Sarah Hayes '06 sat in the stands at the Pizzitola Sports Center aghast. It was March of 2005 and on the court, Dartmouth and Harvard, which had shared the Ivy League title that year, were squaring off to see which team would advance to the NCAA tournament. Brown had been chosen as the neutral site for the showdown, and Hayes, then a junior and cocaptain of the Bears, went to check it out. Her team had gone one for one with both of these teams. Hayes knew she was as good as any player on the court-certainly better than most. "That should have been us out there," she thought to herself. Instead, she was sitting in the last row of the bleachers.
Hayes really had no good reason to hope her team could win the Ivy title that year. Star center Holly Robertson '05 was graduating, a major blow to the Bears, who now had to make up her average of nine rebounds per game, more than any of her teammates, and her 402 season points, another team high. Robertson was also six-foot-five while Hayes, her obvious replacement, was a mere five-feet and eight-inches, two inches shorter than the Ivy average height. "I knew I was just going to have to be smarter and quicker than everyone else if I was going to fill Robertson's shoes," Hayes says. It was a daunting challenge.
But going into the final weekend of the 2005Ð06 season, the Bears were in fact leading the Ivy League-in large part thanks to Hayes's commanding presence on the court and her leadership as captain. She has indeed proved quicker and smarter than most of her competitors, having become the third leading scorer in the Ivy League and the league's leader in steals per game. "There isn't an obstacle you can put in Sarah's way that she's not willing to battle," says coach Jean Marie Burr. A psychology and history concentrator, Hayes has also managed to maintain a grade point average of 3.43, and despite rigorous daily practice sessions and a hectic travel schedule, she was named a District I Academic All-American for the second year in a row .
"We're winning a lot of close games this year," says Hayes. "We might have lost them last year, but this year we have the confidence that we're going to win." The team's record at the end of February was 17th overall and a commanding 11th in the Ivy League. The team also had its first undefeated season since 1983-84.
Hayes, twenty-one, is sprightly, with intense, glowing eyes and short hair she parts down the middle. She grew up in Beaufort, South Carolina, a rural town along the coast, where, she says, "there was nothing to do except play sports." Her father was a marine who often traveled around the country, and her mother worked as an elementary-school teacher at one of the nearby military bases. The family regularly attended church, and Hayes remains a devout Baptist.
When she was seven, Hayes signed up to be on her church's basketball team. She had never played before, but as soon as she started dribbling she found she had an instinctive knack for it. "I remember my first basket," Hayes says, sitting at a cafŽ on the Brown campus. "I caught the ball on a fast break, dribbled down the court, did a little pump to fake out my opponent, and scored." Her opponent happened to be a boy who did not exactly take kindly to being outfoxed by a girl.
Hayes got much more serious about the game after that and played for all of her school teams in Beaufort. As a star player at Battery Creek High, she caught the attention of Brown recruiters and was encouraged to attend the college. "It's Brown!" says Hayes. "I never thought, growing up in a small town in South Carolina, I would be able come to a school like this."
On the court Hayes is constantly in motion, darting and feinting, trying to get wherever she's needed. (These skills don't always make it easy to sit still through classes; even during casual conversations, Hayes's hands are always in motion). At games, the crowd recognizes instantly that she's the one to watch. In fact, she is playing the best game of her college career in large part because she knows she has to fill Holly Robertson's shoes. "In the past, I was looking to set everybody else up," she says. "Now I know I have to be the one who is scoring." She plays all positions-"anywhere the coach wants me," she says-and in her role as captain, she has to inspire her teammates to push themselves beyond their limits. Hayes says she is shy and not particularly talkative so she has no choice but "to lead by example. Everybody sees how hard I work and it just builds up the team's intensity."
Next year Hayes hopes to play basketball in Europe, preferably for the Swedish or Italian team. After that, she'd like to coach middle school or high school hoops. "I don't know, I just love this game," she says. "After that first show when I was seven, the court felt like my second home. I just love being out there."
Lawrence Goodman is the BAM's staff writer.