Aug. 9, 2005
By Bo Rottenborn
This week’s Monogram Club “Tuesday Testimonial” is penned by Sara Liebscher, who has seen the University of Notre Dame from an abundance of perspectives. Coming from a family that has produced more than 10 Notre Dame graduates, she was a standout guard for the women’s basketball team from 1987-91 before serving as a graduate assistant and then returning to her alma mater to work first in academic services for student-athletes and most-recently in athletics development. She talks about what it means to be a Notre Dame student-athlete, the growth of the Irish women’s basketball team, and how her undergraduate experiences have shaped her professional life.
Liebscher was a standout guard for the Irish from 1987-91 before helping the team to its first-ever invitation to the NCAA tournament during her two ensuing seasons as a graduate assistant.
Liebscher was a four-year monogram winner and two-year starter for the Irish basketball team. She concluded her career ranking among the top 10 in program history in seven major categories: second in three-point field goal percentage (.368), fourth in assists (312), fifth in free-throw percentage (.753), sixth in field-goal percentage (.521) and steals (166), tied for ninth in points (959), and 10th in rebounds (478). Liebscher still remains the last Notre Dame player to register a triple-double, as she posted 17 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists against Detroit in the Joyce Center in 1990. Among her other notable performances were a career-best 22-point outburst (on 7-for-7 shooting) against Saint Louis and an 18-point effort vs. #5 Tennessee, both in 1991. Liebscher was a second-team all-Midwestern Collegiate Conference pick in 1988-89 and earned the Rockne Student-Athlete Award as the team’s top academic performer in 1990-91.
She helped Notre Dame register an 87-34 (.719) record during her career, which saw a number of milestones. In 1987-88, she scored 19 points in the first-ever Irish victory over a nationally-ranked team, a 78-66 upset at #17 Duke. Liebscher was a co-captain of the 1990-91 squad that upset #11 Louisiana Tech and earned the first national ranking in program history.
A native of Davenport, Iowa, Liebscher was a standout in not only basketball, but also softball, tennis, and cross country at Assumption High School. A three-time all-state selection in basketball, she led the state in assist average (6.1) as a senior and was tops in her conference in scoring (20.0). She scored 1,400 points in her prep career, set 15 Assumption records, and also registered a buzzer-beating, game-winning bucket in a state-tournament game.
Sheila Liebscher (’81), Sara’s sister, played on the third and fourth Irish varsity women’s basketball teams, including the first to compete on the Division I level.
Liebscher comes from a true Notre Dame family. Three of her brothers and a sister are Notre Dame grads, as are her father, three cousins, and two uncles. Her sister, Sheila Liebscher (’81), played on the third and fourth varsity women’s basketball teams in Notre Dame history, filling a starting role as a guard on the 1980-81 squad, which was the first to compete on the Division I level. But the Liebscher sisters were not the first in the family to be Irish student-athletes, as their uncle, Tom Garside, was a standout on the Notre Dame golf team from 1955-58. He helped the Irish finish among the top 15 in the NCAA Championships three years in a row, while leading the 1956-57 squad in points (58).
Upon graduation, Liebscher joined the women’s basketball coaching staff as the graduate assistant for two seasons (1991-93), helping the Irish to their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament. After filling various roles in three different cities, she returned to Notre Dame in 2002 to be a counselor in the academic services for student-athletes office. Following two years in that role, she assumed her current position as an assistant director for development in athletics advancement.
Tuesday Testimonial – Entry #8, Sara Liebscher (women’s basketball, `91); August 8, 2005
“We are … N.D.’ I learned that cheer at a very young age, and still today I shout it with great pride at any of the Irish sporting events I attend. For me, it embodies and embraces what we all commonly refer to as `the Notre Dame family’ – although it is absolutely what is not so common about this place. The spirit and sense of community that clearly pervade all aspects of life on campus and truly makes Notre Dame the unique place that it is opened its arms to me at a young age and has never let go.
“I am … N.D.’ Notre Dame has been a significant part of my life since well before I can even remember. You see, I was the eighth and final child born to an ND dad (Carl ’49) and a Saint Mary’s College mom (Mary Agnes ’50). Along with `Ma,’ `Da,’ `Yes,’ and `No,’ `N.D.’ was one of the first `words’ I was taught to say. Significantly younger than the rest of my siblings, I was only two years old when my brother Larry left for his freshman year in South Bend. That began a period of 20+ years that saw three brothers, a sister, and three cousins graduate from Notre Dame, as well as a sister from Saint Mary’s (this was in addition to two uncles that graduated in the `50s or `60s). By age 13, I had attended more than any one person’s fair share of ND graduations, JPWs [Junior Parents Weekends], and freshman orientations; I had been to a party in Grace Hall (which ironically is now where my office is) and had witnessed, atop various pairs of shoulders, several pep rallies in Stepan Center; I had even celebrated my 10th birthday in the basement of Farley Hall with a special guest by the name of Father Ted Hesburgh.
“On a recent stay at my parents’ house in Davenport, Iowa, I was reminded of what Notre Dame meant to me as young girl as I looked around my childhood bedroom. There is the `old school’ ND felt pennant hanging from the door, the official Admissions poster of 1972 framed on the wall and posing the question to all its admirers, `Is Notre Dame A Place for Women’ (which I decided to bring back to hang in my campus office), and under the glass of my bedroom dresser and desk are tickets to several ND football games, graduations, and a Beach Boys concert at the Joyce Center, as well as my all-time favorite John Paxson schedule card from the 1982-83 season. Obviously, Notre Dame was the ultimate destination for this young girl. It was a magical place where I was embraced and actually proud to be known as my sister or brothers’ `little sister,’ and it definitely offered all the motivation and challenge I needed to `get after’ both my academics and my hoops game.
Liebscher’s career included a number of firsts in Irish women’s basketball history, including the team’s first upset of a ranked team and its first national ranking.
“I have a unique perspective on the women’s basketball program, as I have been fortunate to see it from its inception on the Division I level in 1980 all the way through its dominance as a consistent top-20 contender of today. My connection to the teams of the early 1980s was my sister, Sheila. She played as a junior and senior, which were the final year the program held Division III status and then its first season at Division I. Those were the days when part of the enjoyment of going to the games was to count exactly how many people were in the stands that night. At home games, there were the `regulars,’ much like the women’s fans of today, just many fewer. There was Dr. Craig, a biology professor; Dr. Hoffman, professor of chemistry; and of course, the `Varsity Crowd.’ The `Varsity Crowd’ was a group of five or so guys (friends of women on the team) that did their best to cheer and make enough noise to compensate for the otherwise empty arena. They occupied the first row of the southeast corner, right above the white bed sheet they hung with `Varsity Crowd’ spray painted on it on.
“What stood out to me most, though about those teams were the women – Maggie and Carol Lally, Missy Conboy, Trish McManus, my sister Sheila, and Shari Matvey, to name a few. While they were all good basketball players (although none on athletic scholarships), they were more impressively great students. Pre-med and engineering majors dominated the squad, and most went on to exceptional professional careers in their respective fields. There were no better role models for this ten-year-old. I was going to be the next Maggie Lally, the next Sheila Liebscher.
“Everyone should have the chance to have a dream come true in their lifetime. I did, and it happened the night I received a telephone call from then-Notre Dame assistant women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly. He called to offer me a scholarship to play basketball for the Irish. Had he offered me $1 million, I wouldn’t have been happier! I can remember, like it was yesterday, signing the scholarship papers in the library of my high school with my basketball coach at my side. It was, without question, one of the proudest moments of my life.
“While I was obviously not going to be the first monogram winner in my family (in addition to my sister, my uncle, Tom Garside, also earned three monograms as a member of the golf team from 1956-58), I could lay claim to being the first Notre Dame athletic scholarship winner. In a big family, you revel in any ounce of `uniqueness’ you can laud over your siblings and relatives.
“I was fortunate to be a part of Coach [Muffet]McGraw’s first four years at Notre Dame. Coming in with a new head coach is an exciting, but also scary thing. None of us were recruited by Muffet, and thus, we feared the worst. On the other hand, the slate was clean, and we all knew we had an equal chance to impress. For me, the opportunity and excitement outweighed the fear, and I can still remember having such an adrenaline rush during the first drill on the first day of practice my freshman year that I nearly tripped right over my own feet completing the three-man weave. While the excitement never died, I did finally get my feet under me and became a consistent contributor for four conference-championship teams that finished every season with 20 or more wins.
Liebscher finished her career among the top 10 in the Irish career record book in seven major categories, including second in three-point field-goal percentage (.368).
“Looking back, my four seasons were ones of incredible growth for the program. First and foremost, Coach McGraw took a team that had suffered a couple of losing seasons prior to her arrival and with discipline, strong teaching of the fundamentals, and an unmatched competitive attitude, turned us into a winning program. By my senior year, we had cracked the top 20 and earned the program’s first national ranking. With that success, the program also witnessed its first significant increase in home attendance. While it was never as sparse a crowd as what my sister played in front of, I would imagine there were not more than a couple of hundred that regularly attended each game my freshman season. By my senior year, however, that had grown to a couple of thousand, and I can still remember what a big deal it was on `Senior Night’ to take the floor before a nearly full lower arena.
“The next step along the team’s growth chart was to make the NCAA tournament. It was a goal that eluded the teams I played on, despite our national ranking and conference championships. In those days, only 48 teams made the `Big Dance,’ and our conference (the Midwestern Collegiate Conference) did not get an automatic bid. Many tears were shed each `Selection Sunday’ outside the McGraw residence, but I can look back more objectively now and take consolation in the foundation we laid for those players who were to follow. Furthermore, none of them got the opportunity we did twice to travel to Amarillo, Texas, to participate in the eight-team field of the WNIT. A pre-tournament barbeque, complete with skits by each of the participating teams, and an eighth-place finish after entering the tourney with the #1 seed … the teams of today just don’t know what they are missing!
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the memories of my playing days go far beyond the basketball court. Of course, I can still remember certain games that I played exceptionally well in, and many more that I did not, but honestly, the majority of my memories have nothing to do with points scored or games won. Let me list a few: Muffet’s pregnancy with Murphy; Christmas breaks in the Jamison Inn, which included trekking across the snow-covered `tundra’ (as we so affectionately named the area between Gate 8 of the JACC and the Jamison) with teammate Lisa Kuhns (a native Floridian who refused to wear socks even in the dead of winter) on my back; stumbling upon Baker Beach as a team with our new and naÃƒÂ¯ve tour guides from the ND Club of San Francisco; the ever-popular game nights at Coach McGraw’s house; completing 22 200-yard sprints on the track one morning preseason workout; and a nineteen-hour drive to the Women’s Final Four in New Orleans over Easter break my senior year with teammates Krissi Davis and Karen Robinson. These memories, along with so many other times with my new `ND Family,’ are what made my experience as a student-athlete so special. The friendships and bonds that I formed are ones that have stood – and will no doubt continue to withstand – the test of time.
“In the two years immediately following graduation, I had the good fortune to stay closely associated with the program, but this time in an entirely different role. I served as the team’s graduate assistant coach while earning my MBA. I saw Muffet land her first couple of `Blue Chip’ recruits, and the NCAA finally awarded our conference an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. I watched a #2-ranked Tennessee team barely escape the JACC with a three-point victory (85-82 in 1991-92), and from that moment on, there has been no looking back for Muffet’s program. The culmination of all of her hard work and that of all those associated with the program – both past and present – was the national championship won in 2001. I was merely a spectator in the stands that evening in St. Louis, but the pride and excitement that I felt was beyond words. I was given a piece of the championship net that night by Coach and her husband, Matt. To this day, it remains one of my most cherished possessions, and it sits in a place that I can see it each and every day.
Liebscher returned to Notre Dame in 2002 and served as a counselor in the office of academic services for student-athletes before moving into her current position in athletics development.
“It’s rather appropriate that I see that small piece of net each and every day, as I can say unequivocally, each and every day, I draw upon my experience as a Notre Dame student-athlete. Three years ago, I returned to campus after a nine-year hiatus that included stops in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee and jobs in corporate banking and college coaching. I returned to take a position in Academic Services for Student-Athletes as an advisor for six of our varsity athletic teams. Clearly, in that role, I called upon my personal experiences as a student-athlete to provide a measure of understanding of what our current student-athletes were going through and to offer guidance when possible. It also afforded me a level of credibility with my student-athletes, especially when I challenged their actions in and out of the classroom.
“This past year, I assumed a newly-created position in athletics development. My target market includes former monogram winners, and once again, any mention of having played and coached women’s basketball has opened doors and allowed me to make an instant connection with many of my prospects. I can also attest, firsthand, to these donors the difference their financial support makes, the opportunities it provides, and the lives it can shape.
“While my experience as a Notre Dame student-athlete has certainly been relevant in my daily work, it is the lifelong principles and qualities it has taught me or helped me to develop for which I am most thankful – the confidence it has given me to take on difficult tasks; the work ethic it has taught me, which is necessary to achieve far-reaching goals; the competitiveness it has instilled in me to put up a tough fight and the sportsmanship to do so with dignity; and the value it has shown me in being a team player and understanding that it is so much more rewarding in life to work for something and someone so much greater than yourself.
“I have been a part of this institution in many different roles and have seen it from various perspectives – an aspiring student-athlete, the daughter, younger sister, niece and cousin of several grads, a scholarship student-athlete, a graduate assistant women’s basketball coach, an academic advisor for the student-athletes, a radio color commentator for women’s basketball home games and a development officer for athletics – and no matter what the role, no matter what the perspective, and no matter where I am (on campus or miles away), the sense of family and community that makes this university unique remains true. I am ND … We are ND!”
Do you have a recommendation of a former Notre Dame student-athlete to participate in the “Tuesday Testimonial” series? If so, please pass on the individual’s name and contact info. (if available) to Monogram Club archivist/publicist Pete LaFleur at firstname.lastname@example.org.