When it comes to a discussion of the most valuable player on this season’s FGCU women’s basketball team, senior guard Taylor Gradinjan is definitely in the mix.
But when there’s talk about the Eagles’ most valuable student, there’s no debate. A three-time member of the Atlantic Sun Conference All-Academic Team and recipient of the College Sports Information Directors Association Academic All-District 4 recognition in 2016-17, Gradinjan unquestionably rises to the head of her team’s class when it comes to scholastic achievement.
That’s why when anterior cruciate ligament injuries in both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons kept her out of game action, Gradinjan did what any excellent student would do and took full advantage of the extra NCAA eligibility — by hitting the books even harder. As a result, she’ll graduate from FGCU in May not only with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science but with a master’s in health science.
Indeed, Gradinjan’s 2017-18 basketball numbers — she averaged 10.2 points and 3.4 rebounds a game, along with a conference-leading 88 three-pointers as the top rainmaker in the “Raining Threes” franchise — are impressive. But even more admirable are the 3.78 grade-point average she earned as an undergraduate and the 4.00 cumulative GPA she has registered in graduate courses — incredible academic numbers when you realize the time that athletic responsibilities command from NCAA student-athletes.
So how does this most valuable student-athlete on FGCU’s “All-Time Time Management Team” nail her schoolwork with the same consistency as one of her rainbow shots from beyond the 3-point arc?
“Honestly, it’s all about knowing yourself — when it’s OK to procrastinate, when it’s time to get the work done,” Gradinjan said. “I use the calendar on my phone to write everything down and make sure to set all my goals and due dates. I try to do everything as soon as possible, even a day or two in advance, when I can. Then, at the end of every day, I review everything I have to do. It’s a day-by-day process of keeping track of what’s coming down the road.”
Ironically, Gradinjan found her career calling while rehabbing her ACL on the anti-gravity treadmill with Dennis Hunt, assistant professor and founding director of the exercise science program at FGCU. “He was a big part of why I went into exercise science,” she said. “He inspired me to become someone who helps people get past injuries and stay healthy.”
Gradinjan plans to remain in Southwest Florida after graduation and work in health care, “either administratively or actively doing hands-on work with patients.” She’s also considering pursuing a degree as a physician’s assistant in a year or so.
But for now, as the Eagles head into the NCAA Tournament, Gradinjan is savoring the final days of an Eagle career that “couldn’t have been any better.”
She’ll remember her first impressions of FGCU and Southwest Florida, far removed from her hometown of Cudahy, Wis. “Everything is so new, so modern … very different from the North. The roads are prettier, the buildings more elegant … I was so shocked at how nice it was.”
She’ll remember the fans who warmly embrace FGCU women’s basketball, especially the older residents who have been “so sweet, like grandparents to me. They want to know how things are going in my life, and not just with basketball.” She says there are too many to name, but gives special mention to two couples who are among FGCU Athletics’ most ardent boosters: Janie and Dean Schreiner and Donna and Jim Sublett.
She’ll remember how Coach Karl Smesko assembled a staff of assistants who are all his former players — young women who know his style, nurture the team culture and help players learn the program’s intricacies. “What we do on the floor is so complicated and specific with such attention to detail, it’s great to have coaches who know the system so well. We do everything a certain way.”
And she’ll certainly remember Smesko, the coach and mentor who brought her to Southwest Florida. “I really like the way he coaches; his style is different than anyone else’s that I know,” Gradinjan said. “He created something that I really wanted to be part of.”
What makes FGCU basketball so great?
Sure, it’s the players, but it’s more than that. It’s the coaches and the cheerleaders. It’s Azul and his hip moves. It’s the pep band and the Dancing E’Gals and, of course, the shouting, stamping, screaming, leaping Dirty Birds who ramp up the energy in the Nest. This is part of a series of profiles of some of those who put their hearts and souls into making Eagles basketball the force it has become.