Q&A: ThunderRidge girls basketball great Abby Waner reflects on her career, and what made high school sports fun

(Photo courtesy of Abby Bartolotta)

When coming up with a list of who's who in Colorado girls high school basketball, Abby Waner (now Bartolotta) has to be on that list.

A premier player amongst a talented class of athletes, Abby helped ThunderRidge claim three straight Class 5A state championships. She has 43 individual entries in the state record book, including records for points in a game (61), state tournament points in a season (163) and career (515), and field goals attempted in a season.

She and her sister Emily both played at Duke University, where Abby once again proved herself as not just a great player on her team, but a great player in the entire nation.

She won two gold medals in international competition and even got a taste of playing in the WNBA.

Now married to former Heritage standout Jimmy Bartolotta, Abby Bartolotta is tackling life as a mother to two girls.

But there is always a part of her that will be connected to basketball. She took time to chat about what high school basketball meant to her and how it things have changed since she dominated the floor at ThunderRidge.

Question: When you think back to your high school basketball days, what's the first thing that comes to mind?

(Barry Gutierrez/Denver Public Library, Rocky Mountain News Photo Collection)

Abby: My teammates. Without fail. I was pretty fortunate in that I had my sister paving the way, so it kind of starts with her. It's an answer you get a lot and there's a reason for that. Some of my closest friends and still some of my closest friends today are two of my teammates, Megan McCahill, I actually just went to her drive by baby shower last week, and Emily Fox is expecting her baby girl in October so I dropped off a stroller at her house the other day.

So it's just fun because that's what started these lifelong friendships and that's just, that's something I'll never forget about that period of time.

Q: It seems like now girls basketball in Colorado has kind of become a little bit of a hotbed when it comes to national recruiting. We have so many girls going to Stanford and so many other D-I players, what was that whole recruiting scene like when you were in high school, especially when it came to a university like Duke coming after you?

Abby: It's funny you say that because last weekend we were at my parents' for just a family dinner and my dad was talking about how when we were my daughter's age was when he started taking us to games at Highlands Ranch High School. That's pretty wild to think about. We started talking about some of the players that we actually remember watching and we'd just sit in the stands and he would tell us to pick out a player that we wanted to be like and just watch them the whole game.

We started doing that from a young age and the next thing you know, I'm playing college basketball and high school basketball against Ann Strother and Ambrosia Anderson and Elizabeth Sherwood, Susan Walters. You can go back a little bit further to some of the older Heritage players that went to UConn and Tennessee.

I think what happened is it just became an expectation. When you play against those type of players every single day, your team is going to get elevated and your expectations are going to get elevated. The best thing that could have happened could have happened to all of us was that we started playing together because you practice far more than you playing games.

At ThunderRidge every single day, I was playing against Emily Fox who went on to be one of the best players in Minnesota history. That for sure made me a better player.

And then what happens is it's just product of the community and college coaches came to know that there was a community here that does it right. These players feed off of each other and they're going to have similar qualities and similar goals. It was something that I don't think we ever necessarily took it for granted, but I don't think we realized at the time how unusual it was.

I think back to like my club team and every single player got a Division I scholarship at one point, which is wild. It just doesn't happen. It definitely was that atmosphere of competition that we had playing against each other every day and the scholarships, the notoriety, it really was all just a byproduct. First and foremost, we're all competitors and that's what made us all raise the level of our game.

Q: How much of an adjustment was it when you got to Duke?

Abby: It was a big adjustment. You go out in high school thinking you're a good defender because you can get 10 steals a game by playing pretty poor defense. You get to college and you actually learn what good defense means and how discipline is part of it and what staying in a stance actually means. You're not going to just out-athletic anybody. Defense was definitely the biggest adjustment.

To be honest, I grew up in a culture where we were in the gym all the time. If you weren't in the gym, somebody else was and they were getting better than you. My sister and I really brought that mentality to Duke and because of that, I think it helps that adjustment.

The amount of basketball, the amount of working out, that didn't change for us. It was more how we did it, the mechanisms, the strength and conditioning, that was probably one of the bigger adjustments. We were fortunate in that we came from an environment and a culture that really prepared us. We had coaches that knew what they were doing and knew what was coming our way.

Q: Is there a comparison in the amount of pressure that you felt then to the amount of pressure that some of the kids might be feeling now? I feel like before they step on a middle school gym, there's a recruiting profile on some website of every potential, big-time basketball player.

Abby: I am so grateful that we weren't a part of this era with the access that coaches have to players. I've been out of it for long enough that I don't know what all the rules are now surrounding recruiting, but it goes two ways.

I was really lucky in that college coaches were coming to us. We really didn't have to solicit that because they found their way to our gym. I realize that's the exception and that most players end up reaching out to coaches and recruiters themselves and that's how they get that. That's how they get their name out.

Understand that my experience was different than the norm. So in terms of the pressure, I think that is a negative byproduct that comes from the access of the internet and social media. But if you can use it for the positive and turn around and say now these kids have access to college coaches that they didn't have before. I talked to a girl the other day and she said that she's just been direct messaging every college coach the link to her Hudl video. That's amazing.

Before it was such a process to track down the college coaches' contact information so you can email and get them to reply to you. Now there's this immediate response, which I think if channeled properly it can be used for good. It's probably more important now than ever that parents are highly involved, that they can help their kids still just be kids while using that to their advantage, to get, the attention that they merit.

Q: If you think back to all the levels of basketball you played, what was the most fun?

(Barry Gutierrez/Denver Public Library, Rocky Mountain News Photo Collection)

Abby: That's such a hard question. I'm not saying this just because it's a CHSAA interview, but it was high school. I think that was when it was the most raw. College was a job. I was there on a scholarship and I was getting essentially a free education to play basketball. So I took that seriously. And I wanted to win, so I'm not saying that it was just a job in college.

Something that was always a driving factor for me in high school, college and otherwise was this insatiable desire to win. That was there in high school. It was there in college, but in high school, we were kids. We were sheltered from some of the pressure you talked about in your last question. We were just really, really good basketball players and that was fun.

Playing for Team USA were just some incredible experiences. I also met some of my lifelong friends through USA. What I wish looking back on that was that I had a better grasp of getting to travel the world in that way and see different cultures and see basketball through different lenses.

At age 16 and 17, we were just there to hoop and we were happy when we found a TGIFriday's in Moscow, instead of really thinking about the cultural experience as the most important part of it.

It's hard to pinpoint, but if I had to go back in time, I think I would probably get back to my days as a Grizzly.

Q: What would you tell someone maybe like a Jana Van Gytenbeek and a Fran Belibi who are at Stanford or a Lauren Betts who ESPN just labeled as a top recruit in the nation? What would you tell those girls about a college experience and life post-college that you didn't know about 10 years ago?

Abby: College is a full experience and as a women's basketball player at some of these elite institutions, they're going to have avenues that your everyday kid doesn't get, and I'm not just talking about basketball.

One of my regrets and this might seem small, but I wish I had tried to be a writer for the Duke Chronicle. I never did those extracurricular things. Well, I did, but not to the extent that I think I probably could have because I was so head down in basketball. It's easy to say that now that I'm not in it, but they should take advantage of the full college experience by way of education and programs, the adults that are going to be there supporting them.

My sister did a great job of that at Duke. She was part of the CAPE program, which is the collegiate athlete pre-med experience. And that was a big part of her becoming a doctor. She did that while playing basketball. If I had a regret, it would be that I wish I had stretched myself a little bit more to partake in some programs and activities that Duke had to offer.

I don't want to be cliche, but there's a reason people say that it goes fast. Be there for every summer school, be there for every voluntary workout, take advantage of having the gym to yourself because before you know it, the four years are going to be up and it's true, it goes quickly.

Q: How much is basketball still a part of your life today?

Abby: So my mom sends me a picture. She was watching my daughter, Ella, the other day, and Ella's two and a half. I think we have a plastic hoop out back, but outside of that we really haven't done much by way of basketball with her, nor do we expect to. But the other day my mom was watching her and sent me a picture of her sitting in her stroller, watching what I think it was a high school team practicing outside. She was just rapt with attention and that meant so much to me to see these high school aged girls are setting an example for my daughter. It was a pretty out of body out of body moment for me.

A lot of what's important now for me is coming through the lens that I have two daughters two years apart, just like me and my sister. I hope that they can have similar experiences. I don't care if it's through sports or through music or through theater, but being able to find the same source of competition and friendship and confidence that I got from basketball. That's probably what will make me check in more than anything.

I was watching last year, the Final Four and watching Sabrina Ionescu from Oregon and that girl is a competitor. I wish I was able to watch every single one of her games. So I texted my college coach Coach (Gail) Goestenkors and said "I love watching her play." And she said, "She reminds me of you." It was such a compliment. And I felt kind of silly cause it was a girl that's, I don't know, 15 years younger than me. It was just fun to feel re-connected in a way and see a similar type competitor. She's far more talented than I ever was. I'm not saying there was a comparison there, but I really enjoyed following her career.

My husband played at Heritage and he's just as appreciative as I am of the opportunities that CHSAA gave us. We are really looking forward to being in the stands for state championships moving forward and supporting our local high schools like ThunderRidge and Mountain Vista. I think we're both really looking forward to that next part of our life where we can just be fans and cheer on the next generation.