Testimony of Shereesha Richards from Albany University’s Football Team
Albany University's Shereesha Richards has been dominant this season, leading the Great Danes in scoring (22.4 points per game) and rebounding (10.5 rebounds per game), and recently picked up her third straight America East Conference Player of the Week honor. Richards and her Albany teammates are currently ranked eighth in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Division I poll. She was featured in the Nov./Dec., 2012 issue of FCA Magazine, which follows in its entirety.
Perhaps Shereesha Richards' constant calm demeanor can be traced back to her Jamaican heritage, where being laid back is a way of life. But there's a good chance it comes from a quiet confidence in her burgeoning relationship with Christ.
Whatever the case, Richards rarely gets nervous. And even when she does, it's impossible to tell. Take, for instance, when she and her University at Albany basketball teammates traveled to LaSalle University for a non-conference game last season.
Richards came out for warm-ups to 36 fans who had traveled 60 miles to Philadelphia from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., to cheer specifically for her. Pam Hitchner, Richards' high school coach, organized the trip but was concerned the large fan section might lead to extra nerves.
"Normally when an athlete plays in front of a lot of family and friends," Hitchner says, "they fold under the pressure. It's usually not their best game."
Not so with Richards. While she admits she was a little tense at first, the butterflies quickly wore off. Not only did she play better; the freshman forward had what Hitchner describes as her "breakout game," scoring 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting with four rebounds and three steals.
"I did what I had to do," Richards says matter-of-factly. "Having them there was exciting. I guess it made me play better."
Hitchner, who watched Richards get molded and shaped into the strong young woman of Christ she is today, says Shereesha "doesn't get nervous."
"Shereesha has a very strong spiritual walk with the Lord," she says. "She always gives honor and glory to Him."
Jamaica to Jersey
Richards' incredible poise and joyful spirit on the court today is infectious to everyone around her, but it tells nothing of the story of how she arrived here.
More than four years ago, Richards was living in Jamaica and had no thoughts of leaving. But that all changed when she received the opportunity to live in New Jersey and attend Atlantic Christian School for a year as a freshman. Already one of Jamaica's top youth netball players, Richards was slated to join the Cougars basketball program.
With her arrival coming on a school day, Atlantic Christian's principal allowed Hitchner to take some of her upperclassmen to the airport for a celebratory greeting. "We had signs and balloons and were all excited to see her," Hitchner says. "We were outgoing and over the top and loud, and she was very quiet and shy. I'm sure she didn't know how to react."
Although she was shocked by the enthusiasm of her greeters, Richards actually had something else at the front of her mind.
"My first thought was, 'It's so cold; what have I gotten myself into?'" she says. "I was kind of shy at the time. I didn't think I was going to talk to anyone while I was here. But as I got to know everyone, I came out of my shell a little bit more."
In Jamaica the more common game is netball, where there are no backboards and no dribbling, so Richards had little experience with basketball. She describes herself as a fast learner and hard worker, but also says she didn't fully get comfortable with the sport until her senior year.
"She was raw," Hitchner says. "But she has natural athleticism and a purely athletic body. She has long arms. She's fast. She's muscular. She also has an excellent work ethic. She had goals for herself, and she was able to obtain them."
After eight months in the United States, Richards' host family was no longer able to afford having an extra person in their home. Pam and her husband, Eric, began hearing rumors that Richards might be headed back to Jamaica.
As the couple struggled to find a new home for the budding basketball star, Eric had an unusual encounter with God.
"It was almost like the Lord spoke directly to me and said, 'You can't let her go home. She needs to stay with you,'" Eric says.
The logistics of such an idea didn't exactly fit. Eric was engaged in full-time ministry as a youth pastor at both Ocean City Tabernacle and Coastal Christian. All three of the Hitchner daughters-as well as Pam's mother-were living at home.
Besides that, Pam had her own qualms.
"I loved Shereesha from the start and did many things for her," Pam says, "but I was worried. It's not like me to bring someone to live in my home, especially a student and especially someone I coach. There's no break from me or for me from them. There's a lot of familiarity there that doesn't always work."
In this case, the third time really was a charm.
At first, Pam flatly told Eric no. He waited a week and asked again, but Pam gave the same response. Finally, another week after that, Pam agreed to at least give it a try for the summer.
"She has been a part of the family ever since," Eric says. "I consider her a daughter. We love her to death. My youngest daughter, Dakota (14 years old), and her are inseparable. It's been such an amazing story."
While resistant at first, Pam now wholeheartedly concurs with the decision.
"Eric was right on," she says. "From the moment Shereesha was with us, we knew we had done the right thing. Before she moved in, she told me she was counting the days until she came to live with us."
Adds Kyle Clayton, FCA's Cape Atlantic Area Director: "[The Hitchners] have outstanding character. They saw a great opportunity with Shereesha and wanted to continue to pour into her life spiritually."
Richards lived with the Hitchners for the next three years while attending Atlantic Christian and playing hoops, leading the team to three consecutive conference titles and the first two of three consecutive National Christian School Athletic Association Division 2 Championships.
Richards was named Tri-State Christian Athletic Conference MVP following her junior and senior seasons. In her final year, she averaged 20.6 points and 12.1 rebounds.
But because her success had taken place at a small Christian school, there were questions about her ability to play at the Division I level. Pam spent much of Richards' senior year trying to secure a scholarship for her star pupil, a process she describes as "like having a full-time job."
The hard work paid off when the University at Albany came with a full-ride offer, making Richards the first female Division I athlete from Atlantic Christian. It was a rewarding moment for the entire Hitchner family.
"Everybody sacrificed something for Shereesha, even my other daughters," Pam says. "We don't have much money so there was a financial strain. But everyone just loves her and wants everything for her. I give Shereesha a lot of credit for that because she's that kind of a person; you can't help but feel that way about her."
As a freshman at Albany, Richards played in all 29 games, primarily coming off the bench. Still, she averaged 20 minutes and was the fourth leading scorer (10.2) and second leading rebounder (5.9), earning America East Co-Rookie of the Year honors.
More importantly, Albany had one of the greatest seasons in school history. The Great Danes were undefeated in conference play (16-0) and finished the season 27-4 after a heartbreaking 59-54 loss to third-seeded North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Hitchners attended that game and were in awe of how far Richards had come.
"It's rewarding when you work very hard at something and are able to see the benefits of that hard work," Pam says. "It was very emotional for me. I'm proud of her and thankful for the blessing she's been to our family. I had those thoughts sitting there at the University of Delaware watching her come out during warm-ups. I just took it all in and embraced it."
Walking in God's Favor
While the Hitchners are excited about Richards' growth and development as a basketball player, they're even more pleased to see how quickly she has matured emotionally and spiritually. No longer the shy girl who stepped off the plane from Jamaica, Richards is emerging as a true leader.
"To hear her pray is to know her heart and her true walk with the Lord," Eric says. "She has this fervency in the way she prays. There's a sweet spirit about her. She's just a great kid."
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