Commentary

Julie Wojta had to become more selfish

Center has had to move past pass-first mentality; Phoenix reached Sweet 16 in 2011

Originally Published: January 4, 2012
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Julie WojtaRick Osentoski/US PresswireJulie Wojta is averaging 19.7 points and 10.2 rebounds, shooting 56 percent from the field.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The smallest giant in women's college basketball remains head and shoulders above the competition this season. The undersized center, expected to play guard when she arrived at just about the only school that recruited her, is from a town called Francis Creek that is exactly as small as it sounds.

And she wants to be a certified public accountant.

Let's see the good people of Knoxville, Palo Alto, South Bend, Storrs or Waco try that trick.

Nothing about the Green Bay women's basketball program adds up to a national power if you apply the usual math, yet the Phoenix are once more beating all comers and chasing perfection. Nothing about Julie Wojta adds up to equal one of the best players in the nation if you apply the usual math. Yet here stands the 6-foot senior center, offering every incentive to the coaches who vote for the State Farm All-America team to think long and hard about it first if they decide to leave her out of this season's list of the 10 top players in the country.

A program has to be creative to compete in the upper echelon of a sport with an athletic department budget in the lower reaches of the Horizon League. To put together feats like a 34-1 record in the calendar year just completed, including a 12-0 start and No. 14 ranking this season, that program has to be unique.

To that end, it's safe to think few of Green Bay coach Matt Bollant's peers ever needed to break out this line.

"We shouldn't have to ask you every day to shoot," the coach chided Wojta after one pass too many in a recent practice. "Your teammates want you to shoot the ball."

Green Bay is a different kind of basketball program. Wojta is a different kind of superstar.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner, Julie Wojta
Matt Strasen/US PresswireFew centers, save for Brittney Griner in the 2011 Sweet 16, have gotten the best of Julie Wojta, who has heptathlete-like talent.

Start with the notion that she might like passing even more than the quarterback who plays across town for the Packers. Wojta scored 24 points against Illinois on a neutral court and 29 points at Wisconsin. She shoots 56 percent from the floor, 86 percent from the free throw line, 40 percent from the 3-point line and ranks 19th in the nation at 19.7 points per game (in addition to 20th in rebounding and 14th in steals). She nevertheless treats shots like a polite dinner guest treats the last roll in the basket.

No, you take it. Really, I insist. I couldn't possibly …

"That's something that I've struggled with," Wojta said. "Ever since fourth or fifth grade, I like the assist. I like that team feeling that people get when it goes through all five of us and then we score. I think those are the teams you want to be on; that's what makes it fun. I've struggled with that, and they've continued to stay on me. They want me to take 20 shots a game, and I'm thinking, 'Holy crap, that's a lot.' They're pushing me to do that and I have to realize that they want me to do it to help the team.

"They remind me, 'No one is going to be mad if you're taking more shots.'"

The past two seasons, Green Bay's center totaled 236 assists. Skylar Diggins totaled 298.

Such selflessness served the Phoenix en route to the first Sweet 16 in program history. On a team with two senior stars, Kayla Tetschlag and Celeste Hoewisch, Wojta was an equal talent who was happy to be the third tenor. Tetschlag and Hoewisch gave the team its identity -- they were Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti -- but they shared shots essentially equally with Wojta, who also led the team in assists as a center. This season? Bollant's practice protestations notwithstanding, she's taking more than four shots per game than anyone else on the team.

To put that in context for a program that would spell "win" without the middle letter if it could, that hasn't happened at Green Bay since the 1998-99 season.

Now playing professionally in Belgium, Tetschlag was home for the holidays and had a chance to watch Wojta in action and spend some practice reps defending her on the court.

"The transition from last year to this year, she's just become completely dominant," Tetschlag said. "I think some of it last year was she was definitely an important player, but this year the total spotlight is sort of on her. She has the responsibility to lead this team, and she's taking that on strongly and doing a great job."

The transition from last year to this year, she's just become completely dominant. I think some of it last year was she was definitely an important player, but this year the total spotlight is sort of on her. She has the responsibility to lead this team, and she's taking that on strongly and doing a great job.

-- Former Phoenix star Kayla Tetschlag on Julie Wojta

One of the last of former coach Kevin Borseth's recruits, Wojta redshirted her first season on campus, meaning she came in with the class that included Tetschlag. The two roomed together in the dorms as freshmen, with "shy" the first word that came to Tetschlag's mind when she recalled those days. It's the same word Bollant used to describe Wojta and a decidedly one-sided conversation they had after he took the job and set out to meet with each returning player individually.

Where teammate Hannah Quilling's voice might carry from one side of Lambeau Field to the other -- while the Packers are in the middle of a game -- Wojta could still carry on a conversation in a library without drawing a second glance from the most persnickety of librarians. But the shyness is largely gone, replaced by a quiet confidence.

"Her first couple of years, with the media, I wish we could dig up some old interviews," Tetschlag said with a measure of glee only an old friend can get away with. "I just see a complete turnaround, and of course, that translates into her game because when you feel more confident, you play more confident."

Finding the right position didn't hurt, either. Always one of the tallest while growing up in Francis Creek, Wojta played enough post in high school to average a double-double as a junior, but she came to Green Bay an athlete as much as anything, small for the post but an intriguing developmental project for a program that isn't reluctant to play guards by the bushel.

"Physically you saw that she had it, but she just didn't know how to necessarily use those tools," Bollant said. "She played way too fast. It took us a couple of years to get her to slow down because she was traveling with the basketball every time she got it."

[+] EnlargeJulie Wojta
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireEven dating back to elementary school, Julie Wojta has always preferred scoring the assist -- not the basket.

The light bulb moment came when after experimenting with her on the wing or as a point forward (she's still sometimes introduced as a guard on the road, a vestige of those early days), Bollant moved her to the post, the spot in his motion offense where her natural athleticism was most encumbered by other responsibilities. After averaging barely eight minutes a game in her first season, she earned second-team all-conference honors the following season, ranking in the top 10 in the Horizon League in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Like an option quarterback in a world of pocket passers, what makes her so difficult to stop is you don't have anyone like her. How many other centers excelled at long jump and shot put in high school and get at least one teammate's vote, in this case junior Sarah Eichler's, as the fastest player on a college basketball team? Unless you've got a heptathlete hanging around, it's going to be tough finding a match for her on your scout team. And other than Brittney Griner in last year's Sweet 16, not a lot of opponents have gotten the best of her.

"She's just too athletic," Eichler said. "There is that point where -- I've been playing with her for three years and there are still times where we'll be playing pickup or we'll be in practice and Julie will do something and everyone will just stop and be like, 'Did that really just happen?' She's just so athletic. A lot of girls who play the 5 at the college level are 6-2, 6-3 and not very fast laterally, and Julie is 6 feet, but she plays like she's 6-4. She's a huge presence inside, and then if you get her on the perimeter, she can drive past most of the people who would ever guard her."

As unconventional a star as she is, she might be the only kind that would work in this program. Green Bay needs Wojta to score because a mid-major program can't afford to squander a talent capable of scoring 30 points every night -- that just doesn't come along all that often in these parts. But the Phoenix remain anything but a one-woman team. Returning rotation players Lydia Bauer, Eichler, Adrian Ritchie and Quilling can all shoot, take care of the ball and execute a defense that is often Green Bay's best offensive weapon. Eichler and Ritchie continue getting to the free throw line with greater regularity, and redshirt freshman Megan Lukan shows flashes of something truly special in her first season on the court.

Green Bay is what it is because of how five parts fit together on the floor and all parts function off the court. It's just that the Phoenix need one of those parts to embrace her inner selfishness.

It's the selfless thing to do in this case.

"We really don't care who gets the points," Eichler said. "She can have 42 and the rest of us chip in two or a free throw, and we wouldn't care as long as we get the 'W.' It doesn't matter to us.

"It's definitely something she's working on."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.