Nov. 17, 2013
Last Friday night in Harrisonburg, Va., Sydney Umeri became the first of the five Virginia first-year players to run out on the court and begin her Cavalier basketball career. The 6-1 freshman forward, who grew up in the suburbs outside of Atlanta, was announced in the starting line-up in her very first game.
"I was thinking, `I cannot believe this is happening and that it's finally here'," Umeri said, recalling the moment she ran out onto the court at the Convocation Center in Harrisonburg. "I have trained for this for so many years. I got into a great AAU program when I was in the sixth grade and from then I've always wanted to play college basketball. To finally be there and be there at the starting tip was amazing and I was blown away. It was surreal."
Though it may have been surreal, it wasn't exactly nerve wracking.
"Initially when we got there, I was nervous but warm-ups are so long that by the end of warm-ups, I wasn't even nervous anymore because I have been on the court for so long," Umeri said. "I was nervous but it was fun. And I am definitely humbled by the experience. I know that I'm getting an opportunity that other people don't always get, so I'm just trying to get better and try to do whatever the team needs and try to be the best player that I can be."
Umeri's focus on being "the best player I can be" has already lead her to tremendous success, including a chance to play for the United States U-16 team in 2011. Umeri excelled at the tryout camp and earned a spot on the squad that would go on to win a gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship in Mérida, Mexico.
"Playing for the U16 team has been one of my defining moments in basketball, but probably not for the reasons most people would think," Umeri said. "Being on the U.S. team was a great experience and it was also one of the hardest experiences I ever had. The team was very talented, so minutes were difficult. You had to go hard twice a day for two different sessions for two hours and thirty minutes and you also have to learn plays. It definitely pushed me to grow as a player. It pushed me to open up my game and to understand that there are other people who are trying to get my spot. It made me definitely work harder and made me establish a better work ethic."
She keeps the gold medal on her bedside table back home in Georgia.
"I keep it there as a reminder that I had that experience, to keep working and the lessons that I got from that experience," Umeri said.
For all of the success that she has experienced as a basketball player, she wasn't always on track to head to the hardwoods. Long before the athletic Umeri excelled in multiple sports at The Lovett School, including playing middle blocker for the volleyball team, competing in the long and triple jump field events as well as running in the 400 and the 4x400 and 4x100 relays for the track team while also posting up in basketball, she had another interest that was the focus of her competitive endeavors.
"When I was younger, there was an ice rink not too far from my school," Umeri said. "I had ice skating lessons for years and after awhile I got into a couple of competitions. I started to get into my axel and I could do a couple jumps. My mom told me she would get me my first ice skating outfit once I stuck my axel. I was so excited because it was my first one and I had been training so hard and I was so happy. I can remember it still. It was a green leotard with a skirt, silver glitter going across and a frill on the bottom, but I loved it and I was so excited."
Eventually, the ice rink closed and Umeri moved on to the other sports, but not without a twinge of regret.
"I wish I could still ice skate," Umeri said. "I'm pretty sure I have a little skill, but I loved it and it was a lot of fun for me and I wish I could still do it."
Umeri has loved her time so far at UVa, embracing the classes, especially her social problems class where a recent discussion about health in society was particularly riveting, and her team, but there is one thing that makes her a little homesick when she thinks about it.
"I think I miss watching my little brother, Justin, grow up," Umeri said. "He's eleven and I feel like I'm going to go home at Christmas and he will be this totally different person that I haven't gotten to see in a long time. I really miss my family."
She won't be missing them for long. Her brother, along with her parents, Bernard and Cathy Umeri, are making the trip to Charlottesville this weekend to watch today's game.
"I'm so excited," Umeri said. "I haven't seen them since they've dropped me off here."
The Umeri family, and all of Virginia's fans as well, will also be excited to see Sydney this weekend. And for many years to come.