The road not taken for Becky Sauerbrunn
Becky Sauerbrunn, a 34-year-old defender and two-time Olympian, will co-captain the United States national soccer team at this month’s Women’s World Cup in France. The team is aiming to repeat as World Cup champions after hoisting the trophy in 2015, a tournament in which Sauerbrunn played every minute at center back. Like many members of the national team, Sauerbrunn was a soccer standout at a young age, winning four state championships at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis, Missouri, and playing on the U.S. Under-16 team for three years.
However, Sauerbrunn’s athletic achievements went far beyond the soccer field. Sauerbrunn also played volleyball and basketball at Ladue, and her high school soccer coach, Sweeney LaBarge, says she was recruited to play all three sports at the Division I level in college. Derrick Wallace, Sauerbrunn’s assistant basketball coach, says that basketball was probably her third-best sport, but even on the court, she stood out. She was a four-year varsity player and a three-year starter at point guard for Ladue, which had a combined 76-27 record in her four seasons.
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Sauerbrunn had “this natural talent. So Becky had something very, very special and I would tell her all the time that what she had, no coach could teach. … She didn’t necessarily, I think, at the time fully understand what I was talking about,” Wallace told High Post Hoops in a phone interview.
It will not surprise anyone who has followed her soccer career that she shone on the defensive end early on. Wallace says that “the ball would just show up in her hands and she didn’t know how … at times [her reaction] was like, ‘So what do I do?’ ‘Go score, Becky, go score!’” As a sophomore, Sauerbrunn led her team in steals and assists, a feat she would replicate in her last two seasons along with leading the team in scoring.
In Sauerbrunn’s junior and senior seasons, she averaged 13.5 points per game on 51% shooting from the field. She didn’t shoot a ton of 3-pointers but made 30% of her attempts. She rarely fouled, averaging fewer than two per game, and even managed to block 14 shots despite standing only 5’7”. As a senior, she ranked sixth in the St. Louis metro area in steals per game (5.6) and 23rd in assists per game (4.4).
The big difference Wallace noticed about Sauerbrunn’s senior season compared to her first three was confidence. As an underclassman, she was an excellent athlete, but didn’t see herself as a scorer or standout player. Sauerbrunn “did not understand the gift that she had athletically,” Wallace recalled. “But folks still knew that she was really, really good. … when she stepped on the court, it just changed the intensity because she was literally all over the court.”
Wallace told High Post Hoops about a game Ladue played in a tournament over Christmas break. He can’t remember which season it was—perhaps Sauerbrunn’s junior year—but the game was hotly contested. During a timeout, Wallace encouraged Sauerbrunn to keep up her positive play, but Sauerbrunn was unsure she could do what Wallace was asking of her.
“She was a point guard, so she was literally the coach on the floor. But she didn’t see herself in this leadership capacity,” Wallace said. “She never gave up. But she just questioned her level of offense. … That was a moment of her having this questionable sense of leadership in this moment that we needed this leader.” Wallace believes Ladue eked out a win, thanks in part to Sauerbrunn overcoming her own doubts.
In her senior season, Sauerbrunn had fewer doubts. Her assists jumped from 2.7 per game to 4.4 and she started taking more outside shots, launching 39 3-pointers as a senior compared to just 11 in her first three seasons. “She just focused on what she was good at, so stealing the ball and passing the ball, and just making her team better,” Wallace told High Post Hoops. “That’s really the biggest piece: every time she stepped on the floor, she just made the four other players that were around her better.” Sauerbrunn also became a more vocal leader on and off the court, according to Wallace, after leading mostly by example in her first three seasons.
In the past several years, Sauerbrunn has taken similar strides with the U.S. national soccer team in order to become one of the best players in the world and a leader in the locker room. She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month, “The biggest evolution is in [my] confidence and leadership. I’m a lot more able to make mistakes and learn from them, brush them off. When I was younger, I’d dwell on them, they’d affect me. With leadership, I had to evolve into that.”
She has also demonstrated leadership off the field by leading two team lawsuits against U.S. Soccer alleging gender discrimination. Becca Roux, executive director of the U.S. women’s players’ union, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Becky is the moral compass, and the one who is always looking out for the collective … when she speaks, you listen, because you know she is educated, she’s thoughtful, and she’s not going to say anything until she believes in it.”
Since Sauerbrunn graduated from Ladue in 2003, Wallace has seen her play soccer on television a few times. The first time he watched her, years after her graduation, “I was just staring at the TV like, ‘That’s Becky.’ … she was the same athlete.”
When asked what similarities struck him between Sauerbrunn the high school basketball player and Sauerbrunn the international soccer player, he pointed to her instincts and feel for the game. Referencing her signature hairstyle, a braided ponytail, he said, “When you see her, the ponytail is just going [back and forth] and what she’s doing is she’s anticipating other people. … she was able to just anticipate the other nine people on the basketball court at all times. It was unbelievable. You can’t teach that.”
Wallace also frequently mentioned Sauerbrunn’s impeccable character as something that makes her stand out, even after nearly 20 years. He described the high school-age Sauerbrunn as a “wonderful kid with this spunky personality.” Even when she was frustrated, she was usually smiling. “The same smile that she has on the soccer field right now,” he said, “is the same individual that I remember years ago. … when I see her being interviewed on TV and things that she’s saying, like, that is her. She’s been consistently Becky.”
Wallace closed the interview with High Post Hoops by saying, “She’s just a phenomenal person and anything I can do for Becky, I absolutely would. She has absolutely blossomed to the person that I saw a long time ago.” Her character is undoubtedly one reason behind her success on the soccer field—but her experience on the basketball court is another, according to Wallace. He believes that being a multi-sport athlete helped Sauerbrunn—like countless high school players before and after her—learn to handle adversity, understand strategy, and weather the ups and downs of a long season.
So, as the United States chases its second straight World Cup trophy in the coming weeks, keep in mind that part of what got its best defender to where she is today was honed on the basketball court.
All high school basketball statistics are calculated from STL High School Sports.
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