Most times you look back on a player’s career, you could probably say things came full circle. For Sydney Graber, that really was all true but the end result.
From a wide eyed freshman that ended her first season basking in the glow of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse stadium lights, holding the Class 4A state title, to the senior leader that her team positioned as one of the best in the state, so much has changed for Graber. But it is that second part, what she did and how she wow’d as a senior that led Outside the Huddle to name her our 2019-2020 Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“My freshman year, I had a really cool opportunity to learn from our seniors. Playing with them, I just knew it was my goal to follow in their footsteps and kind leave an impact as a senior and take my game to the next level,” Graber said.
The Homestead High School senior didn’t quite get things full circle, losing to power Northwestern in the Regional round this season, but she did help lead the Spartans – who had plenty to deal with off the court – to Summit Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles, as well as the third Sectional of her career. Graber’s final title count at Homestead: 13 (four SAC titles, three Holiday Tournament titles, 3 Sectionals, a Regional, a semi state and a Class 4A state title). And that isn’t too terrible at all.
Graber finished her senior season as the team leader in scoring (15.1 points per game), rebounding (8.5 rebounds per game) and added 1.3 steals per game to her numbers. She also surpassed 1,000 career points on January 11 against Lawrence North. She finished her career at Homestead with 1,154 points and 730 rebounds, being named to the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association’s Senior ‘Supreme 15’ team.
Things were different for Graber when she came into the Homestead machine four years ago, despite being coached some prior by Spartan head coach Rod Parker. In one of the first practices of Graber’s high school career, Parker’s older daughter Madisen, then a senior, told Graber ‘just keep up and you’ll do fine.’
“When she got to Homestead, it was a big difference. She used to have to be pushed to work hard, she didn’t really understand how to challenge herself to reach the highest level she could be,” Rod Parker said. “As a senior, she is the kid setting the pace and the tempo and everybody else is trying to keep up with her. She understands how hard she has to work to be the player she wants to be and to make us the best possible team.”
Her role increased in different ways over the years. She was a role player with a little bit of varsity time in comparison to others as a freshman, but did play a quality role in that state finals game.
Graber spent her four years at Homestead elevating her game to match the senior class of her freshman year. Three of the four seniors on that Class 4A state champion team went on to play Division 1 basketball, where they are all finding success today. Graber wanted to get to that level too, for herself and for the program, especially during her senior season.
“We’ve always preached that there is a target on our back. Everyone wants to see us lose, nobody wants Homestead to win,” Graber said. “We had to preach that mentality all over again. We knew a lot of teams were going to play their best basketball against us.”
Graber’s tempo was accelerated during the summer before her senior year. Graber shaped up her game and her body with the end of her high school career nearing and a Division 1 future at Central Michigan becoming more real than just her name on a letter of intent. Knowing she was going to play a lot of minutes in 2019-2020, Graber wanted to be able to lead by example with so many people paying closer attention to her.
The day after a Regional loss in her junior season, Graber went to workout with Always 100’s Vernard Hollins, going through her normal routine and getting shots up. During the workout, Hollins talked to Graber about her senior year and the importance of being in the best shape of her life heading into it. Graber took it to heart and appreciated Hollins’ honest conversation. It led her to work on being faster and stronger and defensively better on the court. Graber focused on ramping up her speed and changing her body to be able to handle the rigors of the future.
“At OPS and SportOne, they all just pushed me to better myself,” Graber said. “By the end of the summer, I had completely changed as a player.”
“The thing that is great about Sydney is that she has always put so much time on her game, but it was neat for her to recognize, at a mature level ‘that I need to change my physical status a little bit to take my game to the level that I want it to be,'” Parker noted. “It was a very mature decision, one that took a lot of commitment and she reaped the reward, the benefits from it.”
Graber’s actual senior season saw some roadblocks thrown out. Not as much for her, more for her team as a whole. There were things that just changed how the Spartans had to go about life. Sophomore standout Ayanna Patterson’s injury issues meant that everyone had to step up on the court more. Rod Parker’s cancer diagnosis meant that Graber and Rylie Parker had to step up as even bigger leaders as the team’s two seniors. But preparation beforehand did help. The Spartans thrived all year long. A setback visiting Notre Dame Academy in Ohio was the lone blemish on their record in the regular season and they wouldn’t lose to a team in the state of Indiana until the Regional round.
The Spartans vanquished every area challenge, won at North Central, beat another tough challenge from Ohio and, yes, even beat eventual Class 4A state champion Lawrence North along the way. And each time, there was Graber at the forefront on the court and in the locker room.
“I remember telling them the day I told them I had cancer, I told those two [Sydney and Rylie], I said ‘this is your journey, your senior year. You can’t let this take you away from your goals and your experiences and your memories,'” Rod Parker said. “I said ‘you have to take this team under your wings, and you got to keep us moving forward and we have to get better’ and they did a great job of that.”
“As an underclassman, I really relied on the upperclassmen to guide me and show me the way,” Graber added. “That was my role this year. I tried to be the best leader I could be on and off the court.”
Now Graber will focus on the next level and a future at Central Michigan that she accepted and committed to before her junior season of high school ball.
When did she start focusing on that: the Monday after a Regional loss, back in the gym at OPS, working to get better again. She will move in at Central Michigan in mid-June to prepare for the transition to college and the faster pace at the collegiate level. It is one transition that her high school coach expects her to be just fine with.
“Like high school, she is going to be very versatile. She is going to fit well into that conference,” Parker said, noting how much MAC basketball he has seen with daughter Madisen playing for Bowling Green. “She’s got the ability with her size to rebound well, to run the court, score inside, score outside and I think she has really improved her game defensively.”