Always Aiming High
Hanover Grad Finds the Hoop At Swarthmore
Former Hanover High sharpshooter Eliza Polli has lit up the scoreboard for Swarthmore College this winter. (Swarthmore College photograph)
Eliza Polli (Swarthmore College photograph)
As a guard for the Hanover High girls basketball team, Eliza Polli was one of the Marauders’ most reliable all-around players. Always a scoring threat and a scrappy defender during a three-year varsity career, Polli finished with 471 points and helped the Marauders win the 2008 NHIAA Class I state championship game against Lebanon.
Entering the fourth quarter with just two points, Polli, then a junior, sank eight fourth-quarter free throws as Hanover beat the Raiders 47-39.
A scary moment came during Polli’s senior year when a January rematch at Lebanon was halted because of a medical emergency with 23 seconds left in the second quarter. Polli’s father, David, had suffered a cardiac arrest in the stands. With help from Hanover coach Dan O’Rourke, a cardiologist, and an on-site defibrillator, the elder Polli made a full recovery.
Eliza Polli has continued to make an impact at the collegiate level over the last four years at NCAA Division III Swarthmore College, starting 54 of 90 games for the Garnet Tide and finishing with 491 points — her 136 career 3-pointers are second in program history — as well as 52 steals and 11 blocks. Her best season came this winter as a senior captain, when she set a single-season program record for 3-pointers in a season with 71 and contributing 7.9 points per game.
Swarthmore finished 23-7, a 14-game improvement from last winter as it narrowly missed an NCAA D-III tournament berth with a two-point loss to Gettysburg in the Centennial Conference championship game last month. The Garnet responded with three straight wins for its first ECAC-South regional championship.
Polli averaged nine points during that tourney, including a game-high 17 in Swarthmore’s first-round win over Marywood.
The Valley News recently corresponded with Polli via email about her 3-point shot development, coping with injuries and gleaning what she learned from the experience involving her dad’s cardiac episode. The following is an edited transcript of that correspondence.
Valley News: How has your 3-point shot developed over the course of your career? Are there aspects of shooting from long distance that require a different mental approach than layups or close-range jumpers?
Eliza Polli: Since sixth grade I have always been coached to have no (hesitation) about shooting it from the 3-point line because confidence is a key part of being a shooter. You can’t be afraid to shoot. I’ve always had a quick shot as a set-shooter, so 3s have always been a thing I’ve stuck with. I’m just not as comfortable dribbling and doing pull-up jumpers as 3-pointers. Over the years I’ve definitely grown more comfortable in my role as a 3-point shooter. I’ve gained confidence in my shot as I got more experienced with college ball and being a captain. I knew my team depended on me shooting well to open up our post (players) in the middle, so that was my main focus.
VN: What were some of the adjustments you had to make as a college athlete compared with high school? Was the increase in the level of competition higher than you anticipated or about what you expected?
EP: The hardest adjustment was definitely the physicality of the game. With (Hanover coach Dan O’Rourke) we always ran a fast break and that was our main game, but in college it’s been much more physical. Being more of a finesse player, I struggled in the beginning of my career to get open against larger, more physical players guarding me but I learned to adjust and get myself open. This ended up being tougher as the years went on, because I had a target on my back as a shooter on the team. But this year we had two phenomenal post players (Elle Larsen and Katie Lytle, Centennial player of the year), so that helped lighten the load.
VN: I understand you had a number of injuries this year, including shoulder tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. How much did that limit you?
EP: The shoulder flared up in January. It was limiting for about a week, but then I got help from the trainers and they showed me shoulder exercises to do to strengthen it. After that, it only bothered me when I forgot to ice it after practice or skipped a day of exercises, but that didn’t happen often.
The plantar fasciitis was much more limiting and painful than my tendonitis. It was worse on my right foot, but by the end of the year I had it in my left foot also. Getting it taped helped a little, but every time I cut and changed directions there would be shooting pain on the bottom of my feet. I wore a boot (off the court), took ibuprofen and learned to deal with it. In my mind, all that mattered was that I was still able to play. At the end of the season, everyone had chronic injuries we were playing through because that’s just part of the game. I’ve learned to be a much more mentally tough person because of being injured.
VN: I noticed one of your teammates, freshman Jessica Jowdy, is from Newtown, Conn. Did she attend Sandy Hook Elementary School or did have affiliations with anyone affected by the December shooting tragedy? How did the team offer her support?
EP: Jess did not attend Sandy Hook, but her family certainly knows other families who were affected by the tragedy. Jess had a rough year at home. Her house caught on fire earlier in the year and then the shooting happened in her hometown. I became close with Jess from the very beginning and helped her get through the tough times. Being a fellow New Englander and a shooter bonded us from the beginning and she became one of my best friends this year.
JP: Do you plan to stay involved in the game after graduating? If so, in what ways?
EP: I can’t stay away from the game, ever. Even when I’m home for a week, I get friends to shoot around or play pick-up games. I pick up a ball any time I see one and will definitely be playing in leagues as long as I’m physically able to.
VN: Do you keep in touch with coach O’Rourke or others from Hanover? Have they been supportive during your college career?
EP: I email all my coaches occasionally and often see them when I go home. Just seeing them in town or at a game makes me happy. A lot of them sent me messages after my senior day game and congratulated me. It’s amazing to know they still followed my career this far.
VN: We all remember your dad, David’s, cardiac emergency during a game at Lebanon High during your senior year in 2009. Did you learn anything from that experience that may have helped you during your college career, either in the classroom or on the court?
EP: Seeing all the parents and Dan rush to save my dad was something I’ll never forget. I learned to trust everyone around me a lot more because of that. Even a random Lebanon High student ran to get the (defibrillator) that saved my dad’s life. All the compassion caused me to gain trust and respect in the people I surround myself with. I’m forever grateful to everyone who contributed to saving his life that day because I still have my dad here with me to keep cheering me on.
Jared Pendak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3306.