Former walk-on Katie Cole works on bringing energy to Notre Dame women's hoops

Anthony Anderson
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Katie Cole remembers crying when Muffet McGraw told her last April that Cole was being awarded a Notre Dame college basketball scholarship after two years as a walk-on.

“It was during player exit meetings, where she tells us what she wants us to work on,” Cole recalled, “and (then-assistant Niele Ivey) was there, and it was at the end of my meeting and she was like, ‘OK, we have have one more thing for you.’ She was like, ‘Do you want to be on scholarship next year?’

“I couldn’t believe it,” Cole recollected Tuesday. “I said, ‘Are you serious?’ and started crying. That kind of made her cry.”

Now if Cole can just make her coach remember.

McGraw has recently made multiple references to having just six healthy scholarship players with both Mikayla Vaughn and Abby Prohaska currently sidelined.

She has seven, though, when including Cole.

“I do,” a blushing McGraw admitted Tuesday of whether in certain moments she forgets Cole is on scholarship.

“It sounds better,” McGraw kidded of her declaration about the six healthy players.

Cole shrugs at any confusion and insists she doesn’t mind.

“It’s still just a blessing to be on this team in the first place,” she said.

Cole’s not just on the team. She’s also one of just three players who have been on it for as long as three years — Vaughn and walk-on Nicole Benz are the others — and she’s the only one among the three who is a senior.

“I know. That’s crazy,” Cole said. “That’s scary to think people are looking up to me, but I have to take on that role with everyone that’s left since last year, everyone that’s graduated. I’ve kind of become like the mom of the team now. People come to me with their problems, and I used to go to other people with problems.”

It’s not Cole’s only lofty transition.

A scrappy lefty guard, she’s gone from not being recruited by any Division I college out of high school to being for now one of the seven most regularly used players by one of the nation’s most storied programs.

On Wednesday, Cole and the Irish (2-2) face her hometown college as Toledo (1-1) visits Purcell Pavilion.

Cole remembers as a player at Sylvania Northview High in Ohio going against one of the current Rockets in Mariah Copeland, and says she knows a couple other Toledo players “in passing,” but adds that her ties to the school are minimal.

On the other hand, “I used to go to all their games whenever I could when I was younger,” Cole said of attending both men’s and women’s contests. “I remember going to games with friends and stuff like that. I wouldn’t say I was a big Toledo fan, and my sister (Maddie) went to Bowling Green, which is the big rival, but I did kind of follow them.”

Maddie Cole completed her Bowling Green basketball career last season.

Katie Cole’s not exactly sure when she’ll complete her Notre Dame career.

Though listed as a senior, she’d have at least one year of collegiate eligibility left after this season if she pursued it and maybe more based on how the NCAA has treated similar situations.

For Cole, who is chasing a career as a doctor, continuing with her playing days will depend at least in part on how non-basketball variables play out.

She’s in the process of applying for the global health master’s degree program at Notre Dame. If accepted, she’d be in that for a year and would “definitely” want to keep suiting up for the Irish.

If not accepted into the program, she might wind up in medical school elsewhere.

“Wherever life takes me, I’ll be happy,” the oft-smiling Cole said.

She’s likewise happy that life’s kept her within the Notre Dame program so far — which hardly seemed a given after she suffered a significant left knee injury during the summer of 2018.

It was one that ultimately required surgery that October, cost her all of last season and involved a major rehab effort that stretched into this past June.

“No,” Cole said of whether she weighed a comeback attempt even being worth the work, particularly as a walk-on. “Actually, I was scared that they wouldn’t need me anymore, but the day of the surgery, Coach came and was like, ‘We’re going to need you next year.’”

Suddenly, an individual who originally headed to college with no intention of ever playing basketball again despite a strong high school career, Cole was relieved at being wanted.

“I just love the team, love my teammates, love the feeling of being on this team,” Cole explained of yearning to stay on it. “It’s an especially close-knit (group), and I didn’t want to lose that my senior year. I wanted to make an impact in my senior year and on these girls, because I see them like my family, my sisters.”

It was as a sophomore in 2017 that Cole first participated in walk-on tryouts and made the Irish.

After being restricted to mostly a mop-up role during the regular season, she was called upon during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to play critical junctures with senior starter Kathryn Westbeld limited by injury.

She gave the Irish 12 gritty minutes in the second round as they staved off an upset attempt by Villanova on the way to eventually winning the title.

While McGraw couldn’t recall Tuesday the last time, if ever, that she’d awarded a walk-on player a scholarship, she listed plenty of reasons for why she gave this one.

“Our numbers were down and she has shown a lot of leadership and given us a little stability in terms of the locker room and on the court, and I just wanted to reward her for being with us for two years,” McGraw said. “This is her third year, and she’s done a lot of really good things. Her attitude is really the biggest thing. Her attitude, her work ethic, they’re the biggest things.”

Cole has just two points in 31 minutes so far this season while appearing in every game, but she doesn’t see point production as her role.

“Whenever I come in, I just try to bring energy,” said Cole, who did register two steals over seven minutes in last week’s loss to now-No. 23 Tennessee. “I try to pick people up, try to do little things. I’m not a big scorer, but I try to get rebounds, box out, help people on the court with where they’re supposed to be, just anything that will help my teammates out.”

Former walk-on Katie Cole is one of seven healthy scholarship players on the Notre Dame women's basketball team.

WHO: Toledo (1-1) vs. Notre Dame (2-2).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Wednesday, 7 p.m. EST

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $18.

TV/WEB: ACC Network Extra.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: The Irish, unranked among the AP Top 25 this week for the first time since March 2007 and on a two-game losing streak for the first time since November 2010, will try to avoid their first three-game skid since February and March of 2007. … Toledo is playing for the first time in 11 days. The Rockets opened with a 74-48 win at Georgia State before dropping their home opener 60-42 to Dayton. … Toledo leaders include 5-9 junior guard Tatyana Davis (10.0 ppg, 4-of-8 on 3s), 6-1 junior forward Tanaya Beacham (9.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg), 5-8 senior guard Marielle Santucci (8.5 ppg, 5.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.5 bpg) of Italy and 6-2 grad-student center Arianne Whitaker (8.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), a transfer from Chattanooga. … Former Purdue captain Tricia Cullop is in her 12th season as Rocket head coach. The 21.9 wins she’s averaged over the last 11 seasons are tops in the Mid-American Conference during that time. … ND leaders include Katyln Gilbert (17.3 ppg, 2.0 spg), Sam Brunelle (15.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Anaya Peoples (13.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Destinee Walker (12.8 ppg) and Marta Sniezek (6.0 apg). … The Irish won 72-56 last season at Toledo for their fifth straight victory in the occasional series. The Rockets are 0-3 all-time at Notre Dame and last beat the Irish in January 1990, a 70-69 home win.

QUOTING: “We actually don’t talk a lot about winning and losing. We talk about playing well and controlling the things you can control. We have to come out every game and control those things, take care of what we can do. We have to box out, we have to think on the job. We have to try to be in great shape, we have to take care of the execution, setting and using really good screens, running the offense, knowing where you’re supposed to be, all the things you can do regardless of whether your shot’s going in, and with a young team, the shot going in is a big factor for them.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on how badly the Irish need a win.