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High Hopes

Friday, November 21, 2008

New York Times Feature by Bill Finley

Courtesy: Columbia Athletic Communications

NEW YORK -- At Oregon State two seasons ago, Judie Lomax emerged as a basketball star. A 5-foot-11 forward, she led her team in rebounding and was second in scoring on the way to earning a spot on the Pacific-10 all-freshman team.

Judie Lomax, a star at Oregon State before transferring, hopes to make Columbia one of the better rebounding teams in the league.

But she missed her family back on the East Coast and wondered if she was missing out on a more rigorous academic experience. Beyond her goal of playing professionally one day, Lomax hoped to become a child psychologist, and Columbia was one of the programs that had recruited her. She eventually decided she could better meet her career goals elsewhere, even if her decision required a major adjustment on the basketball court.

After sitting out a year, Lomax is ready to play again, this time for Columbia, long a bottom feeder among women's basketball programs in the Ivy League. Her presence has dramatically raised expectations.

"Her impact on this program can be historic," Coach Paul Nixon said in an interview last week. "She is a player who brings the things to the table that, frankly, our team has been missing. She can really help take us to new heights."

Nixon recruited Lomax when she played for the Bullis School in Washington, although he was not surprised when she picked Oregon State, which plays in one of the natio's top conferences.

Lomax made an immediate impact, starting in all 28 games she played. She averaged 10.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a game and led the Pac-10 by hitting 64.5 percent of her shots.

Still, she never forgot that Columbia had wanted her. The more she thought about her future, she said, the more she sensed that she had made a mistake.

"Most of my basketball years are already behind me," Lomax said. "I wanted to make sure I had something to fall back on, and an Ivy League education is one of the best things you can have."

Because she was so far from family, she sent home tapes of her games. Now, she is excited about the prospect of having her family members watch her more often in person.

What they are likely to see is a player who can make Columbia one of the better rebounding teams in the league. An undersized forward, she consistently beats bigger players to the ball.

"I think rebounding is something that takes a lot of hard work and determination," she said. "It's about effort. I don't think it has that much to do with size. If anything, it's the size of your heart rather than the size of your actual body. I wasn't always the most talented player on any team, so the one thing I always had going for me was my ability to outwork everybody."

Lomax's transfer to Columbia has been one of the few bright spots for a program that has consistently been among the worst in Division I. After two years at the Division III level, Columbia entered Ivy League competition in 1986 and immediately struggled. Since 1986, the Lions have never had a winning record in the Ivy League or in overall play.

Nixon, a former assistant at Indiana, was hired before the 2005-6 season, and the Lions have made progress during his tenure. Columbia went 7-7 in the Ivy League last season, its best conference record. With Lomax joining three of last season's top four scorers, the Lions might finally find their way into the upper echelon of the league.

"I feel like if we stay healthy, we are as talented as any of the other teams in the league," Nixon said. "There's a tremendous level of balance in this league. There's not a huge gap between the first-place finisher and last-place finisher."

Lomax welcomes the notion that she is considered an important part of developing a winning team.

"There's no pressure on me," she said. "I just feel like there is an incentive to work harder and do better. I had a whole year off to work on some of the aspects of my game that weren't that great, and now I have a chance to achieve something important. I don't feel like it's my job to deliver the team to the promised land, but I can help."

She talked about a new attitude on the team and a common goal at the university. "They're trying to change the culture and change what Columbia athletics represents," she said. "By transferring here, I think I'm part of that change. The last thing anyone would expect was for someone to go from the Pac-10 to the Ivy League."