In a new land, surrounded by unfamiliarity, Tia Hay has rediscovered herself, her game and her smile.
Hay is the point guard for St. Francis High School, the driving force behind the Troubadours’ march to the CIF State Division I girls basketball title game. The 5-foot-7 senior from Melbourne, Australia, radiates a room with her good cheer.
The Troubadours play nine-time CIF titlist Brea Olinda on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Sleep Train Arena. Hay blew into town from Down Under with a gale force, a pass-first player who can control the game without dominating the ball.
Then the storm stalled. Hay played the season’s first four games, then sat out the Delta League campaign as the Sac-Joaquin Section office looked into her eligibility. It’s not every day a player arrives from another country to study and compete, and that raised red flags.
Hay was initially deemed ineligible because Australia has a different academic year than American schools. Through an appeal, St. Francis won the right to have Hay reinstated.
Though Hay was able to practice throughout the appeal process, it wasn’t the same as competing in games. She felt disconnected, lost and sad.
“It’s been a crazy season,” Hay said Wednesday. “I cried a lot. I love and live for basketball. It means everything to me. To have it taken away for that time was the hardest thing I’ve gone through.”
Hay arrived in the United States for a new life, a new challenge. She lives with her mother, Kathryn Hay, also a Melbourne native, in Sacramento. Her father is an American citizen, though she doesn’t see much of him. Hay is especially close to her mother, who was a prolific guard at College of the Siskiyous in Weed in the mid-1990s.
“I attended a public school back home in Melbourne, and I struggled,” Hay said. “My grades were really bad. I didn’t like school. I needed a kick in the butt. My mom wanted me to start over here. It’s been so good for me here. The support of my teammates was wonderful. I’m a better player now, a better student now, a better person.”
And, in time, she vows to be a better player than Mom. Hay and her mother regularly walk 30 minutes to a park to play ball. Mom powers past her in the paint.
“She beats me early, but then … ,” Hay said, pausing to laugh, “she gets tired, and that’s when I beat her. She taught me how to play. I look up to her. She critiques my game, lets me know how I’m doing.”
Hay was warmly received by her teammates when she arrived on campus. Hay averages 16.2 points, 7.2 assists and 5.5 rebounds. She will play on scholarship at Colorado State, after being a late arrival to the AAU circuit last summer.
“Tia’s made this team so much better, and she sees the floor as well as any player I’ve had or seen around here,” said St. Francis coach Vic Pitton, winner of three section titles, eight league crowns and 289 games in his 14 seasons with the program. “Incorporating her into this team was seamless. And the parents of other players got it, too. There was none of that, ‘What about my kid?’ talk. We all knew how special Tia was.”
Pitton did not launch a global search for a new player.
“I didn’t have cohorts scouting her in Australia,” Pitton said with a laugh. “She landed in our lap. I didn’t know who Tia Hay was until I saw her on campus that first day.”
Hay is a formidable foe because of her versatility. In the often chaotic world of high school playoff basketball, Hay is a calming presence. St. Francis has gone from a good team without Hay to a dominant one with her, winning 16 of 17 games.
“Our team playing well, everyone involved, it’s the greatest feeling,” Hay said. “I love getting teammates involved. I like passing the ball. It’s such a great team sport.”
Hay insists she is merely a cog in the Troubadours’ machine. Senior center Lauren Craig is averaging 17.1 points and 13.7 rebounds, senior forward Kyra Huffman contributes 13.0 and 7.2 and junior guard Janae Fairbrook 11.5 points and 4.7 assists.
Pitton beams when recalling the contrast of team emotions regarding Hay. There was disappointment and confusion when he informed them that their new teammate would have to sit during the lengthy investigation. Then the opposite happened when Pitton told the team of her reinstatement on the eve of the playoffs.
“They were extremely excited,” Pitton said. “They knew how good they were without her and to get her back in the mix, you could feel their excitement.”
And Hay’s reaction while everyone else was giddy?
“She was in tears,” the coach said. “Tears of joy.”