As the national anthem plays before every Vanderbilt women’s basketball game, Christina Wirth stands in a line with her teammates, coaches and support staff.
But she is alone.
Eyes closed, head bowed, hands folded at her waist she temporarily transports herself to a place where she can be one with a single thought. A prayer, to be exact.
It is not a moment of hopeful desperation. It is an instant of confident reflection, one in which she reaffirms the choices she has made and the preparation she has undertaken.
“I’m just thanking God for the opportunity to play, to be where I am, to be at Vanderbilt and the team that I’m on, and I just pray that people will see Him through me as a I play,” she said. “One of the major things I pray for is that even through my failures and my mistakes He can be glorified.”
As with anything failure is a possibility, of course. When Wirth is involved, though, it is not a probability.
The senior out of Mesa, Ariz., leaves little to chance when it comes to basketball or anything else. She talks often about “doing my homework” whether that involves mastering some of the subtleties of her sport, making life-altering decisions such as where to attend college or … well, actually doing school work outside the classroom.
Wirth was a 4.0 student all the way through Seton Catholic High School. She finally made her first B as a college freshman. Yet as she has progressed to the latter stages of a nursing education (she will begin a clinical rotation at one of the Vanderbilt hospitals this semester) she has maintained a 3.6 average at one of the country’s renowned academic institutions.
As a member of VU’s basketball team, she has virtually mastered four different positions in coach Melanie Balcomb’s schemes – everything except point guard – and has thrived because of her attention to details such as footwork (“That’s a dying art,” she says), positioning and a thorough understanding of the opposition.
“She’s all about preparation,” Balcomb said. “So she’s going to prepare in practice, she’s going to prepare mentally and physically before a game, she’s going to know the (scouting reports). That’s why she has such a good basketball IQ – she’s prepared and she’s super-intelligent.
“She’s going to study the other team that day, the way she studies for an exam.”
ONE FOR THE TEAM
Wirth conceded that she didn’t know the first thing about Vanderbilt when the recruiting process started, but “I did my homework” and eventually accepted the Commodores’ scholarship offer over one from Stanford.
With the end of her college career roughly two months away, she is poised to become the 18th player in VU women’s basketball history to score at least 1,300 career points, likely in one of the next two games (Thursday at Georgia or Sunday at South Carolina), and has a chance eventually to move into the all-time top 10.
Athletic department officials and coaches have been touting her as an All-America candidate from the start of the season, but individual records and honors hold little appeal for the second-oldest of six children. Her desire is to be connected to something larger than herself in a way that only a team sport allows.
Not coincidentally, she won the ‘team ball competition’ at the 2005 McDonald’s High School All-American game.
“She is completely down to earth, completely humble with everything – all the accolades she has and everything,” teammate Merideth Marsh, a junior guard, said. “Some players don’t know how to balance that … but if you know her, you would never look at her and be like, ‘She’s very cocky.’”
It was that attitude which prompted Wirth to go to nearby Scottsdale during her senior year in high school to watch a team from California play in a tournament and “do a little homework.”
She already had signed her letter-of-intent and was told by the coaches that she would be roommates the following year with a fellow incoming freshman, Jennifer Risper, who was the star for Canyon Springs High School, which just so happened to be in the area.
“I had been hurt, it was my first game back … and our team lost,” Risper said. “I get up to leave the (meeting) room and Tina’s standing there with a big smile on her face. We hadn’t met, I didn’t know what she looked like or who she was.
“She’s like, ‘I’m Christina.’ That completely changed my mood. It didn’t matter what had happened, I was just so excited to meet my roommate for college. I will always remember that.”
That bit of preparation laid the foundation for a friendship that flourishes to this day. The two are roommates again this school year after having separated the previous two. Neither has a car, but they don’t have to go to great lengths to keep each other entertained.
“She is my best friend, and I know I’m hers,” Risper said. “It’s just kind of cool. I didn’t know I was going to come to college and meet someone … you meet tons of people, but I know me and her are going to stay friends forever.”
It was not the first time Wirth acted earlier than most.
She was just 11 years old when she decided to make basketball her sport of choice over any number of other ones she tried and at which she excelled, most notably swimming. From that point, she dedicated herself to becoming the best basketball player she could.
Not only did she attend camps and participate in AAU programs, she also did more than her share of ‘home’ work. In this case, that meant shooting baskets in the driveway of her family home until midnight or later.
“I can remember countless hours in my driveway at midnight with the light on just shooting,” she said. “I just never got sick of it. That was something I could do every day and I looked forward to it.
“I kind of liked it to be something where I could tell myself, ‘No one else is working out right now.’ That was kind of like my time to get ahead. I thought about it as working while other people were sleeping. That appealed to me.”
Those sessions paid off in numerous high school All-American honors and her selection to multiple USA Basketball national teams and programs.
Later this year, she likely will be selected in the WNBA draft and – if given the opportunity – will pursue a professional career in the United States and/or internationally.
Whatever team she joins should expect her to be prepared.
“I was actually talking to someone (recently) about what if I would have picked a different sport,” she said. “Honestly, … I think if I did pick another sport at that age I would have been successful at it too because of my work ethic.
“I definitely think God has blessed me with the talent to play basketball. … But I think if you really just work hard at something you can be really good at it.”
It certainly reduces the risk of failure.