New Notre Dame 'mom' Natalie Achonwa comes to rescue again

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. – Regardless of the title, the responsibilities are the same.

Mom? Director of basketball operations for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team? Whatever.

The job’s pretty similar.

Tend to the needs of 13 student-athletes and four coaches on women’s college basketball’s biggest stage. On the eve of Notre Dame’s Final Four semifinal with South Carolina, Markisha Wright needed a nameplate over her locker. Done. What, no coaches room adjacent to the locker room? Don’t worry, a place was found.

Like she did in her four years as an impact player for the Irish, Natalie Achonwa always seems to find a way to deliver.

However, for four years, the 6-foot-3 Achonwa felt details just sorta happened.

Now, she knows better.

Achonwa’s playing career ended two games too soon last season. Late in Notre Dame’s Elite Eight win over Baylor, she went down with an ACL injury to her left knee. On April 18, 2014, just days after the Irish lost to Connecticut in the national championship game, Achonwa had surgery that put her on the shelf for what would have been her rookie year with the Indiana Fever in the WNBA.

Rehab instead was her mission.

While starting the recovery process at Notre Dame, the Irish program was hit with a devastating blow when Katie Schwab, the director of basketball operations, suffered an illness.

Like she had done several times on the court, it was Achonwa to the rescue.

“It’s been great having (Achonwa) around to help counsel some of the players; to have her on the bench; to talk to us a little bit from the players’ point of view,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday. “She’ll give us some input as to whether something is a good or bad idea.”

NCAA rules prohibit Achonwa from coaching at practice or during a game, but she’s still visible on the bench, and has a solid link with the players.

“To be able to be on the staff side of (the game) makes it a little more special,” Achonwa said. “To be able to focus on a different job, it has its own challenges.

“It’s very hard (not to play). That’s why I’m coming back (for the WNBA season). It’s hard not to be able to impact the game. It’s hard to sit on the bench.”

One amazing part of Achonwa’s personality is that she has maintained her positive approach to life – and basketball – despite having the biggest games of her senior season snatched from her.

“I still believe everything happens for a reason,” she said. “(The injury) has allowed me to grow as a person. It’s been easier to bridge that gap – of being a student and having everything done for you – to being on your own. I’m responsible for getting schedules together for 13 student-athletes.

“It’s upped the ante on being responsible. I’ve always kind of been the ‘mom.’ It’s been (she hesitated) exciting, (she hesitated) challenging, (no hesitation) but definitely worthwhile.”

“Off the court, she’s shown a level of professionalism going into the ‘work force,’” said Irish assistant Carol Owens, who was Achonwa’s position coach. “We’ve been able to reap the benefits (or her four years) on the floor. Her transition to helping us in terms of the program has been really good.”

Part of the comeback process has been helped by Achonwa’s relationship with Fever coach Stephanie White, who also is a women’s college basketball analyst with ESPN. Achonwa moved to Indianapolis in February in order to work out regularly, and has commuted to Notre Dame for games or other essential meetings.

When their paths cross on the road, like they did at tournament stops at Notre Dame and Oklahoma City, the two worked out together.

“(Rehab) has had its ups and downs the entire year,” said Achonwa, who expects to be ready for the start of the WNBA season in early June. “The first two months were the hardest, when I wasn’t able to walk. I’m pretty much full-go without contact.

“It’s slowly, slowly getting back (to her game). Step-by-step, it’s starting to feel a little bit more real. I’m starting to get that spark back.”

In the meantime, she has enjoyed watching the development of young posts Taya Reimer, Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld.

“It’s great to see the growth this year,” Achonwa said. “It’s hard to take on a role when you’re just kinda thrown into it. You have a freshman post player (Turner) who’s young and raw. She’s really taken on the challenge. It’s going to be fun to watch how she develops.”

“It’s funny to watch (Achonwa),” McGraw said. “She’s incredibly organized, which is not a surprise because of her leadership ability.”

That’s just what “mom” does.

Notre Dame Operations Specialist and former player Natalie Achonwa takes a photo during Saturday's practice session for the NCAA Final Four in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/JOHN RAOUX)