Even though it's January, she wore sandals Thursday afternoon before the first game of the Nikiski Tip-Off Tournament at Nikiski High's gymnasium. But on the court, Karen Rabung has had to step into a much larger pair of shoes in her senior year at Nikiski.
Coming off a junior season where the Bulldogs won a Class 3A state title, then graduated four of the starting five, Rabung has found herself holding down the position of team leader for the first time. And the 6-foot-0 center had no trouble admitting how daunting the prospect seemed at first.
"Ever since my freshman year, I was always the youngest on the team," she said. "This year when I stepped in the gym the first time, I was like, 'Wow!'"
Nikiski coach Ward Romans, who had been used to calling plays through his backcourt players, said he realized it would be a challenge to adjust his coaching style to command the floor through the post position. But he said Rabung has accepted the challenge and is managing superbly as she calls some of the plays for the Bulldogs.
"It's something completely new to her," Romans said. "But she's handling it well. The thing I'm most proud of is that she wants to lead. She takes it really seriously that she's the leader of a program and wants to do well."
He said calling plays through the post isn't unusual, but the situation has helped to improve the team dynamic.
"It's forcing everybody to communicate," Romans said. "It's more of a change from the bench. Karen's doing what she needs to do."
And beyond being the center of her team's attention on the floor, Romans said Rabung, who averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds last season, is commanding respect from opposing teams. Along with that respect comes schemes to curb her production, which Romans said Rabung is able to adjust to.
"She's the major focal point for defenses," he said. "She sees double teams all the time, and lots of creative defenses. ... She has to battle that. She has to be patient, yet aggressive."
But being the go-to person on her team isn't something that came overnight for Rabung. She learned basketball from as early as first grade, where she grew up in Eagle River playing in an area recreational league on teams coached by her father, Gene.
Rabung developed her skills through constant playing, often outside of her age group, her father said. Ballhandling and passing were emphasized.
"When she was young, she wasn't always big," Gene said. "So we always put her on point, and made her practice dribbling with her left hand. From fifth grade up, she always moved up a league. And I played her on her (older) brother's team sometimes when they needed an extra person."
Gene said the adversity she faced on the floor at an early age toughened her resolve and formed something in her he said he wasn't able to teach.
"She has a drive," he said. "You can't teach drive in kids."
That drive may have inspired her to excel, in spite of a change in scenery after her first year playing high school basketball at Chugiak. Rabung's mother, Patti Ruppert, and her father divorced at the start of her freshman year. In the middle of the year, Gene was transferred to the Kenai Peninsula to work at the Spenard Builder's Supply in Kenai.
As a starter for the Mustangs, Rabung made the decision to change schools when she learned that the team's coach, Matt Susita, would be leaving at the end of the school year. She decided to move with her father.
"I pretty much made my decision," Rabung said. "My dad talked to a lot of people around the area, and I decided to come to Nikiski because coach Romans made me feel comfortable."
She said the move wasn't easy, at first, however, because she would be separated from her mother and her brother, Ryan. Both remain in the Anchorage Bowl.
"It was hard not seeing my mother or my brother, Ryan," Rabung said.
The change wasn't easy on her mother, either. But Ruppert said the outcome has been positive.
"When she went down to Nikiski, it was really hard for me," Ruppert said. "But she really thrived. It's such a nice, small-community atmosphere."
Rabung said the change was refreshing, comparing Nikiski's student body of fewer than 300 to the nearly 2,000 kids in her freshman class at Chugiak.
"After the first day, I've loved it ever since," she said. "You get to know the people."
And Ruppert has made adjustments to her life to be able to support her daughter, like traveling to the peninsula frequently to see Rabung's games. And when she can't, Ruppert has found other ways to follow her daughter's success.
"All of her games are broadcast on the radio," Ruppert said. "I can't pick up the channel that well in Anchorage, but I can go out to Port Woronzof by the airport and sit and listen to them in my car."
Ruppert also compiles a three-ring scrapbook for all the coaches and members of the Nikiski girls program, something she said she did for her son's football team when he played for Chugiak. She said she pulls newspaper clippings from every game she can get her hands on.
"It's nice for them, because that's their season," she said. "And there aren't nearly as many girls on her team as there were guys on Ryan's football team."
In November, Rabung signed a national letter of intent to play basketball for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She will attend school there on a full athletic scholarship, where she plans to prepare for a career in either medicine or education.
After playing Outside for several years with a summer team coached by East High's Dorina Bingham, Rabung was being recruited by a number of Lower 48 schools, including the Air Force Academy and Northwest Nazarene University.
She said she chose UAF, however, because of its proximity to home.
"It's far enough away that it's not home," Rabung said. "But it's close enough so it's like home."
Both of her parents and Romans said the nearness will mean they can continue to closely follow her career.
"I'm excited that she wanted to stay here," Ruppert said. "It's closer, so we can go to her."
And Rabung said she made her decision early, so she could relax and enjoy her senior year.
"I've always wanted to sign early," she said. "I thought about it and prayed about it. It's nice to have that out of the way."
In addition to earning statewide and national recognition -- she was named second-team all-state last year and was one of 15 Alaska prep players nominated last week for the 2003 McDonald's All American basketball team -- Rabung has maintained a stellar academic record, with a 3.6 grade point average.
"We emphasize students who work hard and take responsibility in the classroom," Romans said. "That transfers to the court."
He said Rabung is a well-rounded individual, expressing compassion and intelligence to those around her. And her athletic talent was re-emphasized Saturday evening in the Nikiski gym when she was named the Most Valuable Player of the Nikiski Tip-Off Tournament.
"As good a basketball player as Karen is, she's a better person," Romans said. "I'm a better person for having coached her."
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