Shereesha Richards is no stranger to being first.
The 6-foot-1 forward became UAlbany’s all-time leading scorer last year, as a junior, and eclipsed the 2,000-point mark last month. She leads the America East Conference in scoring, averaging 23.5 points per game to guide the Great Danes to a perfect 9-0 league record so far this season.
Richards is a two-time conference player of the year, a two-time most outstanding player in the America East Tournament, and has lead UAlbany to three NCAA Tournament appearances. She’s also currently second in the league in rebounding, third in field goal percentage, and is a candidate for the Senior CLASS Award.
Yet, like many star players at mid-major schools, the Jamaican-born Richards can still find herself flying under the radar.
That is, except to those who matter the most.
“Shareesha doesn’t notice those things, but I see it – there have been WNBA scouts at all but two of our games so far this season,” UAlbany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said.
Richards has been part of mock WNBA draft boards, projected in either the first or second rounds. Whichever team chooses her will get the deal of a lifetime, according to her coach.
“She’s the best,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “I played at Georgia with Katrina McClain and Teresa Edwards, and Shereesha is just as good as them. She is fierce, and this year has extended her game. She can catch any pass.”
Richards’ game is one of versatility. She had played power forward until this season, when Abrahamson-Henderson had her switch to small forward. Richards can play and guard all five positions.
Her athleticism is also something to behold. Richards is explosively quick, has a high vertical jump and has amazing natural instinct for a game she didn’t even start playing until she was 16. But what stands out most to her coach is her intensity.
“She goes hard – I have never once had to tell her to go hard,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “There is no quit in her, ever. She wills us to win.”
And that is exactly where Richards’ focus is now: helping guide the Great Danes back to the Big Dance one more time. Because for all the WNBA coaches and fans who have been licking their chops watching her play for three years, playing professionally is still a new idea for Richards.
“Recently I thought I’d have a great chance of making it,” she said. “Coach Abe has said ‘maybe someday you can play.’ If I do get drafted, it’s another great opportunity and I might as well jump on it.”
Richards grew up playing Netball, which is similar to basketball, and is popular in Jamaica. Her high school had just formed a basketball team for the boys when she was 16, but not for girls. The boy’s coach saw her potential and introduced her to the game, which she fell in love with immediately. Then he helped her get to a camp that lead to a scholarship to Atlantic Christian High School in New Jersey.
“I actually wasn’t that good at basketball at all when I first tried it,” Richards said. “But what the coach saw was the person I was and could be, and the potential that I had. I am very competitive, and it shows.”
It wasn’t hard to convince her parents to let her leave the country to attend school and play basketball.
“It was a great opportunity compared to a lot of things,” Richards said. “I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and possible outcomes in Jamaica were to go to college or go to work. Education (in the U.S.) is better and more diverse.”
Richards lived with her coach, Pam Hitchner, who became like a second mother, and whose house she still goes to during winter break. It was in her junior year that Richards began to break out as a basketball player, and it was around that time that Abrahamson-Henderson saw her playing at a club ball tournament.
“She was running all over, playing out of her mind, and she didn’t complain once,” the coach said. “I knew I’d found someone who was raw, with incredible athleticism.”
“She didn’t have the refined skills she has now. She wasn’t polished, and a lot of coaches want polished, finished products. I’m different in that I look for work ethic, good attitude and playing hard.”
Abrahamson-Henderson couldn’t find Richards listed in the roster packet given to coach attendees of tournaments, so she went to the information table and asked. She could tell by Richards’ first name where she was from, and Abrahamson-Henderson, who is married to a Jamaican man, knew what she would get if she signed her. So the recruiting effort began in earnest.
Richards liked the idea of going to Albany because it was relatively close to Hitchner. The other big seller was Abrahamson-Henderson.
“Her standards for women in general are excellent, and it made me want to buy in,” Richards said. “Coach is all about empowering young women and making it more than basketball. She is always talking about ‘what are you going to do after basketball?’ She makes investments in people.”
Some freshmen find themselves homesick when they go to college, but for Richards, already removed from home several years, that was not an issue. Her biggest challenge was the physical conditioning expected of her.
“We’re really big on fitness, and I don’t think she’d ever worked that hard in her life,” Abrahamson-Henderson said.
But as before, Richards adapted and grew stronger and more skilled quickly. She watched the upperclassmen and learned from them, and by her sophomore year, she broke out on the court.
Loud on the court, quiet off the court
Abrahamson-Henderson said that besides being the greatest player to pass through the Albany program, she has been a fine role model for her teammates for her strong character.
“She’s humble and quiet; she doesn’t need to be heard with her voice,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “She’s a devout Christian human being who was raised by a strong Christian mother. She is a different kind of kid. She knows who she is, what she wants, and nothing is going to sway her.”
The contrast between Richards’ fervent aggression on court and her quiet persona off of it might seem extreme, but senior guard Erin Coughlin said it all fits together.
Coughlin and Richards struck up a friendship on their respective recruiting visits to Albany, which coincided. They have been best friends and roommates ever since.
“I’ve got to know Reesh well over the past four years, but when we first met we were both shy,” Coughlin said. “That’s what people first see, but Reesh just likes to scope things out and get to know people first. She is laid-back and fun to be around – really goofy.”
Coughlin said Richards has never mentioned any of her scoring records, either before or after the fact.
“She is the most modest person you’d ever meet,” Coughlin said. “She’ll make this incredible play and all she’s talking about is what are we going to do next (in a game). Nothing phases her.”
Richards has had to adjust to life in the U.S., which she said is much different from that of her home land.
“When I first came (to Albany), on Fridays and weekends I’d be pretty much bored, because in Jamaica on Friday streets are busy and people walking around socializing because shops are open,” she said. “Here, Fridays and Saturdays are quiet unless you’re going out to bars. But I’ve got adjusted to American culture. I don’t do much now except rest and watch TV.”
Coughlin said Richards has shown her a lot about Jamaican culture, especially with reguard to cuisine. Richards like fresh, clean food, and despite majoring in criminal justice, said she might want to own her own restaurant someday.
For now, however, she is in the midst of sealing her legacy as a Great Dane, and there is still much work to be done.
“For all I’ve accomplished, it’s been a great feeling,” Richards said. “It’s almost the end, and I want go out with a great memory.”
Most likely, that end will be followed by a new beginning – in the WNBA.