Greenwich Time (Sunday)

‘Perfect Fit’

Why No. 1 recruit Sarah Strong chose UConn

- By Maggie Vanoni

Sarah Strong doesn’t like the spotlight. She doesn’t like being the center of attention and tries to avoid it as much as possible.

Which is a lot easier said than done when you’re 6-foot-2 and the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school recruit.

When she was awarded the Naismith High School and Gatorade Player of the Year awards, she begged her coach to have her teammates up on stage with her in front of the school to accept the awards. When she announced her decision to commit to UConn women’s basketball a month later, she was surrounded by her teammates as she unzipped her jacket to reveal a Husky T-shirt.

Her commitment announceme­nt was her first-ever post on Instagram, despite her account already having over 10,000 followers.

She’s the best player on the floor in nearly every game she plays. Her skill set is so diverse she has the ability to score at any level plus the size and physicalit­y to snatch up almost every rebound. Yet, when asked what area of her game she’s most proud of, she doesn’t hesitate when she says her passing.

Strong is a relationsh­ip person. Her family and people come first. They’re the reason she is who she is. The people in her corner, always helping to nurture and challenge her, remind her every day the power in being yourself.

That’s one of the reasons why she waited until after her senior season of high school basketball concluded to announce her college commitment. She wanted to make sure the relationsh­ips she was making with coaches and college programs were genuine. She wanted to find the right fit for her.

And she did with UConn. The forward officially begins her Husky career this June for summer conditioni­ng and will make her collegiate debut in the white and navy blue this fall.

“It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a kid,” Strong said. “I just liked the program and also seeing who Geno (Auriemma) has sent to the WNBA. They’re all great players. So why not just go to where they went to college?”

Basketball beginnings

While Strong also played varsity soccer in high school, basketball has been her priority since birth. Literally.

Strong’s mom, Allison Feaster, was a legendary player at Harvard, winning three Ivy League Player of the Year awards before being selected as the No. 5 overall pick in the 1998 WNBA Draft. Strong’s dad, Danny Strong, played collegiate­ly at NC State before a successful overseas career in France. Sarah was born in Spain while both parents were playing overseas. Feaster now works with the Boston Celtics as their Vice President of Team Operations and Organizati­onal Growth.

The family moved back to North Carolina when Strong was in elementary school. Her parents’ background in basketball helped show Strong early on what hard work looks like and where the sport can take you. She learned how to manage her time in the gym and develop the self-confidence to take over games and handle her business off the court.

“Her mom and dad both have a perspectiv­e and an experience that only 1 percent of people out there even have,” Grace Christian High School girls’ basketball coach Chad Revelle said. “So, she gets counsel from her mom and dad. They know the deal. They’ve raised her right.”

When Revelle first learned Strong was interested in transferri­ng to Grace Christian High School as a sophomore, he immediatel­y recognized her dad’s name.

Like Danny, Revelle also was a student-athlete at NC State. Revelle played football for the Wolfpack and was a practice player for the men’s basketball team for a year as well. While their time at NC State didn’t overlap, the two men knew each other from working in local youth sports. Danny owns the Strong Center (a nonprofit that provides kids opportunit­ies to play sports and individual training in basketball and football) and Revelle runs a youth football program in the same area.

Revelle invited Strong to campus for a summer workout and could tell she had potential. It was impressive seeing someone so tall have such control over the ball through dribbling and shooting drills. Yet, her shyness made her hard to read.

“She’s not an extroverte­d, outgoing person,” Revelle said. “She’s got outgoing characteri­stics when you get to know her and gets in a comfortabl­e environmen­t. But when I first met her, she was kind of really shy, kind of reserved. I was like, ‘OK. I’m thinking I guess she doesn’t want to be here.’ ”

But once he put her in a competitiv­e situation, Revelle realized just how big of a star he was working with. Strong’s shyness evaporated and out came this determined force. She knocked down shots and beat opponents to open looks and loose balls. Her passion, fiery and hot, allowed her to impact the game from all five positions. Revelle had to bring in players from the school’s boys’ team just to try to match her level.

“She can lock in and compete in a concentrat­ed, locked-in way like I’ve never seen before. It’s immediate,” Revelle said. “… I have to have the JV boys practice with us just to give her some competitio­n. And even they have a tough time containing her the moment we go into competitiv­e mode. That girl, the bigger the moment, the better she is. She does not shy away from big moments. She wants the ball.”

Once Strong began at Grace Christian and got settled with the team, Revelle invited Danny to join the staff as an assistant coach. The two of them worked with Sarah to teach her how to become more vocal, how to lead and set an example.

While Sarah did adapt to becoming an on-court leader, she still preferred life out of the spotlight.

“She doesn’t try to stand out and she doesn’t want to stand out,” Revelle said. The coach leads a chapel service every week at Grace Christian and tries to call on Sarah to talk in the front of class often to get her comfortabl­e. “She gets embarrasse­d when you kind of pull her up front. I’ve tried to get her out front of things, she just doesn’t like the limelight.

“… She already stands out physically. Then she stands out with her production. But she really does a good job of just blending in because she is just easy to get along with. She’s Sarah. I think that’s really important. She’s just quirky, smiley and silly, Sarah.”

Strong led Grace Christian to three-straight state championsh­ip titles and an invitation to play at this year’s Chipotle Nationals. The team went 91-4 in her three years.

She was named the 2024 McDonald’s All-American Game Co-MVP, the 2024 Naismith Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year and is a two-time North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year.

“She’s a unicorn. Geno hit the lottery with her, I can tell you that,” Revelle said. “She can do everything. She literally can play every position. … She can run the offense like Magic Johnson and (Denver Nuggets’ star Nikola) Jokic. People compare her to Jokic,

but I think she’s more athletic than him. I like to say Magic Johnson because you watch him run an offense and pass and find people; she’s got those skills, but also, she’s got the modern-day shots that the current players (have).”

Future Husky

As her team’s success skyrockete­d, so did her own star. Strong went from a top-10 recruit to a top-5 and last summer moved up into the No. 1 overall ranking in the Class of 2024. People stopped her at tournament­s asking for photos while middle school teams from outside the local area came to watch her play at Grace Christian.

Top programs from all across the country reached out. From Oregon to UConn and South Carolina and LSU: Strong was the ultimate prize and each school wanted a piece. During the Huskies’ loss to the Gamecocks in February, the Columbia crowd started chanting “We want Sarah. We want Sarah.”

Yet, one staff remained present the whole time. They reached out early and continued to do so throughout her entire recruitmen­t process. They were straight up with her when they told her what areas of the game she needed to work on and how far they could take her. They created genuine relationsh­ips with Revelle and Strong’s family, proving they cared about her off the court just as much as on it.

“UConn has been kinda her dream, her number one since the beginning of this journey,” Revelle said.

Revelle said Auriemma and members of the UConn staff came down to visit Strong several times throughout the past couple years. Auriemma made it an effort to always be around and to be transparen­t with Strong. His genuinenes­s the ultimate selling point.

“On the court, he’s like all business and serious, but off the court he cares about his players,” Strong said. “And I feel like the whole coaching staff, they’re all the same. They just care about their players and want the best for them.”

It also helped that Strong’s favorite player growing up was Husky legend Maya Moore.

“I just liked the way she played. She did a little bit of everything,” Strong said. “And I just liked watching her when I was younger. And that’s who I pretty much looked up to other than my parents.”

Strong is the third No. 1ranked recruit within the last five years to choose UConn, following Paige Bueckers (2020) and Azzi Fudd (2021).

UConn was one of the first schools to reach out to Strong, yet the forward didn’t make a public decision on her commitment until recently. She wanted to make sure to treat each school and coach with respect and listen to what they had to say. She also wanted to make sure they wanted her for her and not just because she was the top-ranked recruit.

Revelle affirmed NIL had nothing to do with Strong’s choice of school or recruitmen­t process.

“She was not trying to just go gravitate for the (school) name or NIL deals,” he said. “That’s really been an awesome thing. NIL is on the table for all these athletes, including Sarah Strong, but she hasn’t been like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go here because they have the greatest NIL deal.’ She hasn’t focused on that. She has really been, ‘I want to be at the place that’s the best place for me.’ ”

Strong took her official visit to Storrs during First Night in the fall alongside fellow Class of 2024 commits Allie Ziebell (No. 4 in the Class) and Morgan Cheli (No. 11). Ziebell and Cheli also admit they teased Strong during the McDonald’s All-American game in late March to join them in Storrs.

“Oh my gosh, we were so hyped when we heard,” Cheli said of Strong’s commitment. “We’re both super excited and we just can’t wait.”

While Ziebell and Cheli will immediatel­y help deepen UConn’s backcourt, Strong has a good chance to earn a starting spot following senior forward Aaliyah Edwards’ departure for the WNBA this spring.

Like Edwards, Strong knows how to use her body to maneuver around defenders to demand a presence under the hoop. She knows how jump and rip down rebounds while still looking up to find an open teammate to pass to.

Strong also has great ball handling skills and not only is a sharp passer but has a solid jump-shot and 3point release. Plus, her selfless attitude only further fits into the UConn mold that’s centered on winning as a team, not as individual­s.

She ended her high school career averaging 23.0 points, 16.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 3.3 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. She averaged a double-double in all three seasons at Grace Christian.

Revelle thinks the Storrs’ campus also helped solidify Strong’s decision. Yes, UConn women’s basketball is one of the most iconic basketball programs of all time, but the Storrs campus gives her comfort to be herself and not get stuck in the giant, hustleand-bustle-like campus of other big programs.

“She really could be the greatest player to ever play college basketball,” Revelle said. “I think even some of the other schools that recruited her, they were too too big. They were too ostentatio­us. They were too flashy, if that makes sense, for Sarah’s personalit­y. So, this is a perfect fit.”

 ?? Kevin M. Cox/Associated Press ?? East forward Sarah Strong (21) shoots during the McDonald’s All American game on April 2 in Houston. Strong will play for UConn in the fall.
Kevin M. Cox/Associated Press East forward Sarah Strong (21) shoots during the McDonald’s All American game on April 2 in Houston. Strong will play for UConn in the fall.
 ?? Icon Sportswire via Getty Images ?? Sarah Strong, the No. 1-ranked recruit in the Class off 2024 and a UConn commit, was co-MVP of McDonald’s All American Game at Toyota Center on April 2 in Houston.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images Sarah Strong, the No. 1-ranked recruit in the Class off 2024 and a UConn commit, was co-MVP of McDonald’s All American Game at Toyota Center on April 2 in Houston.

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