Local connection working well at UAB
Sara Rosenfeldt and Margaret Whitley grew up playing high school basketball four miles apart at St. Charles East and Geneva, respectively.
They each enjoyed high school careers filled with a lot of points, individual honors, memorable games ... and two unforgettable state championships for Whitley.
They became friends playing for the same AAU team, and they decided to continue being teammates in college at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Now in their junior seasons, they have shared a similar college experience. Both found themselves in an unusual position their first two years -- coming off the bench in limited roles -- and both have now moved into the starting lineup and are doing big things.
"It's been very exciting to say the least," Whitley said. "It's a blessing we connect like we do on the court. We followed the leaders (on last year's UAB team) and now we are the leaders. I think we are ready. I love being by Sara's side through it all. No one better to do it than her."
Rosenfeldt, the starting power forward, knew there would be a bigger opportunity this season. The Blazers graduated their starting lineup from last year and brought in six new players.
After averaging 14 minutes a game last year, Rosenfeldt has started all six games this season. She's averaging 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, shooting 48.4 percent from the field. UAB is 5-1.
Those who remember Rosenfeldt diving for loose balls and relentlessly crashing the glass with the Saints will be happy to know things haven't changed -- even though she now doesn't look to score as much.
"My role the first two years was very different," Rosenfeldt said. "It's just good to be starting and playing a lot and playing the game I love. Everyone can score on our team so I try to do all the little things. I try to get our shooters open when I can. Rebound, take charges, whatever I can do to help the team win.
"It's very different for me and Marg because we've got a lot of new kids," Rosenfeldt continued. "We're teaching them what our culture and team is all about. We've been playing really well so far. It's been good to see."
Like the rest of her Blazer teammates, Whitley headed home last March when the pandemic hit. She took that time to work on her game, especially with trainer Chris Conrad.
The results are impressive. After averaging 4.5 points as a sophomore playing 13 minutes a game, Whitley has a 22.0 scoring average. She's made 19 3-pointers on 41% shooting and hit 47 of 52 free throws (90.4%).
"I took that time to work on my game on my own again," Whitley said. "That time I had by myself and training I felt took my game to the next level. I worked extremely hard to prepare myself for the upcoming season. (Conrad) made me a better player, a better person, I wouldn't be the same player I am without him."
Whitley said it wasn't easy going from a staring role on the state champion Vikings to coming off the bench her first two years.
"It was definitely discouraging but honestly I wouldn't change it," Whitley said. "I was expecting it to be a lot different from what it was. Not that I was expecting that I deserve all this stuff because of what I've done, it was just that I had goals and things I wanted to do and like anyone I wanted to play. When things weren't going that way it was definitely discouraging and hard to go through that. But I don't think I'd be the same player I am now. I was forced to take a step back from the game and my own personal life and evaluate it and think about what I want and what's most important to me. And that was family and basketball. I had to self evaluate and ask myself how bad I wanted it."
The two shouldn't ever feel homesick despite going to college 11 hours away. Not only do they have each other, they are part of a UAB roster with six players from Illinois, and just one from Alabama.
Sophomore guard Sam Mitchell from Montini and freshman Emily Klaczek from Fremd are teammates; Mitchell has started four games and is averaging 6.3 points.
There's not much mystery how so many Illinois kids wind up at UAB. Coach Randy Norton played basketball and baseball at Iowa. He was an assistant coach at Illinois State and Missouri before taking the UAB job in 2013.
"It's kind of funny because our team is surrounded by northern accents," Whitley said. "I love having teammates who know cold weather and all the things we say. It makes you feel more at home when you are that far away. It's been really fun."
Whitley and Rosenfeldt hope their young team can continue playing well when the C-USA schedule starts. Unlike the Midwest, they are playing in front of a limited number of fans. They are tested for COVID three times a week.
The two helped UAB set a program record with a 3.56 GPA this semester despite the challenges of online learning. Both are majoring in marketing while glad to be stepping into bigger roles on the court.
"Coach tells us every day is a blessing to play basketball and come to practice and see your friends and play a game you love and compete," Whitley said.
"I love it here, such a great atmosphere," Rosenfeldt said. "It's just a big family. It's been an awesome experience for me."