Perhaps nobody on the current Oregon women’s basketball team looked up to Kelly Graves and his Gonzaga team growing up quite like Katelyn Loper.
Growing up in Post Falls, Idaho, Loper oftentimes made the 25-mile trip to Spokane, where Graves coached for 14 years before taking the Oregon job last spring.
Attending Graves’ camps and games inspired Loper and helped her keep her dream of playing alive.
Now today, Loper serves as a role model for aspiring young girls in the Eugene/Springfield area who perhaps hold the same aspirations Loper remembers being around with Graves and his Gonzaga teams.
“When you’re young, and you look to us, or I remember being young and looking to them, [Gonzaga women’s basketball] was huge,” Loper said. “It was just so cool and you always wanted to get there.”
Before today’s Oregon women’s basketball game against Washington State (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), the school will recognize National Girls and Women in Sports Day 2015 with a kids fair before the game featuring the Ducks’ women’s teams. Participants will be able to take home autographs and learn about the importance of being active.
This year marks the 29th annual event nationwide.
The recognition began in 1987 in Washington D.C. to honor Olympic volleyball star Flo Hyman, who earned a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics.
Both Loper and her teammate Jillian Alleyne realize what they both have in the community, extends far beyond basketball or being a student-athlete.
They frequently receive messages on social media from young girls, usually with well wishes or inspirational messages.
“My Instagram has blown up probably every game about girls posting pictures of me and I think it’s really cool,” Alleyne said. “Being a role model, you’re kind of put on this pedestal and you kind of have to be this perfect person for everybody. I’m learning more to be myself.”
Loper said that it’s easy to get caught up in school work or game preparation, but when young girls reach out to her, it takes her back and helps her understand the bigger picture.
Alleyne said that she frequently played basketball against the boys in her hometown of Fontana, California growing up. She approximates she has around 50 scars on her legs from the competition.
“[It] gives this great idea to young kids, ‘You can do it. You don’t have to be a boy, you don’t have to play like a boy. You can be a girl with all your attributes and compete at the highest level,’ Alleyne said. “I really love that idea in having the kids come out and see, ‘I can go to college. I can play. I think it’s huge for this generation.’”
This year, the team has been available every game after the court for autographs as opposed to last year’s autograph sessions for young fans.
“What you’ll come to find out is that these girls love you good or bad, win or lose,” Alleyne said. “I think that’s the coolest thing. They don’t really look at the games, ‘Hey they beat Washington.’ They’re not going to remember that when they’re older.
“They’re going to remember the kind of player you were, who you were when you came out of that locker room and lost and interacted with them.”
Alleyne and Loper, who are roommates, understand the value of having a positive role model to look up to.
“The game of basketball is so much bigger,” Alleyne said. “When you can inspire kids like that, and just be a role model, it’s huge.”
Follow Jonathan Hawthorne on Twitter @Jon_Hawthorne