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Fueled by a severe self-appraisal, Katie Healy has instilled the Bonnies with great expectations

Katie Healy didn’t mince words last March when the St. Bonaventure women’s basketball team lost in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, putting an appropriately drab cap on a disappointing 15-15 season.

Healy said a lack of effort and togetherness had been a persistent issue for the Bonnies, who had gone 24-11 the season before. It was a harsh commentary, one that Healy, the team’s best player, felt qualified to deliver because she considered herself among the guilty.

The Lancaster native did more than talk. She had one more season of college ball left, and she was determined to make her senior year count. So Healy, a 6-foot-1 center, resolved to become a better player and a more responsible team leader.

“At the end of the year, when we didn’t make a postseason tournament, I put a lot of it on myself,” Healy said Tuesday at the Reilly Center. “I blamed it on me, and I wanted to see what I could do differently. Sometimes there’s a gap between what you say and what you’re actually doing.

“I think this team needed me to step up as a leader. You can’t just do it on the court. You have to do it in every single aspect. I was a little timid before. I didn’t want the role. But this year, I took it and ran with it.”

The first place she ran to was the gym. Last summer, Healy worked out with a vengeance, showing up at 6 a.m. to polish her game. It wasn’t just Katie. Senior Nyla Rueter and fifth-year graduate students Emily Michael and Kelcie Rombach assumed more leadership as well.

“She was in the gym all the time,” said sophomore Mariah Ruff. “She encouraged us younger players to get in the gym. If she knew one of us wasn’t getting in there, she’d say, ‘Want to come shoot with me?’ She definitely became a better leader.”

This is when many winning college hoop programs are formed − on those quiet, thankless summer days, months before the effort expresses itself in the games of winter. Bona head coach Jim Crowley remembers the coaches leaving on a recruiting trip in July and thinking, “We’ll have to start over when we get back.”

“We came back and they were better,” Crowley said, “because Katie and the upperclassmen got them all in the gym together. That was when we thought, ‘OK, we might have a little something here.’”

They had a team reborn, ready to make an NCAA run. The team that Healy and Crowley felt was often adrift last season found its stride and won 16 straight games at one point. After beating Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday to remain unbeaten at home, the Bonnies are 18-3, 7-1 in the Atlantic 10 and 29th in the national RPIs.

“Katie has been unbelievable,” Crowley said. “Her numbers across the board − scoring, rebounding, passing, blocked shots − all that stuff is minor compared to what she’s doing off the court for us. She’s just letting her personality out, investing in her team, keeping us where we need to be.”

Climbing the ladder

Healy leads Bona in scoring for the third year in a row (14.9 ppg), rebounding (6.9) and blocks (36). She’s shooting a career-high 51.2 percent. Healy is the sixth-leading scorer in Bona history and third all time in rebounds. She has set the school record for career blocks, a big reason the Bonnies are 15th in the country in defensive field-goal percentage (34.0).

Her fouls are down significantly from last season, which Healy sees as evidence of her maturity as a player and a leader.

“I worked all summer on not letting my emotions get the best of me,” she said. “I still do during games. It’s hard sometimes when people come at you with everything they have. You have to stay focused mentally. Last year, I kind of lost my mind. I would completely shut down or go foul someone because I was angry.

“It’s a long game,” said Healy, who was The News high school Player of the Year at Lancaster in 2012. “My teammates need me on the floor more than on the bench.”

Like any leader, Healy is making her teammates better. Crowley said the Bonnies’ shooting numbers are up this year largely because Healy commands attention in the low post and is finding her teammates out of double teams.

“She’s getting them shots,” Crowley said. “And they want to make those shots for her, and that’s a big difference.”

A father’s influence

Healy was a high school senior when the Bonnies made their run to the Sweet 16 four years ago. She remembers thinking she had a lot of work to do to play at that level. She also figured there might be an NCAA trip in her future.

She’s down to her last shot, and wants to make the most of it. If the Bonnies keep playing at a high level and avoid bad losses, they’ll have a good case for an at-large tournament spot − if they don’t win the A-10 and an automatic bid.

“There’s an urgency,” she said. “This is my last go-round at college. I’m kind of doing it for the rest of the seniors. For all we’ve been through, four years of this, we want to go out with a bang. We might as well give it our all.”

Healy’s passion for basketball is an extension of her late father, Kevin, who played college ball at Geneseo. Kevin died of leukemia when Katie was 6. He was a youth hoops coach who passed on his love for the game to his three daughters − older sisters Sarah and Christina also played.

“I’m always thinking of my dad,” she said. “I want to keep that legacy going.”

She wants that legacy to involve playing professionally after college, most likely overseas. Crowley says he has received inquiries and that her best basketball is still ahead of her. Healy said her stepfather, Mike Sacchitella, has been investigating possible pro opportunities for her with a fanatical zeal.

“She’s excited to see how far she can go beyond college,” said her mother, Barbara. “Words can’t describe how proud I am of her. She certainly put a lot of effort into her basketball, as well as her academics. She’s really in a good spot.”

Dance-driven

Healy has a degree in marketing and is in graduate school, working toward her MBA. Of course, the more urgent business is getting the Bonnies to the NCAA Tournament. It’ll hurt if they don’t get there, but her senior year has been its own reward, proof of what can happen when players commit themselves to a common purpose.

“We could have done this last year as well,” Healy said. “But we weren’t together the way we are this year. We all blamed each other and went our separate ways. This year, we learned how to really come together regardless of circumstances. All the drama is going to happen, but we learned how to handle it and stay together.”

Crowley said a good team doesn’t have a lot of team meetings. He said last year it seemed there was a meeting every other day. He said they settle matters themselves now. Healy said she has been constructive in her criticism of teammates this season, rather than snapping the way she did a year ago.

The Bonnies have grown closer and it shows. When Healy missed two games with a foot injury in December, snapping her streak of 86 straight starts, they won both. Those summer days in the gym are paying off. The Bona women are a unified group. Healy said they understood when the A-10 coaches picked them for ninth in preseason, but they took the snub to heart.

“They underestimated the talent we have,” Healy said. “A lot of teams in the A-10 do. We always joke about it in the locker room. We don’t really look like a team that plays basketball. Really, if you look at us, we’re not very intimidating.

“We joke about it every time we warm up,” she said. “We look at the other team. They have size, they have length, they look athletic. Then we look at ourselves and say, ‘You know, we’ll still beat them.’”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com