- Mindi Rice
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Not many teenagers can say they have -- or even want -- a key to their high school.
But Sara James isn't like most teenagers.
The 5-foot-10 guard has been known to let herself into school early or stay late, happily spending extra time in the Oak Ridge High School (El Dorado Hills, Calif.) gym improving her game, or she's off at a fitness center working on her strength and conditioning.
"I don't have a hoop in my driveway," said James. "People don't believe that. I have a key to my high school, so they've got one, and it is three minutes away."
James' extra hours working out have already paid off. In June, she verbally accepted coach Tara VanDerveer's offer to Stanford. She is also just coming off an eye-catching summer with a solid JBS Purple squad.
This week, she went from previously unranked status to No. 18 overall in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred for 2010.
"I haven't seen a kid work as hard as this kid," said Sean Chambers, James' club coach with JBS Purple. "Almost to a fault. I don't think she takes a lot of breaks. To see her maturity and advancement from her freshman year to now, I haven't seen a kid progress this fast, ever."
It almost didn't happen. Four years ago, James saw a Cardinal red soccer uniform in her future instead.
"My parents only let me play one competitive sport at a time," James said. "So I was playing soccer for a while. I'd just started playing travel basketball a couple years ago."
Her success didn't happen overnight, although at times James' story takes on that familiar angle. She served up notice as a freshman, averaging nearly 12 points and five rebounds per game.
And even though the James family had no hoop in the driveway of its home in El Dorado Hills, 20 miles east of Sacramento and three hours from Palo Alto, that didn't stop basketball from being a family sport. Each of her two older brothers plays on the practice squad for a Division I women's basketball program, one at UCLA and the other at UC Davis. James frequently hit the local courts with one or both of her brothers, keeping up with the older, stronger local guys and giving her that aggressive edge.
She spent mornings at the Oak Ridge gym working on her shot, sometimes dragging her father along to rebound for her. She kept up her endurance training that was beneficial on the soccer field. And she learned and absorbed as much as she could.
At Chambers' JBS program as a rising sophomore, she teamed up with Brittany Shine, a top Sacramento prospect. Together, the two pushed each other and James found some motivation to work diligently on every aspect of her game.
"It's all because she works so hard at it," Chambers said. "She was always a hard worker when she was a young kid, but now her skill level's caught up to her work ethic and it just makes her an absolutely deadly combination.
"I think her basketball I.Q. is still growing. When her basketball I.Q. level gets to where her skill level is right now and her work ethic is, the sky's the limit."
Back at home, James aims to make the most of her senior year and the final months before she heads to Palo Alto. She already knows she wants to be a college coach, so she'll continue coaching and refereeing youth basketball. She'll also continue being one of her small town's best-known residents, often signing postgame autographs for young budding stars like herself. And James will also take advantage of the time to be like most teenagers, except when she uses that key.
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Mindi Rice is a National High School / ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.