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Stars of Spring Here's a look at five fresh faces who've made an impact this year--and who'll be trying to carve their names on title trophies in the weeks ahead

May 13, 2002
May 13, 2002

Table of Contents
May 13, 2002

Stars of Spring Here's a look at five fresh faces who've made an impact this year--and who'll be trying to carve their names on title trophies in the weeks ahead

JOHN CHRISTMAS

This is an article from the May 13, 2002 issue

School: Virginia
Class: Freshman
Sport: Lacrosse
Hometown: Ardmore, Pa.

Heralding a new wave of youth and diversity, he's the
third-leading scorer for the No. 5 Cavaliers

You can't miss John Christmas. Whether he's zigzagging toward
goal at breakneck speed or making behind-the-back feeds as if
tossing car keys to a valet, the Virginia attackman can elicit
gasps from crowds and tantrums from opposing coaches. Take the
last of his three goals in the ACC tournament final at Duke on
April 21. Christmas, who had awakened that morning with symptoms
of strep throat, beat his defenseman on a blink-quick inside roll
off the left pipe to stuff in the score that put the Cavaliers
ahead 13-12 with five minutes left. (The Blue Devils eventually
won 14-13.) The dazzling play silenced the raucous home crowd and
caused one rabid Duke dad to choke on his hot dog. As Christmas
had already proved by erupting for a total of seven goals and
five assists in early-season victories over Top 5 teams Johns
Hopkins and Maryland, the tighter the game, the more electric he
becomes.

Christmas will provide some of the spark for the fifth-ranked
Cavaliers (10-3) when they head into the 12-team NCAA tournament
that begins this weekend. His 25 goals and 15 assists ranked him
third on the team in points, and last month he was one of a
league-high five Cavaliers named to the all-conference team. A
couple of things, however, separate Christmas from the crowd.
He's a freshman--the first Virginia rookie to be named All-ACC
since Michael Watson in 1994--and he's African-American. "I have
to catch myself from saying that John can be one of the best
black players to ever play the game," says Cavaliers coach Dom
Starsia. "The fact is, he can become one of the best players,
period."

White kids from Greater Baltimore and New York State have
dominated lacrosse's upper echelons for the past half century.
Now, though, players like Christmas, the son of Trinidadians who
settled in southeastern Pennsylvania before John's birth, are
updating the profile of America's oldest team sport. Thanks in
part to the efforts of U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's governing body,
to establish youth leagues in uncharted territories (most
recently the Deep South and the West Coast) and conduct clinics
in urban areas, this longtime cult sport is gradually becoming
more competitive and diverse from the ground up. Since 1995
participation nationwide has increased 10% to 15% each year.

As proof of the rising level of young talent, college coaches
point to the growing number of freshmen--like 2001 national
attackman of the year Michael Powell of Syracuse and 2002 ACC
goal leader Joe Yevoli, one of Christmas's linemates--who have
made an immediate impact in Division I. And while U.S. Lacrosse
has yet to chart participation in the sport by race, coaches and
players agree that diversity among collegians, which didn't
exactly skyrocket in the decades following Jim Brown's reign at
Syracuse in the 1950s, has been creeping upward for the last
decade. The best player for defending national champion Princeton
is arguably junior defenseman Damien Davis, an African-American
who has started every game since he was a freshman. First-year
Johns Hopkins middie Kyle Harrison, whose father, Miles, led a
predominantly black Morgan State team to an upset of top-ranked
Washington & Lee in 1975, paces the Blue Jays with 66 ground
balls.

"I've noticed one or two [African-Americans] on almost every
team, but there should be more in a sport as fast and exciting as
this," says Christmas. Especially rare are African-Americans who
play attackman, lacrosse's limelight position. "Coaches have
always tried to make me a midfielder because that's supposedly
where the best athletes play," says the 5'10", 179-pound
Christmas. "It was important for me to show that a young black
player can have the stick skills and field sense to score."

Christmas was a second-grader in Ardmore, Pa., when he took up
the sport, and his interest in the finer points of ball handling
soon bordered on obsession. "We used to go to sleep to the sound
of John thwacking that ball against the wall of his bedroom,"
says his mother, Margaret, a private housekeeper. She and her
husband, Fitz, a tailor at Philadelphia's Saks Fifth Avenue, had
never heard of lacrosse until their oldest son, Jason, joined the
Lower Merion High team to keep in shape for football. When John
started playing, he got some grief from friends. "Lacrosse is a
big deal at Lower Merion, but basketball was the cool thing in my
neighborhood," says Christmas, who stood in packed bleachers at
the school to watch its star, Kobe Bryant. "My friends would say,
'Why are you playing this white-boy sport?'"

They quieted down when Christmas began to draw similar crowds to
muddy youth-league fields and then to games at Lower Merion,
where he scored 322 points and was Pennsylvania's first
three-time lacrosse All-America. In the spring of his junior year
he committed to Virginia--upon Starsia's promise to play him on a
forward line that included All-America senior Conor Gill.

Working alongside Gill, one of the nation's best setup men, and
Yevoli, a quick dodger with a nose for the goal, Christmas has
exceeded the expectations heaped upon him as the nation's No. 1
recruit. "I heard the hype and was hoping that he'd live up to
it," says Davis, who saw Christmas score two goals and assist on
two against his Princeton defense earlier this season. "It's
still not easy to be a minority in this sport. You know that
certain behavior, like excessive celebration, will just play into
black stereotypes. John and I are watched more closely than other
players."

After tallying four goals and two assists in April's ACC
tournament, Christmas was already looking toward the May 27 NCAA
final. "I set out to help my team win a national championship as
not just a good player but a good player of color," he said.
"Guys like Jim Brown, [Dartmouth coach] Rick Sowell and Damien
Davis paved the way for me. I want black, Hispanic and Asian kids
to turn on ESPN during the NCAAs and see that there is a place
for them in this sport." --Kelley King

JENNIE FINCH

School: Arizona
Class: Senior
Sport: Softball
Hometown: La Mirada, Calif.

The ace of the defending national champs is all but untouchable,
with a 112-12 college record

As he watched his star player stare down the snapping shutter and
popping lights during a photo shoot in a Phoenix studio, Arizona
softball coach Mike Candrea pondered the irony of the scene.
Wildcats senior pitcher Jennie Finch was posing with big league
aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling of the Diamondbacks for
shots that would accompany a profile of her in the Diamondbacks'
fan magazine, under the headline THE BEST PITCHER IN ARIZONA.
During a break in shooting, Finch asked the two big leaguers for
their autographs. Says Candrea, "I wanted to say to them, 'You
should be getting her autograph.' Jennie is the best pitcher in
college softball. She's talented, good-looking and very humble.
She's the whole package."

Finch, 21, has established herself as not only the best at her
position in the college game, but also as one of the finest
softball pitchers in NCAA history. Between April 21, 2000, and
April 7, 2002, the 6'1" righthander won an NCAA-record 60
straight games. Last year she went 32-0 and had a 0.54 ERA,
capping the season with a 1-0 shutout of UCLA in the final of the
College World Series. That ESPN-televised game gave the lanky
blonde a measure of recognition usually reserved for members of
the U.S. Olympic team.

"I don't really pay attention to numbers," Finch says. "That 60-0
is a team record; I couldn't do that by myself. Winning national
championships is my goal." She and her teammates have a good
chance to repeat in this year's college series, which begins with
regionals on May 16-19 and concludes in Oklahoma City the
following weekend. Finch is the centerpiece of an Arizona team
that was 48-7 at week's end and ranked No. 2 in the country.

Pitching most of her games in the murderous Pac-10, which has
seven teams ranked in the top 16, Finch has been nearly as
dominant (29-2, 0.78 ERA) as she was last year. Her control has
been phenomenal--293 strikeouts and 56 walks in 206 2/3 innings.
"You can't get behind in the count against her," says Cal coach
Diane Ninemire, whose Bears are one of the two teams to beat
Finch this season. "She has such a variety of pitches, and her
ball breaks very late. Her mechanics are terrific."

Finch's repertoire--rise ball, drop, curve, screwball and
changeup--is made more effective by her velocity (usually in the
high 60s) and her imposing size (a pitching stride of more than
6 1/2 feet). "Her height makes a huge difference," says Stanford
coach John Rittman. "She's only 43 feet away, and the ball gets
there so much quicker. She's an explosive pitcher."

As a teen Finch honed her talents in the ultracompetitive
fast-pitch leagues of Southern California. From her home in the
L.A. suburb of La Mirada she traveled on weekends with her
parents, Doug and Beverly, in an orange 1979 Ford van. On Sunday
mornings, with Jennie in full uniform, they often stopped for
drive-in services at the New Life Community Church in Artesia,
parking outside the building and listening to the sermon on the
radio. At times during the summer the van carried them across the
country. "Our family vacations weren't to Hawaii," Jennie says.
"They were to the softball fields of Oklahoma, Ohio and
Tennessee."

At Arizona, where softball frequently outdraws the Wildcats'
baseball games, she's become a celebrity. She's dating Casey
Daigle, a pitcher for the Diamondbacks' Class A affiliate in
Lancaster, Calif., and several Diamondbacks players have shown up
to see her pitch, including slugger Luis Gonzalez. "She was
impressive--Randy Johnsonesque," Gonzalez says. "It's the
equivalent of throwing 90 to 100 mph in baseball. She dominated."

Finch shrugs off the attention and remains committed to the
principles that made her near unbeatable. "The love of winning
and the hatred of losing are what motivate me," she says. "I just
like to throw." --Mark Beech

SAVIO NAZARETH

School: Guilford
Class: Senior
Sport: Golf
Hometown: Moshi, Tanzania

The kid from the foothills of Kilimanjaro aims to be the first
Tanzanian on the PGA Tour

In many ways Savio Nazareth is like other PGA Tour wannabes. A
senior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., and one of the
top contenders to win the May 13-16 NCAA Division III golf
championship in Lincoln, Neb., he has a southern drawl and an
Augusta National screen saver. He loves Mexican food, uses J.
Crew hair gel and hooks a Nokia cellphone to his belt. He bombs
300-yard drives, has two Tiger Woods posters on his dorm-room
wall and takes gut classes like Administration and Organization
of Sport and Exercise.

But Nazareth, 23, is no cookie-cutter prospect. He's 5'3" and
130 pounds, four inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than any
Tour player. Even more unusual, Nazareth, whose parents are of
Indian descent, grew up in the east African nation of Tanzania,
one of the world's poorest countries. He learned golf at a
scruffy nine-hole course at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro,
Africa's tallest peak. "I guess I'm treading an unpaved path,"
he said recently between bites of a beef enchilada at Amigo's,
his favorite Mexican joint in Greensboro. "But I try not to
think about my journey because I really miss home."

Nazareth's home is Moshi, a no-stoplight town in northern
Tanzania that is the tourist gateway to Kilimanjaro. Like most
kids there he played soccer and field hockey as a boy. Unlike
most kids in Moshi he also played golf, which the British brought
to Tanzania in the 19th century. The country has just one 18-hole
course, in the capital of Dar es Salaam, and five nine-holers,
one of which is the Moshi Country Club. As a tyke Savio often
walked the course during rounds played by his uncle, Benny
Mendes, a member of Tanzania's 1980 Olympic field hockey team. "I
liked golf, so I pushed it on Savio, and he was a natural," says
Mendes.

Tanzania has no golf instructors, so Mendes, an eight
handicapper, became Savio's guru, sharing swing pointers gleaned
from magazine articles and David Leadbetter videos. Mendes's
tutelage produced an all-world short game (Savio's the
top-ranked collegian in that category regardless of division)
and an unorthodox technique (a wide-open stance and a baseball
grip) that works like magic. As a junior he routinely whipped
Tanzania's older players, winning more than 100 titles,
including the 1995 Tanzanian Open at age 15. Still, no one
realized his true potential until his parents, Romeo and Sabina,
took him to the U.S. in the summer of '95 to see his older
brother Andrew, who owned an embroidery business in Orlando.

Having heard of his brother's growing prowess, Andrew entered
Savio in the Pee Wee Golf Tournament at Metro West Country Club
in Orlando. A week after arriving in the U.S., Savio finished
second in a field of 80 top Orlando-area juniors. "We were
shocked," says Andrew. "His performance convinced us that the
U.S. was the place for him to be." Soon Andrew had become Savio's
legal guardian, and the prodigy was enrolled as an 11th-grader at
Dr. Phillips High, a large Orlando public school.

The adjustment was rough for Savio, but his life improved
dramatically the following spring, when he made the school's
vaunted golf team. Suddenly he was a star athlete with the
nickname of Swavio, and as a senior in 1997 he led the Panthers
to the Class 6A state title. Following high school, Savio
excelled at Brevard Junior College in Cocoa, Fla., earning
second-team All-America honors in 1999 and qualifying for the '99
U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach.

Nazareth has continued to blossom at Guilford, where he enrolled
in the fall of 2000. Last year he broke the Quakers' record for
single-season scoring average by more than half a stroke,
averaging 72.80, and over the summer he qualified for the U.S.
Amateur Public Links. This season has been even better. He has
eight top-six finishes in nine tournaments, has lowered his
stroke average to 72.57 and has earned a second consecutive Old
Dominion Athletic Conference golfer of the year award.

After next week's NCAAs, Nazareth will spend the summer
practicing at Metro West and then return to Guilford to complete
his degree in business management. He's undecided whether to
enter the PGA Tour Q school in October or wait until 2003.
"There's a lot of talent in that tiny frame," says Tour player
Carl Paulson, who occasionally practices with Nazareth at Metro
West. "It's just a matter of how much he can pull out of there."
Nazareth knows he'll have to pull out a mountain's worth of game
to complete his remarkable journey from Tanzania to the Tour.
"You can't just waltz out on Tour and be the king," says
Nazareth. "I'm just going to take it one shot at a time and see
where it takes me." --Rick Lipsey

SELMA KIKIC

School: Williams
Class: Senior
Sport: Tennis
Hometown: Doboj, Bosnia

A refugee from a war-torn land, she found a safe haven--and a
touch of home--in the Berkshires

After every practice the Williams College women's tennis team
heads to the dining hall together. As a senior captain and the
No. 1 singles and doubles player for the defending Division III
champions, Selma Kikic felt she couldn't break from that
tradition. So she postponed a scheduled interview and caught up
with the team. As Kikic shuffled along the food line, a teammate
was surprised to see her. "You're back already?" she asked. "I
thought you were going to tell your story." It was a fair point,
for Kikic's tale is far more involved than explaining how she
imparts topspin.

She was a budding young tennis star in May 1992 when tanks of the
Serbian army rolled into her hometown of Doboj, Bosnia. Within
weeks her family, which is Muslim, was told by an acquaintance
that it had been placed on a "death list," marked for so-called
ethnic cleansing. Selma's mother, Almira, a pediatrician, and her
father, Mensur, an environmental engineer, concocted a story that
would allow them to escape. They told the Serbian authorities--and
their daughters, Selma, then 12, and Sanida, 10--that Almira
needed surgery in another city and that Mensur had to take the
girls to Almira's mother's home in a nearby town.

The ruse worked, and in June, after a circuitous bus trip through
Bosnia and Croatia, the family reached the Adriatic island of
Korcula, part of Croatia. Still unaware of the truth, Selma
figured the family was simply taking a strange summer vacation,
and in late August she asked her mother when they would return
for school. She sobbed when she finally learned they wouldn't be
going back to Doboj. "It's shocking to discover at that age that
there are people who hate people like me," Kikic says. "Your
whole innocence is suddenly taken away, and you wake up in this
grim, adult world."

The Kikices entered the U.S. as refugees, landing in Dallas in
May 1993. That's when tennis began to help open doors for Selma.
As a Doboj city planner, her father had overseen the construction
of the town's first two courts and had encouraged his daughters
to play. Once in the U.S., Selma, who had taken part in her
country's Olympic development program, came to the attention of
Craig Bell, then the tennis pro at the University Club of Dallas,
where she began training. That paved the way for Selma and Sanida
to enroll in 1994 at Hockaday, a prestigious all-girls Dallas
prep school.

Selma thrived at Hockaday and quickly climbed into the top 10 of
Texas's junior rankings. She fielded several scholarship offers
from Division I schools, but Hockaday coach Becky Mallory, a
Williams grad, enthused over her alma mater, and when Kikic
visited Williams, her mind was made up. "The mountains, the
trees, the colors, the little town--it all reminded me so much of
Bosnia," Kikic says. "It was the first time I felt at home since
I left."

Kikic is now a four-time tennis All-America (as well as a
second-team All-America in squash). She'll graduate in June with
a psychology degree. The Ephs are 11-0 this spring and ranked No.
1, with victories in 30 of their last 31 matches. If they win
their NCAA regional at Williams on May 10-11, they'll advance to
the national quarterfinals the next weekend at Sweet Briar
College in Virginia. Williams coach Julie Greenwood is counting
on Kikic to show the way. "Selma gives us competitive leadership
that's unparalleled," Greenwood says. "She has an incredible
on-court presence that inspires her teammates."

Kikic is prepared for the challenge of leading the Ephs' title
defense. After all, she has survived far more difficult tests. "I
could not be happier," Kikic says. "People believe in me so much
that I've come to believe in myself." --Pete McEntegart

DAVE BUSH

School: Wake Forest
Class: Senior
Sport: Baseball
Hometown: Devon, Pa.

College ball's top closer passed up the pros to make one more
run at a national title

He defied them all. Everyone, it seemed--his friends, his coaches,
even his father--was telling Dave Bush to take the money, because
really, what was there left for him to do at Wake Forest? He was
already an All-America, already college baseball's top closer
according to Baseball America, already a fourth-round draft pick
of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But to the dismay of those around
him, Bush decided last August to walk away from the contract
offer sitting in front of him and return to Winston-Salem for his
senior year. No regrets. No second-guessing. "No looking back, I
kept telling myself," says the 6'2", 210-pound righthander. "It
just didn't feel right."

Then, two days after Thanksgiving, Bush suddenly had reason to
second-guess. He was driving back to campus from his hometown of
Devon, Pa., when he felt a sharp pain in his back and in his left
thigh, which by the time he reached Winston-Salem had swollen to
twice its normal size. Bush tried to sleep the pain off, but it
became unbearable, and he limped to the university emergency
room. The diagnosis: a blood clot in his left hip that doctors
say would probably have burst--and most likely resulted in a fatal
aneurysm--if it hadn't been treated that night. Bush was put on
blood thinners and kept from strenuous activity for three months.
No running, no lifting. Lots of Dawson's Creek and Friends
reruns. "During that time we talked a lot about whether what he'd
done last summer was a mistake," says teammate Brad Comer.

Bush wasn't cleared to play until mid-February, and although only
in the past few weeks has he felt as good as he did in 2001, he
has put together yet another marvelous season. After finishing
second in the nation with 16 saves last year, Bush, 22, has
appeared in 33 of the Demon Deacons' 46 games and is 6-1 with 10
saves and a 1.83 ERA. Thanks to Bush, over the past two years
Wake Forest is 68-0 when ahead after seven innings. He's the most
valuable player on the most surprising team in college baseball.
Heck, Bush may be the most valuable player in the nation. The
Deacons, after all, weren't supposed to be world series
contenders: They lost five All-ACC selections and seven position
starters from last year's 44-18 team, which was bounced in the
NCAA subregionals. But through Sunday they were 38-8, ranked No.
3 in the nation by Baseball America and on the verge of a fifth
straight 40-win season.

Bush arrived in Winston-Salem as an unheralded catcher who had
pitched just 10 innings at Conestoga High in Berwyn, Pa. He
wanted a chance on the mound after it became apparent that he
wouldn't start as a catcher during his freshman year. Coach
George Greer gave him a shot. "I didn't learn how to throw a
curveball until I got to college," Bush says. "By the end of my
freshman season everything was clicking." There was, and still
is, nothing fancy about Bush's pitching repertoire. He has always
relied on a 96-mph fastball, which he controls with uncanny
precision, and a nasty slider that's been the third strike on
many of the 226 K's he has rung up in 215 2/3 career innings.

Bush may be his same dominant self this year on the mound, but
off it he has changed. "The blood clot was scary, but it reminded
him how important baseball is to him," says Wake pitching coach
Michael Holmes. "He now comes to the ballpark every day not
taking anything for granted. For us coaches, David's our most
valuable asset. The younger kids aspire to be like him. He knows
when to have fun and when to get serious."

It'll be all business from here on out for the Demon Deacons.
Wake Forest has made the NCAA tournament for four straight years
but has yet to advance to Omaha. With their big stopper now
looking better than ever, the Deacons like their chances in tight
games in June. "There's a big sense of unfinished business for
the team and certainly for me personally," says Bush. "The
opportunity to get this team to Omaha was a big part of what I
came back for." --Albert Chen

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES ATTACK ORIENTED Christmas's speed and stick skills can leave defenders helpless.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (CHRISTMAS) NEW LOOK A wider youth talent pool means more freshman standouts like Christmas.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID SANDERS/THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR POWERBALL With a 6'1" frame and a high-60s fastball, Finch strikes fear in batters.COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER SMALL WONDER The 5'3" Nazareth is long off the tee and a marvel around the green.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMONFRESH START Tennis opened the door of opportunity--and a slot at Williams--for Kikic.COLOR PHOTO: GARRETT W. ELLWOOD MAIN MAN Back in form after a near fatal blood clot, Bush has been the Deacons' MVP.