SOUTH BEND — Being the second youngest of nine siblings, it probably wasn’t the first time Marta Sniezek got shoved out a crowded situation, but it is how she wound up at Notre Dame.
Stanford’s cast-aside is now ND’s most seasoned women’s college basketball player.
She is also one who sounds determined to give the Irish all she has in this transitional season for both her and the program, not that she could’ve pictured it a year ago.
On the virtual eve of what would’ve been her senior season at perennial power Stanford, Sniezek suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in her right thumb last October, requiring surgery and effectively ending her Cardinal career with a year of college eligibility to go.
The native of McLean, Va., had played in every one of Stanford’s 108 games over the previous three years and was a full-time starter her junior season.
“It’s interesting, because obviously I didn’t anticipate getting injured last year,” Sniezek said this week of how she landed here, “and Stanford recruits very well and recruits a lot of people, so there were 15 on the roster now (the maximum number of scholarship players) and no scholarship spots available.”
Sniezek says she was given the option of returning to the Cardinal — expected to be a top-five team this season — without a scholarship, but she wanted to explore other avenues.
“I visited (Notre Dame) and just fell in love with the place, so I’m glad I’m here,” a broadly smiling and 100 percent healthy Sniezek said. “Notre Dame’s a great school, the coaches are amazing, and obviously they have a winning history.”
They also had some glaring needs with all five starters from last season’s national runner-up club parting as top-19 picks in the WNBA draft, and glaring space given that the Irish don’t recruit nearly as close to the edge as Stanford. Even with Sniezek and fellow graduate transfer guard Destinee Walker, Notre Dame is still at just nine scholarship players this season.
“That’s so funny — I never thought about it that way,” Sniezek said while laughing over the fact that the number of offspring in her family matches ND’s scholarship player count.
Growing up in that family, Sniezek says, taught her plenty that she brings to basketball.
“You learn things like those you learn on a team — togetherness, hard work, dedication and, of course, sacrifice,” Sniezek said. “All those things I think have made me the player I am today.”
Sarah, the oldest of David and Edwina Sniezek’s nine children, is 35. She was followed in birth order by six consecutive boys, and then Marta and Katerina, who is 21.
A handful of Marta’s siblings preceded her as college athletes, including Sarah as a basketball player at Bryn Mawr, John Paul as a football player at Navy, Michael as a basketball player at Mary Washington and Matthew as a football player at William & Mary.
“It’s amazing,” Marta said of what it’s like being part of a large family. “We’re all about a year to a year and a half apart, so we’re all best friends.”
Those best friends have experienced shared hardship along the way. Their mom was diagnosed with myeloid leukemia in 2008. In 2011, she underwent a bone-marrow transplant.
Edwina, 60, still undergoes regular chemotherapy, but “she’s good, she’s doing well,” Marta said this week.
Marta Sniezek is doing well, too, in adjusting to a new team.
In August, coach Muffet McGraw praised Sniezek as already a leading voice among the Irish. Anaya Peoples, rated among the nation’s premier incoming freshman point guards, might ultimately be battling with Sniezek for minutes, but is grateful for Sniezek’s presence in practice.
“I watch Marta every time I’m on the sideline, see what she’s doing, how she’s talking to teammates, and I try to mimic what she does,” Peoples said. “She’s so fun to play with. I like playing on her wing. She’s a great point guard, getting everybody involved, so I’m just trying to take as much from her as I can in this year together. She’s a great teammate and leader.”
Sniezek has logged 2,575 minutes of NCAA Division I basketball in her career. Walker’s a distant second at 1,917, while the rest of ND’s roster owns a combined 1,453.
“Given the youth, I think the biggest thing I can bring is experience,” Sniezek said. “Being a point guard, you’re kind of in that role of leadership anyway, and then also my experience going to a Final Four, going to an Elite Eight, playing against Notre Dame in the past, knowing Coach Muffet, all these things play into it, so I’m just trying to lead by example and hold people accountable.”
Sniezek hasn’t merely played against the Irish, but beaten them, and excelled on those occasions.
As a freshman in 2016, she scored a season-high 11 points and dealt four assists in 24 minutes off the bench as No. 13 Stanford stunned No. 2 Notre Dame, 90-84, in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game.
The next year, she was at it again, with 24 minutes off the bench again, in Lexington, Ky., again, distributing eight assists against no turnovers — matching her best differential of the season — as the No. 6 Cardinal rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit to take down the No. 2 Irish (playing without injured Brianna Turner), 76-75, in the Elite Eight round. Sniezek has flashed other instances, too, of being at her best in the biggest games.
“I think whenever you’re playing in a tough game, it always gives you a little extra umph, a little more adrenaline,” Sniezek explained. “I think great players do well in big games, so I just try to emulate that and just try to stay composed.”
Sniezek’s overall numbers won’t necessarily spin heads, but she has been consistent while playing for a top program with top weapons against top competition.
Over her final two years at Stanford, she averaged 5.0 points, 4.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 26.3 minutes per game with 41 starts. She shot just 38 percent on 2-pointers to go with 33 percent on 3s and 70 percent at the line, but she also fashioned a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“I’ll expect a lot,” McGraw said of Sniezek, speaking more to background than points. “Marta’s played in the Final Four, has that kind of big-game experience.”
Sniezek says she’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m still getting to know Coach McGraw,” Sniezek said, “but I think what I know from her, she pushes us so hard, and I love that. You need someone that loves you and trusts you, but also pushes you further than you think you can go, so I really appreciate that.”
Walk-on, the wild side
There are twists galore — as well as twins galore — connected to Notre Dame’s walk-on group this season.
First off, there are four walk-ons, the most the Irish have ever carried in McGraw’s 33 years, according to the coach.
Second, one of those walk-ons is freshman Katie Keyes, the daughter of one of McGraw’s ex-players, the former Karen Robinson.
“Yeah, that’s a first,” McGraw said with a chuckle of coaching the daughter of a former player. “That makes me feel so old.”
Adding to the twist, it’s Karen and husband Kevin Keyes, a former ND tennis player, who became the first individuals ever to endow a coaching position at Notre Dame when they made a $5 million gift to their alma mater in February 2015, aimed at the women’s basketball head coaching post.
It was the largest gift of its kind in NCAA history at the time.
Karen Robinson was one of McGraw’s first standout players with the Irish, leading the team in scoring three straight years and finishing with 1,590 career points to rank No. 1 on the ND chart upon concluding her career in 1991.
Katie, a former high school all-league pick from Ridgewood, N.J., is the twin of Irish cross country freshman runner Cassie Keyes.
Two of Notre Dame’s other women’s basketball walk-ons are also twins, sophomores Cate and Maggie Murdock.
The Murdocks hail from the same high school, New Trier in Winnetka, Ill., that featured the class two behind theirs being recognized in 2018 by the Guinness World Records organization for having the most sets of twins, 44.
If both Murdocks, who were Illinois all-state honorable mention picks as seniors, wind up getting into games at Notre Dame, they’ll be the first set of twins to do so under McGraw.
The fourth walk-on is junior Nicole Benz, freed this year to focus on being a player only after doubling the last two seasons as a student manager.
Walk-on tryouts were held in September with roughly 10 students participating, according to McGraw.