The football field stretched out in front of Sara Stanley every day — 100 yards and an end zone, 110 yards in all.
Stanley would line up and churn her way down the field, stop, rest for a few seconds and go back the other way.
Down and back. Over and over.
The former Wylie standout hated every step she took nearly two years ago, and yet she knew how important the exercise was for her future.
Stanley played two seasons at McLennan Community College but missed part of her sophomore year with a broken foot and spent a lot of time on crutches or a couch. The extra pounds she put on left Stanley — not to mention the coaches at North Texas — facing a dilemma.
Former UNT head coach Karen Aston thought that Stanley, a 6-foot forward, could be a big part of the Mean Green’s future, but only if she got into shape.
Aston huddled with UNT strength coach Chris Seroka, hatched a fitness plan and left the decision up to Stanley: buy in or sign with another school.
Stanley looked back this week on her decision to accept that challenge as a turning point in her life, not to mention her career at UNT that will continue today when the Mean Green (11-18) faces Louisiana-Lafayette (9-20) in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.
“It was a struggle when I first got here last year,” Stanley said. “It was horrible. I was dying in conditioning. I was dying with Seroka in the weight room.
“I wanted to sleep all the time. Coach Aston was pretty hard on me.”
Those days seem like a distant memory for Stanley, who has carved out a role with the Mean Green.
Stanley isn’t one of UNT’s flashiest players. While players like Loryn Goodwin and Laura McCoy are hitting attention-grabbing 3-pointers and Alexis Hyder is scoring in the paint, it’s Stanley who is quietly doing the little things it takes to win.
When UNT was locked in a tight game with Arkansas State in the teams’ regular-season finale, it was Stanley who hit arguably the shot of the game for the Mean Green. UNT was down 43-40 when Stanley caught the ball at the top of the key with the shot clock running out and hit a 3 to tie the game. UNT went on to win 53-51.
The 3-pointer was just the third Stanley has hit all season.
For the year, Stanley is averaging 8.2 points and 5.9 rebounds a game.
“She’s a really popular player because she likes to share the ball and wants to do the right thing,” UNT head coach Mike Petersen said. “The one thing I get on her about is to shoot the ball more. She’s a grinder. She will give you absolutely everything she’s got.”
Making it work
Seroka laid out a plan detailing what it would take for Stanley to become an impact player before she even became a player at UNT.
“Karen talked to me and then we talked to [Stanley],” Seroka said. “We let her know on her recruiting visit that she would have to do things above and beyond what the rest of the team was doing.”
Stanley would do extra cardiovascular work and exercise to strengthen her core muscles. She also was assigned two days of workouts to do on her own. That is where those extra 110-yard sprints came into play.
“I really hated running those on the football field,” Stanley said.
Those workouts were just part of the plan. Stanley also had to change her eating habits.
“No fast food and no soda,” Stanley said. “I splurge sometimes, but I try to stick with sandwiches and fruit. I really miss Chipotle. That was my favorite.”
Stanley credited her sister Jackie Stanley with helping her make the adjustment. Jackie graduated from Rice and lives in the Denton area.
“I live with her, and she’s a real health nut,” Sara Stanley said. “She cooks dinner. We motivate each other. When we get off track, we will say, ‘OK, we have to eat well for real.’”
The changes started to pay dividends last season.
Stanley didn’t play more than 20 minutes in a game and was averaging just more than seven minutes per game when starting center Jasmine Godbolt went down with an injury in the 11th game of the season. Stanley went on to start 13 games and play at least 20 minutes in 15 games, including her best game of the year against Florida Atlantic.
Stanley scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds while playing 29 minutes against the Owls.
Petersen and UNT are hoping for a similarly dominating outing from Stanley and fellow forward Hyder today against ULL.
The duo combined to average 22 points and 15.5 rebounds in two games against the Ragin’ Cajuns this season. Stanley averaged 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in those two games, while Hyder posted 15.0 points and 10.0 rebounds
Stanley’s performance wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the dedication she showed earlier in the year.
“Sara works hard and has put in the extra time with Seroka and with the team to make sure that she is in the best shape she can be,” said McCoy, one of her best friends on the team.
A new outlook
Stanley’s playing career will come to an end in the next few days, even if UNT goes on an unexpected run and wins the Sun Belt tournament.
Stanley’s hope is that her final college game will be the prelude to a career in basketball.
“I want to coach,” Stanley said. “Hopefully someone will pick me up as a graduate assistant. I have had so many great coaches in my life. I want to do for others what they did for me.”
Stanley counts not only Aston and Petersen among those coaches, but Seroka as well.
The improvement Seroka helped her make in terms of her health helped make her a key player for UNT. The changes Stanley made to her life are ones she hopes to maintain.
“I would like to think this will change my life,” Stanley said. “Coming to North Texas was the best decision I have ever made. I am going to take a week off and then get back into the gym.”
The way she accepted the challenge in the first place made an impression on Stanley’s coaches and teammates.
“It says a lot about a person’s character when they have a deficiency and they work at it,” Seroka said. “It’s like anything else in this game. If you are weak dribbling with your left hand and you never work at it, you won’t get any better. I see it more with this generation. They are afraid to fail in front of their peers.”
Stanley kept running up and down the football field no matter how much she hated it. The reward for her diligence has come in the form of a successful career at UNT, one that will continue at least one more day in Hot Springs.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .