Hartwell ready to roll
CHAMPAIGN — Sarah Hartwell will wear uniform number zero when she makes her Illinois women’s basketball debut next month.
Given the twists and turns her college path already has taken, the redshirt sophomore guard put no small amount of thought into that choice and what it represents.
“I felt like coming here — another new school — I felt like fresh start,” Hartwell said. “Zero, for me, (was a) fresh start.”
As a high school senior in Tacoma, Wash., Hartwell expected to spend her college career in Cincinnati. In November 2010, the Bellarmine Prep guard signed with coach Kevin McGuff’s Xavier program.
Five months later, McGuff resigned to become head coach at Washington. Uncertain about what that departure meant for her future with the Musketeers, Hartwell asked for and received a release from her scholarship without ever attending Xavier, meaning she would be immediately eligible at another Division I school. Thus began a convoluted journey that next took her to Atlanta and ultimately to central Illinois.
A highly regarded prospect out of high school — she was rated the nation’s 29th-best guard in the Class of 2011 by ESPN HoopGurlz — Hartwell found a new college home at Georgia Tech. And then took a seat on the bench, playing little as a freshman for a 26-win Yellow Jackets team that reached the NCAA Sweet 16 and was ranked No. 10 in the final coaches’ poll.
As that 2011-12 season progressed, Hartwell came to feel she would be happier elsewhere. And it had nothing to do, she says, with playing time.
“I decided it wasn’t really the best fit,” Hartwell said. “This (at Illinois) is the style of play and coaching style that fits me better.”
If Hartwell was looking for run-the-floor offense and in-your-face pressure defense, the Matt Bollant-coached Illini were her team. But given the disappointments she’d experienced in trying to find a college home, Hartwell knew she would need to choose wisely this time. She sought out a trusted source — her former club coach, Russ Davis.
Hartwell had spent the summer before her senior year of high school in southern California training and playing with Davis’ Cal Swish program, which for years has turned out a stream of Division I players.
“Even though I played for him for (only) one year, we had a really good relationship and I trusted everything he said,” Hartwell said.
Davis recalls the phone call he received from Hartwell after her decision to leave Georgia Tech:
“She mentioned to me, ‘I wish I would have talked to you the first time. This didn’t work out, and can you help me?’ We talked and I told her she needed to make sure. The second time (you transfer), you’ve got to make sure 100 percent.”
After asking what Hartwell was looking for in a basketball program, what Davis heard appeared to describe Illinois. Davis — in his 18th season as head coach at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. — is a longtime acquaintance of Illini associate head coach Mike Divilbiss. Like Davis, Divilbiss had coached for years in the NAIA ranks at Lewis & Clark State in Idaho. Each guided teams to NAIA national tournaments. Each worked on the same NAIA All-America selection committee. And when Divilbiss later moved on to a seven-year coaching tenure at the University of Idaho, their connection continued.
“I tried to recruit from his club all the time,” he said.
Davis also was acquainted with Bollant, and felt confident that Illinois would be a good option for Hartwell.
“I know what kind of people they are and how they’re going to treat the player and where the program is going to go,” Davis said. “And I thought Sarah would flourish in that system because we do a lot of similar things.”
Just as Hartwell placed her trust in Davis, so would the Illini staff need to do so when the Cal Swish coach placed a call to Bollant’s office. Coaches at high-major programs routinely field calls about potential transfers, and it’s rare that they haven’t been burned at least a time or two after saying yes.
“That’s something we both have learned,” said Divilbiss, while nodding toward Bollant. “You’ve really got to do your homework (on a potential transfer). You can never sacrifice character for talent.”
Of course, Bollant and Divilbiss made sure to ask all the right questions when Hartwell made a campus visit. Ultimately, however, it was their confidence in Davis’ word that led them to offer her a new college home.
“In this situation, it was pretty much because we trusted Russ,” Bollant said. “He said, ‘This is a great kid’ — meaning great character — ‘and I think she’d be great for you guys.’ Russ is a credible guy. If Russ tells you something, it’s gong to be the truth. And he’s got a feel for talent.”
Hartwell also visited Oregon State, but what she heard and saw on her trip to Champaign persuaded her that Illinois was where she belonged.
“The biggest thing for me was the coaching style,” Hartwell said. “Also, the U of I is a really good school, but I was more focused on the coaches and what they had.
“When I first talked to them, they knew exactly what they wanted in the program. They knew how they were going to get there. So for me, I want to be part of the process, part of the change.”
Hartwell’s grandmother and an aunt live in Joliet, which also is her mother Bettye’s hometown. Although Bettye Hartwell’s position as a human resources manager requires regular commutes to three company sites, that travel rotation includes Peoria.
“She’s here every two weeks, so hopefully she makes (my) games when she’s in Peoria,” Sarah said.
Sarah once lived in Illinois, too; in Bolingbrook for about three years starting when she was in second grade.
“So I guess this is more home for me compared to Atlanta,” she said.
The 5-foot-11 Hartwell was forced to sit out last season under NCAA transfer rules. She could practice with the team but not play.
“My mind-set was to come in and work hard every day, take this year to improve and help out my teammates,” she said. “I didn’t look at is as I’m not playing. I just looked at is as, I am playing, just in practice, so take advantage of it. I knew if I wanted to play (this season), I had to improve, too.”
Bollant was impressed with Hartwell’s dedication to the game and the extra hours she put in to improve.
“We were struggling to shoot the basketball (last season), and we see Sarah in the gym way more than we see our other players,” he said. “We’re thinking, ‘She can’t play in the game this Sunday but yet she’s spending two hours on Friday, two hours on Saturday on her shooting. That’s a pretty good sign.’ ”
So was what Bollant witnessed as Hartwell scrimmaged last season against the Illini starting lineup.
“Last year when she was on the scout team, we really struggled (defensively) to keep her in front,” the Illini coach said. “She can certainly get to the rim; she can drive and score.
“We worked on transition defense and she pretty much went by anybody that was trying to get her. Trying to get her to go east and west was really tough.”
Hartwell is dealing with a hamstring injury suffered during the first week of practice. Before that setback, Bollant had all but proclaimed her as his starting point guard.
And that remains probable when Hartwell is fully recovered. With the Illini now into their third week of practice, she’s back on the court but limited to non-contact participation with the expectation of being fully cleared late in the week. Still, for someone who has waited as long as Hartwell has to play meaningful minutes in a college game, the irony doesn’t escape her.
“Now (that) I can play, I can’t play now,” she said, quickly adding, “Two weeks is not that long, so I’ve got to be patient.”
At that, this third-year collegian has plenty of experience.
It’s a date
Matt Bollant takes the stage at “The News-Gazette Sports Page” at the Esquire (5-6 p.m.)
Sarah Hartwell, Amber Moore and Ivory Crawford join Bollant at Big Ten media day in Rosemont
The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll is released. N-G beat writer Jeff Huth has a vote
Cardinal Stritch visits State Farm Center (1 p.m.) for the UI’s only exhibition game
Opener at Bradley marks the first time the Illini have started away from home since 2009