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Palin's Strengths Rooted in Alaska
By all accounts, Palin didn't need an external motivator. She understood she wasn't a gifted athlete, so she decided to be a tireless worker. "She ran her guts out," Smith says. And she did it with an obvious edge. "She was small and thin and active," Heather remembers. "There was no slacking when that girl was practicing or competing."
Palin had to wait until her senior year to become the starting point guard and co-captain on the basketball team, and then no one gave her squad much of a chance to go to the state finals the way the team had the year before.
Wasilla High had a hard-knocks pride and a good coach in Don Teeguarden, a teacherly sort with a buried temper who in the heat of practice or a game would suddenly throw his gum and make the players run "killers," sprints up and down the court. "The girls weren't sheltered," he says.
They developed a reputation for upsetting larger schools around state, especially their rivals in Anchorage, which had student enrollments upward of 1,200. "That was when the giant-slayer first appeared," says John Bitney, a former friend and aide to Palin. "And the poise under pressure. You have to realize we were tenfold smaller, and it was the boondocks. It was a Hoosiers kind of thing."
They rode buses six or 10 hours to get to games, and spent nights bunking in classrooms of rival schools. "The kids were incredibly proud of their ability to spend time on a bus, sleep on a floor and be ready to go," Teeguarden says. They passed time on the bus by blasting music from boomboxes -- AC/DC, the Charlie Daniels Band and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." If they had to travel on a Sunday, they held impromptu prayer services. Once, on a road trip, Teeguarden couldn't find his players and wondered if they'd stayed out all night. He ran into them coming back from church.
Palin wasn't a prolific scorer, but she was an ideal point guard, a whip-wristed passer and smart distributor of the ball, and she had a great target in Wasilla's star player, 5-foot-8 Wanda Strutko, now an emergency room nurse. Palin also set the emotional tempo for the team and was a harrying presence on defense. She usually had the responsibility of stopping the other team's high scorer. Her nickname "Sarah Barracuda" is well known. But they also called her "The Pusher" for her ability to drive opponents to one side of the floor.
No one gave the Warriors any chance to win a title when they drew East High, a large Anchorage school that had beaten them by 40 points earlier in the season, as their first-round opponent in the state tournament. Wasilla won, 50-48, but shortly before time expired, Palin came down wrong and sprained her ankle, an injury she would play through during the rest of the tournament.
In the championship game they met another large institution, Service High. Wasilla took a comfortable early lead, but Palin, playing on her heavily wrapped, swollen, blue ankle, couldn't move well enough to defend, and Service began to catch up. Teeguarden motioned her to the bench. "I just had to get her out, it was painful to watch her," he says. Palin was devastated as she took a seat, and the coach put an arm around her. "Without you we wouldn't be here right now," he said. "You're not done."
She remained on the bench until slightly less than a minute remained. Then Teeguarden turned and motioned her back into the game. Wasilla was nursing just a four-point lead, and Palin was one of his coolest heads. He wanted her on the floor.
With about 30 seconds left, Palin was fouled. She went to the free-throw line. If she missed, Service would get the ball with a chance to cut Wasilla's lead to just two points. If she made the shot, her team would be up five -- making it a three-possession game. She licked her fingertips, dribbled the ball a time or two, and knocked down the shot. "That iced it," Teeguarden says. "At that point we exhaled." Wasilla won, 58-53.
Michele Kohinka, who was the center for Service High, described Palin this way: "She was a little floor general. She didn't score a lot, but she was a scrappy defender and was always the first to the loose balls."
Palin had scored nine points in three games, and her sprain had worsened into a stress fracture.
If it's not quite a story worthy of lore -- Cinderella team wins state thanks to future governor's epic game-winning shot -- it's still a good one. More important, it's one that may well have been the making of Palin. "Sarah's not stuck in a high school victory trance," Heather says. "But she has taken that feeling of accomplishment, of being part of a winning team, and all the hard work it took to get there, and uses those skills today."
Palin has said she learned more on the basketball court than in any other arena. It remains to be seen how her athletic, outdoorswoman, post-feminist confidence holds up in the heat of the vice presidential debate.
But her old friends suspect that a part of Palin may actually be looking forward to it.
Says Teeguarden: "The idea of being in awe of people just isn't in her nature." Ketchum adds, grinning: "She likes an opponent."
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.