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Is this heaven?
No, it's Harvard.
Something very special has been happening during the women's basketball team's up-and-down season. When a young woman from Davenport, Iowa, steps onto the court, all eyes focus on her.
Her name is Erin Maher, and she has turned heads by launching an awesome aerial attack that has won her three Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors. And Maher is known around the country now, as well. She is ranked second among Division I players in three-point shooting with a 53 percent clip.
"Erin is an impact player," Harvard Coach Kathy Delaney Smith says. "When you play Harvard, you have to play Erin. If you come off Erin, you're dead."
Maher has brought a stellar hoops record with her to Harvard. Basketball has been a part of her life since she began to tear up boys' leagues in third grade.
The 5-ft., 8-in. guard could always shoot. Maher was the runner-up in the Elks National Free Throw Contest when she was nine, and she won the Pepsi Hot Shot national championship in seventh grade.
In the seventh and eighth grades at Assumption High School, Maher's shooting skills made her a dangerous weapon in an unusual style of girl's basketball that remains today only in parts of Iowa and Oklahoma.
"I played six-on-six basketball for my first two years of high school until eighth grade," Maher says. "There were three players on offense and three players on defense, and you couldn't cross half-court. I liked that style of play because I got to shoot."
And shoot she did, going on to receive All-State honors as a senior while averaging 24.7 points per game. Maher is still the second highest career scorer in Iowa.
Hoisting up the jumper is undoubtedly Maher's strong point. Usually the first person off the bench for the Crimson, she leads the team in three-point shooting percentage and field goal percentage (54 percent), and she has missed only one free throw all season for a team-leading 96 percent from the line. Maher is also second on the team in scoring, averaging 9.3 points per game.
Erin setting herself behind the three-point stripe and lofting a spiraling ball through the cylinder conjures up images of another great perimeter shooter sinking threes for "The Men in Green" under the banner-laden rafters of Boston Garden.
"She's one of the purest shooters I've ever coached," Delaney Smith says. "Her range is much further than the three-point arc. She limits the type of defense an opponent can use."
Maher certainly creates instant offense for the Crimson, but achieving scoring records is not her goal.
"Every year, I just want to improve," Maher says. "I want to know that I have worked hard and contributed to the team. If other teams know that I can shoot, I can drive and dish the ball to the open player. I also want to work on my defense. It's almost a mind game. I want to improve my foot speed and get better at anticipating the pass."
The addition of such a talented freshman might disrupt the chemistry of some teams, but Maher has fit right in with the Crimson squad. One of the first people Maher met at Harvard when she visited as a recruit was senior Co-Captain Jody Fink.
"She's a great kid," Fink says. "I thought the best of her even before I knew about her talents on the court."
And Maher has appreciated the support the veteran players have given her.
"I think when I got here I was a little hesitant about my role, being a freshman," Maher says. "I looked to the upperclassmen for leadership, and I got it."
Many people know Erin Maher as a basketball player, but there is much more to her life than basketball. The aspiring doctor is already taking the pre-med track and plans to concentrate in biology. Thus far, her transition to life at Harvard has not been an easy one.
"I knew Harvard would be tough, but I didn't think it would be this tough," Maher says. "In general, I want to adjust to Harvard and being away from home. I'm looking forward to the day that I can say that I really want to be here. My priorities are definitely academic, but basketball has always been important to me and always will be. I know I'll find the balance I need to continue in both."
Maher has certainly achieved a great deal both on and off the court, a fact which she attributes largely to the support of her parents, who have made several trips from Iowa this season to see her play.
"My parents have given me the confidence that I can do anything," Maher says. "I know that they expect a lot out of me, and I play to make them proud. If they don't see the game, I call them on the pay phone right after the game. I know my father paces around, waiting to hear what happened."
If there is anything that has disappointed Erin so far, it has been the lack of attention women's basketball receives at Harvard in comparison to her hometown.
"Playing basketball in high school was almost more exciting for me. Everyone knew who I was, and walking through school everyone knew when it was a game day."
But Maher gives those few dedicated fans who attend the games their money's worth. While the cornfields of Iowa may be a place to revisit the past and relive the days of the great Shoeless Joe, the freshman from the Hawkeye state has turned Briggs Cage into her own field of dreams.
"I would like to win the Ivy League Championship three years in a row," Maher says. "I don't think that's unrealistic."
For now the bleachers of Briggs Cage remain almost empty.
But people will come. They will come from places far and wide. They will pull up in their cars, pay five dollars for a ticket, and they will ask you if they can look around. They will sit in the stands and watch.
And they will wait for those now familiar words--"Threeeeeeee-point goal for number 31..."
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