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Reflections from a Hall of Famer: Shantia Grace

Shantia Grace, now the head coach at Sarasota Booker High, will be inducted into the USF Athletics Hall of Fame in November. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

SARASOTA — When called to the stage at the Marshall Student Center on Nov. 15, a former USF women’s basketball star may not know how to respond.

Shantia Grace speculated that she may freeze up when it’s her time to give her thus-far  half-written speech.

Even as someone who has had to speak with the media on a regular basis throughout her life, Grace’s nerves for this particular public-speaking engagement are perfectly understandable.

After all, that speech will be given at her induction into the USF Athletics Hall of Fame.

But it’s not like that’s going to be the first challenge she’ll have had to overcome.

Grace, who played for USF from 2005-09, entered the program as coach Jose Fernandez’s biggest recruit yet — and for good reason. In her time at Sarasota’s Riverview High, she set the school’s record for scoring — boys or girls — at 2,446 points.

“I always knew if she continued to develop, she was going to be special,” Fernandez said. “The biggest selling point for us was trying to keep her close to home. That’s what we needed to sell.”

Naturally, being the highly-touted local recruit can lead to some pressure — especially since Grace didn’t enter her freshman season planning on being the starting point guard, yet wound up starting 30 of the Bulls’ 31 games that season due to injury.

“It was a lot of pressure but at the same time, I had (all-time leading scorer) Jessica Dickson on the side of me, so I think more of the pressure was on her and me just complementing her was the deal, because I wasn’t going to be the starting point guard,” Grace said. “I didn’t come in as the starting point guard even though I was high in rank coming in.

“But things happen. The starting point guard gets hurt and I’m thrown in, so at that point, it’s either grow up or sit on the bench. So I had to grow up.”

Grace grew up to be one of the greatest players in program history. She was a three-time All-Big East selection who led USF in assists in all of her four seasons with the Bulls and was the leading scorer for two seasons. Her 610 assists and 129 starts are still program records to this day, as is her single-game scoring record of 44, scored against Coppin State in 2008.

It was a time of growing up not just for Grace, but also for USF. Her freshman season marked not only the Bulls’ freshman season in the Big East, which was a drastic step up from their former league of Conference USA, but also USF’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

“That momentum kind of brought us up even further,” Grace said. “Yeah, we went to the NIT the last few years after that, but we won the NIT (in 2009).”

That 2009 WNIT appearance was another thing Grace, as well as the rest of her teammates, had to overcome. The Bulls finished the 2008-09 season at 22-10 and 9-9 in the Big East. They thought they were a lock for an NCAA Tournament appearance. They were left on the outside looking in, however.

Instead of heartbreak, though, their story turned into a championship.

“They were distraught,” Fernandez said. “We had a viewing party and everything. They didn’t get in.

“I couldn’t have been prouder of that group because I think what happened that year was a life lesson. In life, you’re not going to get everything that you think you deserve or you want.”

That WNIT championship, which to date is still USF’s only postseason title, remains one of Grace’s fondest memories of her time at USF — especially because of the way it ended, with the Bulls cutting down the nets in enemy territory and Grace coming home with MVP honors.

“You go into Kansas — 16,000 fans — everybody knows Kansas is a basketball state — everything about Kansas is basketball,” Grace said. “You go in there … and are able to beat them on their home floor — that’s something that you dream of. That’s something that you see on TV that you don’t think you will be a part of.

“Just hearing the crowd go silent at a certain point — that’s how you know you did something special.”

Coming back to Tampa was pretty memorable as well.

“It was a big thing at the airport,” Grace said. “Judy Genshaft, she was there. It was a lot — family, friends. As soon as we got off the plane and walked down — I can see it to this day: I had the net that we cut down around my neck, and I had the MVP trophy and I think I still had the basketball. I was just carrying everything.

“Just seeing the crowd — just seeing smiles and people enjoying the moment — that was big for us.”

The WNIT championship was the punctuation mark to a hall of fame collegiate basketball career, but not Grace’s basketball career. She played professionally in Poland for a few years before returning to her hometown of Sarasota to finish her degree at USF Sarasota-Manatee (Grace needed to complete her foreign language requirement), eventually becoming the head coach at Booker High School.

Grace credited Fernandez with how she approaches her coaching.

“A lot of the things I do now comes from him,” Grace said. “For four years, that was my life and we had to have a relationship, regardless of if I liked it or not — everyone needs a coach, even at the NBA level, everyone needs a coach that they can rely on.

“So that’s what I give my girls now, I give them someone they can talk to. Yeah, I’m their coach, but I’m also a friend, I’m also a counselor. I’m also their mother when their mother’s not here. That’s what I got from him, so I can relay that to my girls.”

It’s hard to argue Grace’s methods aren’t working. The Tornadoes posted a perfect 10-0 record in their district this past season before making it to the FHSAA 6A Regional Finals, falling one point shy of making it to the state semifinals.

“I’m really happy for her,” Fernandez said. “She built that program and took the team to the regional final … I think down the road, if she continues to do this — continues to coach high school — and I know now she’s getting involved in travel basketball — the next level is not out of the question for her.”

So, sure, there will be emotions from Grace when she arrives at the MSC that day. Why shouldn’t there be?

There shouldn’t be any reason to worry about her freezing up, though, because if there’s one thing to expect about Shantia Grace, it’s to expect the unexpected. Her induction into the USF Athletics Hall of Fame comes as a formality today, but it was anything but expected back in 2005.

“No one expected it,” Grace said. “I didn’t expect it. I know coach Fernandez didn’t really expect it. And for me to go out there, being this small 5-foot-6-inch guard, coming out of Sarasota County, which is small itself, that’s something that no one thought of. No one knew that this would be the outcome.”