Gina Butkovich covers the women’s basketball team for KentWired.com, the online news site for the Kent Stater and TV2. (She’s also a student in the Reporting class I teach this semester.)
By GINA BUTKOVICH
Alexa Golden has an ice pack on both shoulders, both knees and both ankles. It unbalances her enough that as she walks out of the locker room after a win over Akron, she immediately trips over a stranded box in the hallway.
Multiple pairs of hands reach out to try and catch her, but she straightens out and laughs.
Someone jokes that she looks like a football player, and Kent State coach Todd Starkey nods.
“She’s a whatever-it-takes player,” he said.
Golden goes into her final games as a Kent State basketball player this week at the MAC Tournament. She has been Kent State’s best defensive player through the 103 games she has started over four years.
Golden has been playing basketball for 14 years.
“I was not a sports person at all,” Golden said. “And then, there was a basketball clinic after school to get girls involved. I signed up for it, and I was not good, couldn’t even make a layup. But I guess I worked hard, and after the lady came up to my mom after and said I should try out for the local team.”
Golden was a third grader, and there was no local third grade team. So she tried out for and made the fourth-grade team.
“That’s when I started to fall in love with basketball.” Golden said.
For the next few years, Golden balanced travel basketball with travel softball. In about sixth grade, her mother made her choose one.
Travel basketball and travel softball both happen during the summer, and Golden remembers her mom saying, “Lex, you really have to pick one because we can’t go from one tournament to the next — all in the same weekend.”
Golden choose basketball.
“Basketball was just faster,” Golden said. “I wasn’t standing around waiting for a ball to come.”
That year was Golden’s second year of playing AAU basketball, an off-season travel league that fosters players growth during the spring and summer months.
“I was surrounded by people that were passionate about the game and wanted to play in college, too,” Golden said. “I think that’s when I started to take it more seriously.”
AAU meant traveling more, playing a different tournament around the country every weekend.
“There was a month where I wasn’t home at all,” Golden said. “It’s a lot of traveling, but it’s something I’m thankful for that my parents allowed me to do. They took me to all the games.”
By the summer before her junior year of high school, Golden’s goal of playing college ball was starting to look less like a dream and more like something that could well happen.
And then, she tore her ACL at a Washington, D.C., tournament and had to sit out her entire junior season.
She hoped to play the summer after her junior year, a crucial time for anyone who wants to play in college, but her doctor wouldn’t allow it.
“Being on the court has always been more important to her than anything,” said Nancy Watts, Golden’s mother. “It was about healing and getting better and having the best opportunity to come back without re-injuring the ACL.”
Golden finally got to return to the court her senior year; She committed to play at Kent State before the season started.
“I’ve been coming around Kent since my sophomore year,” Golden said. “Every since I’ve been coming, it’s felt like home, and I couldn’t picture myself being anywhere else.”
Her parents persuaded her to visit other places to make sure she was certain, but her mom said it was always Kent in Golden’s mind.
Golden’s first year of college basketball was harder than expected.
She played 23 of 29 games, but the team only won six times.
“I’m used to being on a winning team,” Golden said. “It was a struggle to adjust.”
Golden’s freshman year did lead to her bonding with two other freshmen on the team, Megan Carter and Merissa Barber-Smith.
“Our first year wasn’t the best, but growing through that together I think has made our bond a lot stronger,” Carter said. “We saw what we didn’t want to happen and decided to make something else happen”
The 2016-2017 season saw Kent State win 19 games overall and the MAC East championship.
Kent State’s new coaching staff, including head coach Starkey and associate head coach Fran Recchia, wanted Golden to shoot more.
“She explained to me that her role her freshman year was she wasn’t allowed to shoot,” Recchia said. “We helped her grow through that process and figure out what’s a good shot for her — and that we need her to take those shots. It was fun for me to watch her growth.”
Golden shot 41 percent from the 3-point line her sophomore year, the best on the team. She’s never been a big scorer, but the coaching staff has always viewed her as one of the most important players on the team.
“She just wants to win,” Starkey said. “My favorite players over my 21 years of coaching have been players that hate to lose as much as I do. She’s got to be on the Mount Rushmore of my favorites. She does everything you need her to do to win basketball games. She doesn’t care about accolades or credit. She takes pride in being known as our toughest player.”
Golden has played through injuries that might have sidelined other players.
The only injury that ever sidelined her briefly at KSU was a concussion her freshman year. She has played through everything else — shin splints, tendonitis, bursitis in her Achilles tendon.
olden brushes off any injury, preferring not to mention when she might be hurting. Her mom, however, doesn’t hesitate to talk about how proud she is of her daughter for fighting through the injuries.
“To see her fight like a warrior through all the pain is really commendable,” said Watts, tearing up a little talking about it. “I really respect her as the young woman she has developed into.”
Golden is heading into her final MAC tournament as a team leader.
“The younger players look up to her,” Recchia said. “They have a lot of respect for her because of what she has been able to do since they got here. They ask a lot of questions of her; they mimic her. Sometimes she doesn’t even realize the younger ones are looking to her, but they have since day one.”
Golden has been one of the best students on the team since she arrived on campus.
She made the MAC all-academic team her sophomore and junior years (freshmen aren’t eligible.)
She got her bachelor’s degree in just two years. Golden had begun taking college courses in high school, both at Duquesne and Pittsburgh, colleges near her home.
“She was always focused on basketball and academics,” Watts said. “It was never social life or anything like that. She’s always had a laser-sharp focus on what she has wanted to do.”
Golden got her bachelor’s in criminal justice, but part way through she realized that she wanted a career in athletics.
“It was too late to change my major,” Golden said. “So I ended up graduating with that degree. And then I did my master’s in sport rec and management.”
Golden will graduate with her master’s at the end of this semester and hopes to be able to go into college coaching or academic athletic counseling, ideally at Kent State.
“I think she’s already a coach on the floor, and it’ll be fun to help her through that transition of coming to the other side,” Recchia said. “It’ll be cool to see her learn the ins and outs of what college coaching is all about.”