Ramsey ready to put the past behind

Exactly one year ago, Abi Ramsey would be forced to watch her teammates open the season without her; following a DUI arrest, Ramsey would be suspended for the season's first nine games. As she prepares for her senior season, the 5-10 guard looks back on the episode as a painful experience that helped her realize just how precious is every second spent on the court.<BR><I>The Commodores open the season Friday at 6 pm vs. St. Francis.

Abi Ramsey was literally brought up on the side of a mountain. As a child raised in the burg of Monteagle in the beautiful Cumberland Plateau region of Middle Tennessee, Ramsey's childhood home clung to a steep dropoff that overlooked a gorgeous farmland vista in the valley below.

It's fair to say the 5-10 senior guard's Vanderbilt career has been marked by peaks and valleys as well. Just about this time last year, Ramsey was devastated by the knowledge she would have to watch her teammates open the season without her.

As most all Vandy basketball enthusiasts will recall, Ramsey was arrested and charged with DUI just blocks away from campus a few days before the 2003-04 season was to begin. The courts ultimately found her guilty of reckless driving, and she wound up with a six-month suspended sentence, probation and a fine. Her team, Melanie Balcomb's Commodores, played the first nine games of the season without her.

Offered a chance to chat with Abi recently, I debated on whether to bring it up-- it's an episode I was sure she'd just as soon put in the past. But with Ramsey and fellow senior Ashley Earley assuming so much of the leadership role for the 2004-05 Commodores, I thought it might be important to ask whether the whole affair was something that had helped her mature.

Turns out, she was more than willing to talk about the whole mortifying experience, which she now describes as "horrible."

"That whole time was just really bad," she said. "It was a time of embarrassment and learning and everything rolled into one. I had to sit there, and the hardest part was that we had a young team. We had six freshmen, and I was supposed to be a leader on that team.

"In practice I was able to kind of set the path. But when you have to sit there and push other players to play above you and to do better than you and succeed... you have to sit there and cheer while you're preparing someone to play your position. It was just really hard."

Was the nine-game suspension too harsh in her eyes?

"I can't really judge. For what happened, I didn't think it should have to be that long, but in the end it had a good effect on me. It humbled me. It was all over the news and everything. It goes with your name."

Ramsey openly admits today she was probably a bit naïve about her standing with younger girls, from camps and high schools around the state, who saw her as an icon.

"I had to learn the hard way that who I am and what I do goes out to the public. I disappointed a lot of kids that are important in my life, and all the fans also. It was just an opportunity for me to say, OK, Abi, grow up! All in all, I'd say it's been a positive."

One thing's for absolute certain. Every time she steps on the court this season, she will realize how precious is the opportunity.

"My dad has been joking with me, 'You try to stay good, so we can have a full season this year,'" she laughs. "Once I got back last year, I definitely cherished every game."

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The world probably first realized that Jennifer Abigail Ramsey was something special when she led Grundy County High School to a state championship in 1998. The youngest of four children born to Tim and Susan Ramsey, Abi's considerable gifts were apparent to everyone who was lucky enough to witness that team's run to the finals.

The next year her mother took a job at Shelbyville High School so that Abi could be a part of Rick Insell's high-powered program. The move paid off, as she soon began receiving attention from SEC coaches the likes of Vanderbilt's Jim Foster.

"I had played for Coach Insell on my AAU team, and my dad kind of pushed for me to go to Shelbyville my freshman year," she remembers. I wanted to stay and play for my hometown team.

"When we won the state tournament that year at Grundy, we had five graduating seniors. Some of them had good talent and could have played in college, but they had just not gotten their names out there. I realized that Shelbyville had so much more opportunity for me.

"And I wanted to be pushed. I wanted to play on the highest level of high school basketball, and it was just an hour away. It was convenient, and my parents were more than willing to do it."

Over a stellar four-year career, Ramsey racked up 2,297 points, including 682 her senior season. That year she again helped her team to the state championship, where she brought home MVP honors.

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The memories from last March are still all too fresh. The Commodores seemed to find themselves late in the season and reeled off ten straight victories, including four straight at the nearby Gaylord Arena to claim the SEC Tournament Championship.

Ramsey was back at the top of her game, Dee Davis was healed, and Carla Thomas was on fire. Vandy was playing its best basketball of the season, and had high hopes of advancing to the Final Four for only the second time in school history. But the dream went up in flames in Norman, Okla., when Stanford's Kelly Suminski buried a 3-point buzzer-beater to eliminate the Commodores in the Sweet 16.

Hillary Hager and Jenni Benningfield are long gone. Now it's Ramsey's and Earley's turn to assume the mantle of the revered senior leaders.

The motto for the season? "Whatever it takes."

"Every year you're going to lose good players," Ramsey says. "We lost Chantelle Anderson and Ashley Mac the year before, and everyone was like, whoa, what are you guys gonna do?

"It's always an adjustment. Someone always steps up. I'm not worried about it at all. The place where we'll miss Jenni and Hillary the most is leadership. You couldn't ask for two players more devoted to a team than they were. When it came down to a last-second shot, they wanted it in their hands.

"But I'm not worried about replacing their scoring. We don't ever worry about scoring. It should be defense. That's our problem."

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The Commodores open the 2004-05 season at home Friday at 6:00 pm CT vs. St. Francis (Pa.). The Vanderbilt men's team opens its season vs. Toledo 30 minutes after the finish of the women's game. Tickets are still available.


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