Lisa Zderadicka took a longer route than most student-athletes to the FGCU women’s basketball program, both figuratively and literally.
By the time she signed with the Eagles before this season, Zderadicka was a graduate transfer from Houston Baptist who brought along two remaining years of NCAA athletics eligibility that could begin immediately, along with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. As the Eagles head into the first round of the NCAA Tournament (watch at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2) she’s playing her final two seasons at FGCU while earning a master’s in educational leadership.
Meanwhile, the worldly route that brought Zderadicka from Texas to Southwest Florida originally began in her hometown of Vienna, Austria, where she was one of her native country’s top young talents in women’s basketball. It was representing Austria in one of the four European Championship tournaments in which she participated – for teams ranging from 16-and-under through 20-and-under – that FGCU would first become a potential destination on Zderadicka’s personal roadmap for success.
It was through a bond formed between the Austrian and Greek teams at those tournaments that Zderadicka befriended Anthi Chatzigiakoumi, who played for the 2012 Greek National Team that won the under-20 European Championship in the Czech Republic. Chatzigiakoumi also played at FGCU from 2011-15, and it was from her that Zderadicka learned about the beautiful university in Southwest Florida.
“She talked about how nice it was, and how much she liked it there,” said Zderadicka, who, even though she has a last name herself that isn’t easy to pronounce, has a tough time identifying her Greek friend by anything but “Anthi.” But while the young women might have stumbled over each other’s last names, there was no mistake about the inspiration Chatzigiakoumi got at FGCU – inspiration that spread to Zderadicka when she decided to move on from Houston Baptist.
Zderadicka said there were advantages to playing in the bigger Southland Conference in which Houston Baptist competes, most notably the top-to-bottom evenness in the 13-team league.
“The biggest difference is the balance – it seemed like any team could beat anyone else in the league,” Zderadicka said in comparing the Southland with the Atlantic Sun Conference, of which FGCU is a member. “It was much more competitive. In this conference, there are only three teams that are really good.”
But while Zderadicka only got a quick sniff of what a conference title would be like with Houston Baptist, which lost in the Southland championship game her freshman year, she got a full taste of a title in her first season at FGCU, helping the Eagles to their fifth ASUN crown in just seven years of eligibility and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Zderadicka saved her best game as an Eagle thus far, at least statistically, for when it mattered most – in the 68-58 ASUN championship-game victory over Jacksonville on March 11. The redshirt guard scored her season high of 17 points and added three steals and two assists, alternating with teammates China Dow and Rosemarie Julien in the role of carrying much of FGCU’s offense during large chunks of the game. Zderadicka’s inspired play earned her a spot on the ASUN All-Tournament Team, along with Dow and Julien.
Yet another difference between playing at FGCU and Houston Baptist? It’s one that we’ve heard before from several players. “At Houston Baptist, the only people who usually came to the games were parents and a few of our friends from school. They don’t have a great fan base like we have here. I couldn’t believe how many fans were at our first game this season. It was really nice to see. And when the crowd gets behind us, we definitely play better.”
And yet a final distinction Zderadicka has seen at FGCU is the coaching. It starts at the top with head coach Karl Smesko, but the same message resonates through his staff of assistants — all former Eagle players.
“He’s such a great coach, players still want to work with him after their playing careers are over,” Zderadicka said. “And that experience here really helps those of us now on the team, because they know what it’s like to be a player. Also, they’re all relatively young, and they treat us almost like friends instead of bosses.”
That tradition was created by the program’s founding coach, Smesko, who was just named ASUN Coach of the Year for the eighth time. “He has high expectations for you, and that’s good,” Zderadicka said. “Even when you play well you’re never perfect, and he always tries to improve something with your game. He focuses on us as individual players, and how we each can improve in our own way. That’s why he’s so successful.”
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 a series of profiles of some of those who put their hearts and souls into making Eagles basketball the force it has become.