MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan senior Alison Sobataka scored a career-high 14 points on opening night at home, then hit five straight shots and scored 19 in her second outing at North Rowan.
It’s not like Sobataka can keep raising her personal bar every Tuesday and Friday, but it’s already clear that she’s a much different player this season.
The game has slowed down for her and the rim has gotten wider for her mostly because there’s no more pressure. She’s made her college decision and signed scholarship papers last week with Columbia, a Catawba-sized NAIA school in South Carolina.
“I feel like a huge weight has come off of my shoulders,” Sobataka said. “I really don’t have to worry about anything now except trying to help my team. I don’t have to worry about impressing anyone. I don’t have to worry about who’s watching from the stands.”
Sobataka’s choice came down to Division III Guilford and Columbia. Guilford offered an academic package, while Columbia offered a substantial athletic scholarship.
“But it wasn’t a decision based on money,” Sobataka explained. “I just really liked the Columbia — the school, the coaches and the basketball program.”
It’s been a steady progression at West for Sobataka from freshman jayvee to sophomore varsity reserve to junior starter. She averaged a quiet 4.9 points per game last season with a high of 13.
“She’s accepted her roles in the past, but she’s a good example of a player whose role will change as a senior,” West coach Todd McNeely said. “She’ll be more of a scorer this season and we’re counting on her for more leadership on and off the floor. With that scholarship, the burden is off her, and I think she has a chance to have a special senior year for what could be a special team.”
Sam Sobataka, Alison’s father, recalls her getting her feet wet in organized basketball as a youngster at Sacred Heart Catholic School.
“She and (Carson star) Kelly Dulkoski were in fourth grade and trying to play against eighth-graders,” he said. “I remember them losing once 40-2, and the girls were pretty excited about the two.”
They’ve come a long way since then. Dulkoski, who signed with Division I Kennesaw State, was North Piedmont Conference Player of the Year for 2011-12, and she and Sobataka are still the best of friends. It’s not easy for either of them when they have to play against each other, something they’ll do at least twice this season.
Dulkoski is a tremendous offensive player. Sobataka is a defensive whiz.
“I’ve worked hard on my shot, but I know defense is still my forte,” Sobataka said. “It’s my biggest asset.”
The 5-foot-8 Sobataka played over the summer for the Winston-Salem Stealers AAU team along with Davie guard Amy Steller, who signed with Pfeiffer. It was because of AAU connections and recommendations, including one by Dulkoski’s father, that Columbia coach Maria Audas started recruiting Sobataka.
“You’re always trying to find girls who are good fit for your program, and we liked Alison a lot,” Audas said. “Watching film of her, I could see she was an excellent defender and that she plays with a lot of effort. I know she can shoot the ball, but she’s got length for a two-guard and it’s her defensive potential that is the X-factor. We play in a very offensive-minded league, but I’m a defense-first coach, and we win games with our defense and discipline.”
Columbia’s Fighting Koalas compete in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, which includes schools such as Montreat, St. Andrews, Tennessee Wesleyan, Bryan, Miligan and Virginia Intermont.
Columbia has a relatively new program that was restarted from scratch in 2005. The Fighting Koalas haven’t enjoyed a lot of success, although there’s been a steady upswing in the program since Audes was hired in the summer of 2010. The school set a modest record for wins in 2010-11 and broke that mark with eight victories in 2011-12.
The Koalas already have won three times this season. They’ve beaten Barber-Scotia, Allen and Bob Jones. Their current 3-6 record includes a repectable 25-point loss to D-I Coastal Carolina.
Sobataka should help the Koalas experience their first winning season down the road.
“We really like what Alison brings to our program and she should contribute immediately on the court,” said Audas, who made the 130-mile trip from Columbia to Mount Ulla for the signing ceremony. “But we’re just excited about her academics and her character. We believe character can take you a long way.”
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