Canes Focus: Shawnice "Pepper" Wilson

Canes Focus: Shawnice "Pepper" Wilson

By David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla.– Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds may seem impossible for most, butShawnice Wilson has been doing just that for as long as she can remember.

Wilson, who was nicknamed “Pepper” as a child by hergrandmother, grew up in a difficult situation. Pepper spent much of her youthin foster care, but she always worked hard to be the best she could be ateverything she did.

“I had a tough life growing up,” Wilsonsaid. “I grew up in a low-income neighborhood. When I was younger, I was infoster care. I really wasn’t family-oriented like most people are used togrowing up. There really weren’t opportunities for me as a child.”

The 6-foot-6 center always had the sizefor basketball, but she admits that she was never the most skilled player. Buther uncle played professionally overseas and that ultimately led her to thegame. In typical Wilson fashion, she committed herself fully to be the bestplayer she could be.

“Once I chose it, I committed myself toit,” Wilson said. “I’m not one of those people that was born with great skills;I had to work at it for a long time to get to where I’m at. I started watchingcollege basketball and the WNBA and I realized the potential opportunitiesbasketball could give me. Then I had 100 scholarship offers, so I justcontinued to commit myself to basketball and to school, as well. I said tomyself, ‘Once I get out of my neighborhood, I do not want to go back.’ That’salways been my motivation.”

A Pittsburgh, Pa., native, Wilson excelled on the court atWestinghouse High School. She was named District Player of the Year in herjunior and senior seasons and scored 1,540 points in her career atWestinghouse.

Wilson was ranked 23rd out of the top 50 highschool seniors in 2008 by Slam Magazineand earned an invitation to the prestigious adidas Top Ten All-America Camp.

Her success at Westinghouse was not limited to the hardwood,as she was a member of the National Honor Society and graduated first in herclass. That combination of brains and basketball skill made her a veryattractive recruit to colleges around the country.

Wilson could have gone to nearly any school in the UnitedStates, but her decision came down to the University of Miami and theUniversity of Pittsburgh. After weighing her options. Wilson decided to playfor the hometown Panthers.

Her two years at Pitt were solid. Wilson averaged 6.9 pointsand 5.3 rebounds per game and recorded an impressive 83 blocks in 57 starts.She was named to the BIG EAST All-Freshman team and was a finalist for the USABasketball U19 squad, but she decided that Pitt was not the right situation forher.

“I started my career thinking I’d never leave Pitt,” Wilsonsaid. “One of the reasons I transferred was because I didn’t think I couldreach my potential there.”

The decision to leave Pittsburgh was a difficult one. Shehad a lot of local support in the area and would be leaving that all behind fora new place where she would probably know very few people.

“It was hard because I knew I wasleaving behind the fact that my Dad was able to come to all my games and myfamily was able to come,” Wilson said. “I had a lot of support from my hometown,but I knew I needed to start a new journey somewhere else and help start mycareer.”

When she was looking for her next school, she remembered aconversation she had with Miami head coach Katie Meier a few years earlier whenWilson told the Canes’ coach that she was choosing Pitt over The U.

“I remembered what Coach Meier said,”Wilson said. She told me, ‘You are a great player. I know you will have a tonof success and I think you will win a gold medal for our country.’ I justremembered how genuine she was. She respected my decision when a lot of coachesdidn’t. As soon as I knew I was transferring from Pittsburgh, I knew I wasgoing to Miami. Not for the school or for the environment, but for Coach Meier.I didn’t even know anyone else. It was going to be a completely different teamhere from when I was recruited, but it didn’t matter because I trusted CoachMeier.”

Wilson admires her head coachtremendously. The two have a special bond and Wilson believes playing for Meierhas helped her maximize her potential.

“I think Coach Meier is a great personwho is helping me reach my goals,” Wilson said. “I’m just glad I chose to come hereand got the opportunity to play for Coach Meier because she’s a great personand a great mentor. I don’t look up to many people, but I look up to her.”

Meier is just one of the many greatpeople Wilson has encountered since she arrived in Coral Gables three yearsago. The veteran center believes the people she has met and relationships shehas built while at Miami will help her succeed once she moves on to begin herpost-collegiate life.

“I think the one great thing I’veexperienced outside of basketball is the amount of great people I have met andall of the networking I have done,” Wilson said. “President Shalala is great.Coach Meier is great. The fan base is full of great people. The number onething that I’ve loved about coming here is the great people I’ve met and thefact that this is a very prestigious university. I think that alone, outside ofbasketball, will help me succeed in the future.”

But Wilson is proud of her basketballsuccess, as well. She was part of Miami’s talent-filled squad that won 26 gamesand earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament a year ago. This season, shehelped guide the Canes to 20 wins in the regular season, including a victoryover No. 4 Duke for the first time in program history.

“This win will always be my favoritememory here,” Wilson said of beating the Blue Devils. “When I came here, webeat Maryland and even though I wasn’t playing, that was a great memory. So wasbeating Florida State. I really enjoy those memories, but beating Duke onSenior Night and they’re Top 5 in the country and we’re in the middle of theconference, this will always be my best memory as a Hurricane.”

The victory over Duke was Miami’s first in 11 tries. TheHurricanes had a shot to snap their losing streak earlier this year, when theywere tied at 29 at halftime. But Duke cruised in the second half to a 82-43win.

“That wasn’t going to happen again,” Meier said followingher team’s 69-65 win over the Blue Devils on Feb. 28. “If that’s what needed tohappen for this moment to be possible for these three seniors on their SeniorNight, then maybe it was worth it because we got a lot better in a month.”

Following a celebration at half court, Wilson joined fellowseniors Morgan Stroman and Stefanie Yderstrom in trying to explain what themoment felt like when the clock hit zero and the victory was official.

“I’m just in awe,” Wilson said following the big win. “It’sone of the biggest dreams I’ve ever had to beat one of the Top 5 teams in thenation. I know there were a lot of people who doubted us and I know howimportant this one was for us. Right now, I’m just happy. I’m happy that mylast game on our home court ended this way. I’m happy that I got to play itwith a group of girls who love me and care for me as a person, on and off thecourt, and I couldn’t ask for a better team and a better coaching staff. It’sjust great.”

Wilson’s time at Miami may be nearing its end, but thesenior sees a very bright future for the program.

“I think this will be a great program,”Wilson said. “I think the program might have to shift its style of play basedon personnel, but a lot of teams go through that. I think there will be moresuccess because we have one of the top recruiting classes coming in next year.I’m sure a lot of people didn’t expect us to have even over 15 wins this yearbut we did it, even though we had some tough losses. I know they will bring inplayers to help the program be great.”

Pepper loves Miami and Miami loves Pepper. Wilson has nointentions of forgetting about the Canes after she graduates in May. In fact,she could see herself returning to Miami as a student or a coach one day.

“I still want to play professional basketball,” Wilson said. “TheWNBA has been my dream. If I don’t get drafted now, I will work hard to get inthere. Even if I don’t, I want to play professionally and travel the world. Butonce I am done playing, I am interested in going back to school to get mymaster’s degree and maybe end up coaching one day.”

Whether she is playing basketball or in a classroom or doingsomething else, Wilson will likely be successful in whatever she decides to do.

Her determination and commitment have always helped herachieve her goals and she has proven time and time again that she will not giveup until she attains her goals.

That is how you overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

That is how you fulfill your dreams.

That is the only thing Pepper Wilson knows how to do.

And she couldn’t be happier.