Jan. 7, 2009
By Larry Watts
If it wasn't for the heavy load of science courses leading to a nursing degree or the amount of time she had to spend working on her basketball skills, Alyssa Karel says she wouldn't mind becoming a chef.
Aside from the time demands required for her two primary interests at the University of Wisconsin, there's also one other roadblock for this 5-foot-7 sophomore from St. Paul, Minn. She finds cracking a 2-3 zone much easier than maneuvering her way through a kitchen.
"I have zero cooking skills," Karel admits. "All I can make is eggs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
Well, that takes care of breakfast and lunch. As for dinner, Karel will just have to hop on her scooter and head off to the nearest fast-food joint.
Thankfully for Badger fans, Karel has been content with making toast out of opposing defenses. Her shooting touch has been a primary recipe for success as Wisconsin has jumped out to a surprising 12-3 start.
"We took a big hit in graduation, so people outside of our program didn't have high expectations for the Badgers this year," Karel says. "But this team has really come together and everyone understands their role.
"Last year it was a matter of shutting down one or two players, and you shut down the Badgers. But this year, if someone gets shut down, there's always someone else ready to step up. We're relying less on the star players and more on the role players."
Graduation robbed the Badgers of their top three scorers -- Jolene Anderson, Janese Banks and Danielle Ward. Anderson and Banks had been starters for all four seasons. The sharp-shooting Anderson twice led the Big Ten in scoring and left Madison as the school's all-time scoring leader, both men and women, with 2,312 points.
As for Karel, who was nicknamed "Puppa" by teammate Mariah Dunham, she earned her stripes last year mainly in a backup role to point guard Rae Lin D'Alie. She played in all 30 games, averaging 5.2 points per outing with a high of 19 against Michigan State.
"Mariah (who is 6-1) said I was small and had puppy eyes," Karel says with a laugh. "That nickname has taken on a lot of variations. I guess it could have been worse."
Right now, Puppa carries the biggest bite of all the Badgers. Adapting to her new role as the No. 2 guard, Karel has hit double figures in 14 of the first 15 games, including 29 against Northern Illinois, and leads her club with a 14.3 scoring average. She has hit 48 percent of her shots from the field and her 28 three-pointers (at a 39 percent clip) are nearly twice that of her nearest teammate.
"I wasn't a great shooter before I got here, but I spent a lot of time focusing on it last summer and during this preseason," she says. "When you come in as a freshman, it's hard to gauge how things will pan out. There aren't a lot of expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised at how things turned out and how much playing time I got.
"I learned a lot by playing with Jolene (Anderson), she was a great player. She really knew how to score and she taught me a lot about not forcing things and making good decisions. At first I was hesitant to shoot, but the coaches finally convinced me to start looking for my shot and, once I got more comfortable, I started taking more shots."
Karel is also growing quite accustomed to her new home at the No. 2 slot.
"I had never played the position before in my career," she says. "I usually handled the point, but I like the idea of not having all that pressure on me to bring the ball up the court. Now instead of creating shots for other people, I'm looking to get open and take my shot when I have it. It's certainly easier to get into the game now."
Although she grew up in St. Paul and was very familiar with the University of Minnesota campus, Karel says she never had any dreams of suiting up for the Golden Gophers. She committed to Wisconsin during her junior year at Cretin-Derham Hall.
"My position was already filled on their roster," she says. "I knew I wanted to play college basketball and I knew I wanted to get away but still remain close enough to home. My parents (Steve and Taffy) were both basketball players at the University of St. Thomas (in St. Paul) and basketball has always been a passion for them. My mother has been to nearly every one of my games, even when we played in the Virgin Islands (earlier this season)."
Karel was also a standout goalie for the soccer team and shortstop at Cretin-Derham, but basketball has always been first on her list.
"I only went out for the soccer team my freshman year as a way to stay in shape for basketball," she says. "We didn't have an experienced goalie so the coach kept rotating players in there. I guess he liked my eye-hand coordination from basketball and he kept me in goal the rest of my career. Boy, did that plan to stay in shape backfire."
Although she is one of the shortest players on the court, Karel downplays the fact she is averaging 4.2 rebounds per game and possesses a 24-inch vertical. "The big girls are so busy boxing each other out, so the small people are able to get in there and pick up the scraps."
Karel, who will be applying for the Wisconsin nursing program in February, has aspirations of becoming a physician's assistant. She visited San Salvador while in high school and will be part of a nursing delegation headed to South Africa this summer.
"I like the medical field and it's a very competitive area with not many opportunities in this country," she says. "I think it would be cool to go some place like South America or Central America to work after graduation."
But graduation is still over two years away and Karel isn't about to jump ahead on her list of priorities.
"At this point, the only thing I'm focused on is bringing Wisconsin a Big Ten title," she says.
And maybe by that time she will have learned to cook a dinner. But the menu will not include peas.
"I'm not afraid to try almost anything," she says, "but I just hate the taste of peas!"