In the Final Stretch
Feb. 17, 2004
Through the success of the Purdue women's basketball team over the past four years, there has been one constant - a quick, 5-6 point guard from Lubbock, Texas named Erika Valek.
Valek was on the floor when the Boilermakers won the 2001 and 2002 season titles, when they won the Big Ten Tournament title in 2003, for their run to the national championship game in 2001 and to the Elite Eight in 2003. In fact, Valek has led Purdue onto the court every single game of her career. In all, the speedy guard has started 116 of 116 games for the Black and Gold as of February 17th.
Valek arrived in West Lafayette, having chosen Purdue over her hometown Texas Tech. Despite the nerves and excitement of starting as a true freshman, Valek's play at point guard helped lead her team through the 2001 NCAA Tournament, averaging 8.7 points and 2.0 assists. But in the Mideast Regional semifinal game against Texas Tech, ironically, Valek suffered a devastating setback. With just over four minutes remaining, she stepped on an opposing player's shoe and heard the sound no athlete wants to hear. Tests would reveal a torn ACL in her right knee. As a result, Valek was forced to watch from the sidelines as her team lost a heartbreaker, 68-66, to Notre Dame in the NCAA final.
"You go through those kinds of obstacles in life for a reason," she says, reflecting on the pain of sit out the title game and of the difficult rehab process. "And I'm just thankful that I went through something like that."
After the injury, Valek focused on doing whatever it took to get back on the court. The team had a lack of depth at the position and needed Valek's leadership and experience on the floor.
But for once, her competitiveness may have been detrimental to her basketball career, as she rushed to get back into playing form. Her eagerness to do too much, too quickly, is a reason why Valek says she could not play at 100% during her sophomore campaign.
"There were times that I was frustrated," she admits, "there were times that I just wanted to redshirt and give my body time to heal. But in situations like that is when you have to step in and really not focus so much on yourself, but focus on the team and what the team needs from you."
Despite frustration and an aching knee, Valek says she tried to focus on the little things in her game like bringing the ball up the court and getting it to the right people. Her efforts to put her pride and individual goals aside to focus on what she could do to help the team paid off, as the Boilermakers won a second Big Ten Championship under Valek's gritty direction.
"It was definitely a growing experience for me, and I came out of it as a stronger basketball player and a stronger person."
Now, whenever frustration returns, Valek simply looks back on her difficult sophomore season for inspiration.
"I appreciate and realize what a great opportunity that I have, to do what I love, and that is to play basketball."
That inspiration and a little more physical rehabilitation was just what the doctor ordered. With a healthy knee, Valek had a breakout junior season in 2002-03. She was voted first team all-Big Ten by the coaches after averaging 14.0 points, 4.9 assists, and 2.6 steals per game. Her averages shot up to 18.5 points and 3.0 steals in the post season, while Purdue played its way to the Elite Eight, earning her a NCAA East Regional All-Tournament Team bid.
Valek is now carrying over that success into her senior season. As an All-America candidate, a Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award nominee (given annually to the nation's best player under 5' 8'' tall), and a Naismith Award contender, she has once again led Purdue to the top of the Big Ten standings.
The fact that Purdue has won over 80 percent of its game when Valek is running the floor is proof of the senior co-captain's importance to the Boilermaker's Big Ten and national success. Valek, along with the other members of Purdue's class of 2004- Shereka Wright, Beth Jones, and Lindsey Hicks- have carved out a special place in the heart of fifth year head coach Kristy Curry.
"Life without these four will be different for me, personally and professionally. So it probably will be the most emotional day, although I have loved all of the groups that have come before them. They have made their own mark."
With an amazing amount of playing experience under her belt and a great comeback story, Valek will have a lot to reflect on come Purdue's senior night on February 26th.
"To be able to come to one of the top programs in the country, to be able to experience so many good things, the relationships that you build throughout the year and being able to play other top teams is just a great blessing."