Feb. 28, 2003
by Ken Kleppel
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – In her first home game at the Joyce Center, the public address announcer confused then- freshman guard Alicia Ratay for departed Notre Dame sharpshooter Sheila McMillen. To the entire 2,324 fans in attendance that Wednesday evening, the name of “Sheila” Ratay echoed over the loud speakers throughout the opening series of that very first contest versus Butler.
By the end of the night, though. Ratay had distinguished herself as a unique basketball talent. Leading the team in points and assists and placing second in rebounds, she quickly shook off the uncanny resemblance — in both appearance and ability — to McMillen.
Four years later, the average attendance of 2,000-plus has turned into an average gate of 7,000-plus. The Final Four ring earned by McMillen and company in 1997 has been replaced by a National Championship ring earned by Ratay and company in 2001.
Most likely, too, the Ratay name has been shouted in vain by opposing coaches on numerous occasions, with no guarantee of the name’s correct pronunciation but a definite likelihood of an unmentionable adjective or two preceding the attempt.
But in this same time period, Ratay has inadvertently created an unmistakably unique identity on the Notre Dame campus. She is beloved throughout the Notre Dame nation as its poster child of women’s basketball and on campus as a contributing member of the Notre Dame community.
And the tool used by Ratay to carve out that niche is not the same instrument that ultimately shattered or will approach several school and NCAA records, or even that of her pure and effortless stroke from the floor.
Instead, the tool is one of maturity from a lifetime experience acquired in just a four-year span.
Through it all, she has learned and we have watched.
“She leads by example, she gets the job done on the court and stays out of trouble,” says junior guard Le’Tania Severe. “If you watch what Alicia does, you’ll end up doing the right thing.”
Ratay may not be the vocal leader of the locker room and the media will not look in her direction for an instant sound bite. Nonetheless, a distinct sense of humility runs through her responses both on and off the court.
That is, one need not listen too closely to perceive a calm and confident approach to the game, as well as her ability to lead by example.
“I think I’m a hard worker and not an overly cocky person,” says Ratay. “I get the job done. I just play and don’t worry about anything else.”
And this faculty has been a work in progress for generations, of which Ratay is the third.
Her grandmother and mother played basketball for Amateur Athletic Union teams. Her father played college basketball at Wichita State. Her older sister starred at Northwestern.
Accordingly it made sense that, as a third grader, Ratay’s transition to basketball was as seamless as her jump shot.
“Playing for so many years and seeing my sister play at college and seeing her play at that high level helped a lot,” says Ratay. “It always made everything a lot easier for me to do.”
Reference to the media guide offers further proof.
Ratay already holds the Irish record for career free throw and three-point field goal efficiency. If she maintains her current pace from behind the arc, Ratay will graduate with the highest three-point field goal percentage in women’s basketball history and is poised to break McMillen’s Notre Dame record of 249 career three-point field goals.
“In the beginning, it was doing the best that we can and winning and trying to get a championship — that’s what you dream about when you’re little,” says Ratay. “That’s what motivated me.”
Today her motivation comes from home. The Ratay family — most notably her mother and sister–has provided another sort of example to follow.
Returning to the classroom after raising a family, Marilyn Ratay is now in her third year of law school at the Northern Illinois University College of Law. Alicia’s older sister, Michelle, is an attorney in Rockford after graduating with a law degree from Northern Illinois.
They both chose to compete — with students born twenty years earlier from Marilyn’s perspective — because of the opportunities that education will ultimately provide. Surely, such a drive influences Alicia.
“Playing in games, you have to be really committed,” says Ratay. “Committing yourself to basketball, I think you can carry that over to a lot of things in life as far as work, school, and family.”
Ratay herself will graduate in May with a degree in psychology and education, and plans to one day pursue teaching. As an undergraduate, she has been recognized on the Dean’s List three times, matching the number of appearances on BIG EAST Academic All-Star teams — and ironically her number of appearances on all-BIG EAST teams — throughout her career. She also has been tapped twice as a Verizon Academic All-District selection.
In the end, she did it her way.
“Alicia will be missed, I know that,” says Severe.
On day one, Ratay found herself a storybook beginning and in two seasons a storybook ending.
And on Senior Day, she will find herself a new beginning, but Ratay is up for the challenge — just like she has done throughout her Notre Dame career.
— ND —