As she was planning the fall semester of her senior year, Loyola’s Stephanie Karcz knew she needed to talk something over with head women’s basketball coach Joe Logan.
An education major, Karcz was planning to be a student teacher for the fall semester of the 2019-20 school year. Loyola requires its education majors to teach at a professional development school, which are local schools that partner with the university. At first, Logan was skeptical she could balance teaching with playing basketball at the Division I level.
“When she approached me and said, ‘I want to try and student-teach first semester,'” Logan said, “your initial reaction as a coach is that’s crazy and that’s impossible.”
Looking back, Logan should have known better. Karcz always gave everything she had when she stepped on the court for the Greyhounds, and she did the same as she juggled academic and athletic priorities. She woke up at 6:15 a.m. and drove to Baltimore’s Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, where she taught first grade for the first half of the semester and then sixth grade for the second half. Then, she would fight through rush-hour traffic to get back for 5 p.m. practice.
Before the semester started, Logan told Karcz he would adjust the team’s schedule if she needed a day off. That never happened.
“Not once did she come to me and say I need to take a day off,” Logan said. “Some of our other players would say they were tired and I would ask Steph how tired she was. It almost became a joke.”
At Lakeland, Karcz was able to make an impact inside and outside of the classroom. Karcz came to Lakeland for a few hours per day in the spring of 2019 for the first part of the program, when she organized pen pals between students and Greyhound student-athletes.
By the fall, almost 50 athletes and Lakeland students were participating in the program. The students were fascinated that she was a Division I basketball player and had planned to go watch her play at Loyola’s field trip day but were unable to make it.
In the classroom, Karcz was able to build relationships with some of the students who needed more attention, according to Melissa Rickman, who served as her adviser at Lakeland. Before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools, Karcz had planned to continue building on those relationships by returning to Lakeland to work with small groups of students who may be struggling in the classroom.
She was also set to fill in when needed, whether as a substitute or just watching a class when a teacher had to attend a meeting. After watching her up close, Rickman said Karcz is ready to have her own classroom.
“She has the understanding that you have to build a relationship before you start to teach them,” Rickman said. “I think she’s very, very prepared and has that natural teaching ability, too.”
On the court, Karcz continued to be an indispensable player, helping lead an injury-ridden Loyola team. Heading into the season, Karcz was expected to make more of an impact on the defensive end, with sophomore Taleah Dixon and junior Isabella Therien handling more of the load on the offensive end. Dixon earned Patriot League All-Rookie honors in 2018-19, while Therien has averaged 14.6 points per game during her Greyhounds career. But Dixon and Therien both suffered season-ending injuries, meaning Karcz had to take on more responsibility.
Karcz led the team in points (11.6), rebounds (9.4), assists (3.6) and steals (5.2) per game. Her 5.2 steals per game were the most in the NCAA (all divisions) — the first time a Loyola player led the country in a statistic. The two-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year finished her career with 461 steals, which is ninth all time in Division I history.
“I think throughout my entire career I always said defense has been the thing I prided myself on,” Karcz said, “because I feel like a lot of times defense doesn’t get the recognition, although it’s necessary in order to win games.”
As Karcz realized she had a knack for stealing the ball, she started to hone in on the small details. That meant looking for opponents’ tendencies on film and communicating with players in practice to make sure her teammates were in the right position for a fast break when she poked the ball away.
Everything came together during her senior year, as Karcz had at least two steals in 27 of 29 games, including seven against then-No. 9 Maryland Dec. 8. She also had two triple-doubles, recording 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 steals against Dartmouth Dec. 31 and 13 points, 12 rebounds and 12 steals against Army Jan. 18.
The steals and aggressive play came at a cost, though, as she battled nagging injuries throughout the season. Karcz played the whole year with a broken hand, and a concussion forced her to miss Senior Day against Lafayette Feb. 22. This wasn’t the first time she had dealt with injuries. During her junior year, Karcz dislocated her pinky to the point that it was in the shape of an L on her hand, and the athletic trainer was shocked her bone didn’t pop out. She stayed in the game.
The training staff tried to get Karcz to focus on hand placement when going for steals, but that never quite clicked. Her intense focus allowed her to block out the pain.
“I don’t hear anyone in the stands or anyone else but my teammates on the court,” Karcz said. “So I just focus in on the game and everything going on so I definitely don’t focus on the injuries until after they happen.”
Despite all the nagging injuries, Karcz put together a decorated career. Outside of steals, she became the fourthh player in Loyola history to finish with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. She also finished fourth in program history in assists. That type of all-around play is what Logan says the team will miss the most.
“I think that relentless pursuit is what we’re going to miss,” Logan said. “Steph bailed us out from a lot of problems and now we’re going to have to figure that out.”
Karcz still wants to play basketball professionally, but like graduating seniors across the country, her plans for the future have been thrown off by the coronavirus pandemic. She’s not quite ready to let go of the game and is looking into whether she can play overseas while earning her master’s degree at a nearby university. If that’s not an option, Karcz said she’ll look for open positions at elementary and middle schools in her home state of New Jersey.
“Everything’s kind of up in the air right now,” Karcz said. “I’m keeping my options open, which is awesome. I’m pretty sure that I want to still play for a year or two and play overseas because I don’t think I’m fully ready to give up basketball yet.”
Photo Credit: Larry French/Loyola Athletic Communications
Originally published May 20, 2020