The adjustment from high-school basketball to the college game is tough for most players, but they've got nothing on Sheldeen Joseph.
The Sauk Valley freshman is not only moving from one level to the next; she's also learning a new style of play – and doing it a long, long way from home.
Joseph is the first Sauk women's player to hail from the British Virgin Islands, and her trip to Dixon is entirely thanks to the four men's players longtime coach and athletic director Russ Damhoff has brought up from BVI in the last decade.
"I'm here because of Daven Ottley, who's on the men's team here," said the soft-spoken Joseph in her lilting accent. "I came from the same foundation he came from, and he encouraged me to send a tape to the coaches here to see if I could get a chance to play."
She's taken full advantage of the opportunity given by third-year head coach Jed Johnson. The 5-foot-7 guard is averaging 8.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game for the 8-5 Skyhawks, splitting time between running the point and playing on the wing.
It's all the more impressive, considering Joseph has only been playing basketball for 3 years.
"Sometimes it feels like it was a lot longer, but it's just been 3 years," Joseph said. "Basketball's not that big down there, so that's why so many players try to come up here to the United States.
"The style is a lot different; the biggest thing is learning to run plays and getting the system and style of play down. Where I'm from, it's a lot more laid back, and everybody doing what they want. Here, there's a lot more structure, a lot more focus on working hard and playing all the time here. Back home, nobody pushes you that much, and it's your choice how hard you want to work to get better – and I chose more, and that's why I wanted to come here."
As soon as Johnson saw the tapes of Joseph playing, Johnson wanted her to come to Sauk, too. After Damhoff's contacts sent up the tape, Johnson was able to talk to Joseph on the phone a few times. Once the mutual interest was discovered, it was a mere formality.
Johnson had little doubt that the other Skyhawks would take to Joseph as quickly and easily as he did. It was the clash of styles and Joseph's little experience that the coach knew would be tougher to overcome.
"I knew right away she would mesh really well with this group of girls personality-wise and with her attitude," Johnson said. "She's down to earth, just a great kid who gets along with everybody, and she just loves playing the game.
"I knew it would take her some time on the court, though; there's got to be quite a bit of fear in coming this far away from home and playing a different style of ball. But she's adjusted well, she's really coming along for us on the court, and she's been a pretty good fit all the way around."
Damhoff has had quite the same experience with his players from BVI. It all started during the 2000-01 season when he was asked by then-Arrowhead Conference assignment chairman Daryl Lamps if he wanted to make a trip to the tropical paradise to work some camps and "take a look at some talent."
"It's a beautiful place to go, and there's a lot of good ballplayers down there," Damhoff said. "We waited a year, then brought Randy George in, and he's the one who kind of started it all for us."
George was a solid post presence for the Skyhawks, helping the team win the Region IV title in 2003, and he went on to play at Henderson College and represent Great Britain in the University Games; he's still playing professionally in Europe.
His success paved the recruiting trail from BVI to Dixon. After George, backup point guard Charbin Smith came along, before some switching up of the powers that be in BVI basketball.
But Damhoff got another chance a few years ago. This time, he was asked to go to BVI to run camps and scout talent by Steve Carlin, who remembered George from his playing days at Clinton Community College. That's when Damhoff discovered Ottley, who Damhoff calls "a force inside, another major impact player from BVI for our program."
This year, there are three players from BVI at Sauk: Ottley and freshman Wuli Frometa on the men's team, and Joseph. The Tortolla native is happy to be part of the tradition as the first woman to make the journey, but is more focused on helping the Skyhawks win – and continuing to improve her skills so she can keep playing after he Sauk days are done.
"I have a dream right now to keep playing basketball in college for as long as I can," Joseph said. "Home is pretty far away, and that's tough sometimes, but I'm going to keep working hard, keep showing up every day and trying to get better, and I'm not going to stop."
Hometown: Tortolla, British Virgin Islands
Playing experience: 3 years
Class: Freshman at Sauk
Ht./Pos.: 5-foot-7 guard
Stats: 113 points (8.7 ppg), 55 rebounds (4.2 rpg), 24 assists (1.8 apg), 21 steals (1.6 spg) in 13 games
FYI: Is first women's player to come to Sauk from BVI; four men's players hail from there, including two (Daven Ottley, Wuli Frometa) on this year's team. … Played in the same basketball foundation as Ottley. … Hopes to move on and play ball at 4-year school when her Sauk career is over.