about themselves every day.
Laura Sweeney came to Villanova in the fall of 2008. Her teammates then included standouts Laura Kurz and Lisa Karcic, both of whom have long since graduated and moved on to other pursuits (Kurz is now an assistant coach at Lehigh while Karcic plays professionally in Europe and represented Croatia at the 2012 Summer Olympics).
These days, Sweeney is a fifth-year senior on a close-knit unit that has won 10 of its first 12 games and positioned itself nicely for the BIG EAST season which begins on Sunday at Cincinnati. She is presently tied for 14th on the Wildcats' all-time scoring list (1,261 points) and is just 32 points shy of the school's top 10 later. In addition, she stands ninth on the `Cats' all-time rebound list with 658 caroms to her credit.
And if you think any of it has gotten old, well, think again. Sweeney is fully aware that her days as a Wildcat are dwindling.
"We only have eight games left at home," she noted on a recent December afternoon, "and that's kind of bittersweet."
Of course, it helps that she is at the center of a revival that has been several years in the making. After an NCAA Tournament appearance in her redshirt season, a young group of Wildcats endured two sub .500 years without a post-season invitation before earning a WNIT invitation in 2011-12. Now, the `Cats feature a deep and experienced group with seven seniors (Jesse Carey, Pearl Mensah, Megan Pearson, Rachel Roberts, Emily Suhey, Sweeney, and Jessica Wamala) that has learned to prosper in Coach Harry Perretta's system.
"It's especially meaningful being that it's my last year," says Sweeney of the success thus far. "We have a great group of ladies this year. I think it's the most competitive group I have played with yet. And I think that shows in the record we have.
"The fact that it's the last year for so many of us, makes us want it more. We want this to be our best year and I think that it very well could be. It was tough having those losing seasons - it definitely makes you want it more this year."
Athletics have been a part of Sweeney's world throughout her life. She is the youngest of four children of Bob (a former Notre Dame football player) and Marianne Sweeney and was raised in Marlton, N.J.
"Sports were always a huge deal in our house," she says. "My family has been my rock through my college career and my high school career. I've been playing basketball pretty much my whole life. My Dad is the most influential guy in my life."
Before each game, father and daughter have a small tradition they honor.
"During each game he is at," she explains, "I always look up at him during the national anthem. He just nods and it's just our little reminder for me to play hard. Having him there at the game means everything to me. He played college football and the most important thing he told me was to always play hard - it doesn't matter how many shots I make or don't make, it's playing hard that matters."
Sweeney sampled soccer and softball as a youth but her height - she stands 6-2 today - made basketball a natural fit.
"I never stopped growing," she says with a laugh, "and I loved basketball, so it made a lot of sense."
By the time she reached Cherokee High School, it was apparent that Sweeney had a bright future in the game. As a freshman she earned a starting spot in the varsity lineup and went on to become Cherokee's all-time leading scorer (2,037) and rebounder (1,285). All of that attracted the attention of college basketball programs from the nation's top conferences, including Villanova.
"When I got to high school I had it in my head that I wanted to play college basketball," Sweeney says. "But at the same time, hats off to my family. They always told me the most important thing was to have fun. There was never pressure that I had to play in college. It's part of the reason I loved it so much."
The Sweeney family was well acquainted with the recruiting process from Bob Sweeney's playing days and the recruitment of older brother Brian to play basketball at Monmouth University. Father and daughter visited a number of colleges and it seemed clear from the beginning that schools located closer to home stood a better chance than those with distant addresses.
"I knew that because of my family," she says, "I wanted to stay close by. Villanova was the perfect fit."
Perretta has 626 victories on the resume and his direct approach in dealing with his players was appealing to Sweeney.
"The best thing about Harry is that he is always, always honest," Sweeney states. "Even if it's not what you want to hear, he tells it like it is and that's what I respect most about Harry."
When Sweeney came to Villanova the two forwards ahead of her were Kurz and Karcic, both team leaders and accomplished talents. There were unlikely to be many minutes available on game night so she and her family elected to accept a redshirt season, which allowed her to practice throughout the campaign but not see game action.
"I didn't even know you could redshirt if you weren't hurt," she says now. "I knew I had Laura and Lisa ahead of me so I knew that if I came in and played, I would get limited time. I still say that redshirting was the best thing that I ever did. I would do it again if I could.
"One of the things I learned from Lisa was defense - she was a great defender and gave me tips on getting around girls who were bigger than her guarding the post. With Kurz, she was always the go-to (player) her senior year and she helped me a lot. Even when we played against her at Lehigh this year, she had helpful things to say. They were both great."
Though some struggle with being idle on game nights for a year, Sweeney did not.
"I liked it," she states. "With the offense we run at Villanova, it takes a while to learn it. I don't think I would have been able to go into games my freshman year and run it the way Harry would want it run. Now, the girls are so strong in college basketball, I needed that year to be training, running and lifting."
As she did at Cherokee, Sweeney made an immediate impact. As a freshman she earned a place on the BIG EAST All-Rookie team and was tabbed co-Sixth Man of the Year in the Conference. She averaged 10.0 ppg, seeing action in all 30 games. A year later, Sweeney led the `Cats in scoring (11.1 ppg) and rebounding (6.1 rpg) and was tabbed second team All-Philadelphia Big Five.
As a junior, she averaged 25.6 minutes per game and paced the Wildcats in scoring (14.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), field goal percentage (.501) and was named second team All-BIG EAST as the Wildcats posted a 19-15 record that included a pair of WNIT wins. Unfortunately, Sweeney injured her hand in the opening round win over American and missed the final two games.
That injury, though, is long since healed and that brief taste of post-season ball has only made her eager to experience more of it.
There is more than half a season of basketball to be played but Sweeney is also planning for her post-graduate days. She has been accepted into an accelerated Villanova School of Nursing program that begins in May and is mulling that option. In addition, she will also evaluate what opportunities there are to play basketball professionally, perhaps by following the trail to Europe that her former teammates Karcic and Kurz did.
"Once basketball ends, nursing is what I am planning to do," she says.
All of that, though, can wait. The focus now is trying to write the kind of ending that senior college athletes everywhere hope for.
"To me, not losing our focus is the big thing," she states. "Last year, there were too many times where we would be up on a team and let them come back. This year we have done a better job of not letting that happen. Learning to play every possession and not thinking about what happened on the possession before or what's going to happen next is important. Just focus on each possession and good things will happen."
Sounds like sage advice, wisdom entirely befitting an accomplished senior.
Five years at Villanova have almost zipped by for Sweeney but it's clear she is in no hurry to see them end.