When Howard University senior Saadia Doyle walks on the court for her pre-game warm ups, at first glance it’s hard to tell that she is one of the top women’s basketball players in the country. There is nothing overwhelming or special about her physical build that sets her apart from her teammates or other players.

But make no mistake—once the game starts, Doyle is no ordinary player.

At 5-feet, 11-inches tall, the red-shirt senior guard from Atlanta, Ga. was named the 2012-13 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Pre-Season Player of the Year. Accomplishing such an honor is an amazing feat, considering the obstacles Doyle had to overcome just to play basketball for Howard.

As a Columbia High School volleyball and basketball student-athlete, Doyle was not highly recruited, and did not have a single collegiate scholarship offer. Then along came Cathy Parson, the former Howard head women’s basketball coach. Despite her role with the basketball program, Parson saw Doyle during one of her volleyball matches. Doyle would eventually sign with Howard in November 2008.

“The reason I signed was because I liked the fact that there were people there at Howard who looked like me and who I could relate to,” said Doyle. “The University has a rich history in academics and I liked the feel. It felt homey; it wasn’t too small or too large. A place where I could grow and feel comfortable.”

The summer before her freshman year, two events occurred which would have dramatic impact on Doyle and her potential future at Howard: Doyle suffered a knee injury and Howard released Parson, replacing her with current head coach Niki Reid Geckeler.

Doyle was placed in a predicament no student-athlete wants to face, especially a freshman; coming off an injury and proving you deserve a place on a team with a new coach who didn’t recruit you.

“After looking at it, I decided that I would make the best out of the situation,” said Doyle. “I worked hard during my rehab sessions and by the spring I was able to work out with the team. I had already used the year sitting out to scout the team and get a feel for what they do and how I could fit in.”

The following season, Geckeler began to assemble her team with measured expectations. Little did Geckeler or anyone know that she had inherited a player who would kick-start Geckeler’s program at Howard.

After sitting out the 2008-2009 season with her injury, Doyle began putting up numbers from her first tip-off the following year, finishing the season second in the country with 21 double-doubles while ranking 14th nationally in rebounds. Along with her individual success, she helped her team to 16 wins. Her accomplishments earned her the 2009-10 MEAC Rookie of the Year honor.

“At first, my goal was to contribute as much as I could and maybe become a starter by conference time,” explained Doyle. “But then things began to happen quickly for me. I started the first game and then I was named Rookie of the Week once, then a second time, and then a third time and I realized that something special was happening.”

Rather than rest on her laurels with the success of her rookie season, Doyle worked hard in the following off-season and developed her all-around game.

“I adopted a self-scouting plan,” she revealed. “At the end of each year, I would go back and see how teams played me and what they were able to take away from my game.”

Her rigorous off-season workout program, dedication, hard work on her craft and consistent play has allowed Doyle to start 120 games while averaging 34.2 minutes per game. She also has 64 career double-doubles to date.

What makes her so difficult to defend is her ability to diversify her game. She has a great first step that often surprises her opponents, especially those who have a decisive height or size advantage. This is on display when Doyle takes on Top 25 programs and manages to excel, including her career-best 36 points at No. 8 Penn State in November.

“Saadia has been one of the forces that have turned this program around the past three years,” said Geckeler, who has guided the program to back-to-back tournament title games and a record-tying 24 wins last season. “Her ability to score and rebound is phenomenal. She has a great work ethic that should be an example to young players as to how hard work pays off.”

With the regular season coming to a close and the conference tournament around the corner, Doyle has a significant milestone to add to her growing resume. On Feb. 18 in Daytona Beach, Fla., Doyle made history as the all-time leading scorer both in the MEAC and at Howard, a record previously held by former HU standout Alisha “Tuff” Hill, who played for the Lady Bison from 1994 to 1998. Doyle now has 2,221 points and 1,132 rebounds and is third on the all-time list for career rebounds behind former Lady Bison Darlene Beale and Andrea Gardner.

Doyle met Hill for the first time at the athletic awards banquet following her freshman year, and said Hill is one of her biggest supporters.

“She told me that she was going to be there when I break her record,” recalled Doyle. “She said that it should be expected by me. To be honest, it put some pressure on me at that time. Not bad pressure, but good pressure. I felt that I had to meet those expectations or I would be letting her down.”

“I couldn’t think of a better player and person to break the record,” said Hill, a member of both the Howard and MEAC Hall of Fame. “She is truly deserving of this accomplishment. I am very proud of her.”

Doyle, a Health Education and Childcare major, outlined her short-term and long-term goals.

“If the opportunity comes for me to play professionally in the WNBA or overseas, I am going to take it,” she said. “But if I don’t make a roster, it is not going to be a big setback. I would like to teach secondary level high school for a while and ultimately open a health and wellness facility. My vision is that it will be a one-stop shop, with a clinic for Planned Parenthood, a gym, meditation, and yoga classes.”

As her career winds down at Howard, Doyle admits that she never envisioned these accomplishments.

“When I started this journey five years ago, I never imagined that all of this would happen for me,” she reflected. “I guess it won’t really hit me until years from now when I have gotten away from the game completely.”

Doyle said she hopes that when people recall her time as a student-athlete, they will say, “Saadia Doyle made things happen.”

Ed Hill Jr. and Ariel V Germain

Special to the AFRO