It has been said that a superstar is created when the best athlete on a team is also the most competitive player and the hardest worker.
Meet 2009 Dapper Dan Award winner Shavonte Zellous, who went from being a little-known player coming out of high school to one of the best women's players in the country, someone who is likely to be a top pick in next month's WNBA draft.
Zellous isn't special only because of her ability to play basketball, she's special because she's a success story.
A 5-foot-10 senior guard from Orlando, Fla., Zellous came to Pitt a little more than five years ago with few basketball skills and some academic issues.
She will leave as one of the best female players to wear the Panthers uniform and, more importantly, as a graduate who also has accumulated some post-graduate credits.
"I can honestly say this, she is the No. 1 success story in all my years of coaching," said Pitt coach Agnus Berenato. a 30-year coaching veteran. "I've had a lot of players over the years do a lot of good things, but she is without doubt the best success story in my life and has to be one of the top in the country. Where she came from to what she has made herself is something special.
"She is the heart and soul of our team. We are as Shavonte is. When she is up and smiling, so is the rest of the team. When she is having a bad day, so is the rest of the team. She has charisma and it is contagious with everyone she meets."
Carol Sprague, the senior women's administrator at Pitt, admitted she had some doubts about Zellous, athletically and academically, when she first came to Pitt. But Sprague quickly realized the Panthers had a gem because of Zellous' work ethic on the court and in the classroom.
She said Zellous' maturation process the past five years (she redshirted her first season so she could get acclimated to college life) has been a pleasure to watch. And while she doesn't know where Zellous, who is the team's third all-time leading scorer, fits in terms of best players in school history, she's sure Zellous is near the top.
"She was so raw when she came to us and she was sort of overwhelmed, with the academic load, being so far from home and everything else, I'll be honest, I just didn't know because over the years I've seen kids in her situation not make the most of the opportunity," Sprague said. "But we basically gave her a garden to grow in and it was a perfect situation, and I think she's had some coaches who are great teachers, but she was willing to work hard and listen and learn."
Berenato, Sprague and Zellous' teammates tell plenty of stories about her work ethic and the fact that she spends most of her free time in the gym working on her game or studying. She has earned her bachelor's degree in administration of justice and hopes to pursue a career in law enforcement once her WNBA career has ended.
There are a lot of ways to quantify the impact Zellous has had on Pitt's program but the numbers that really matter to her are these -- in her four seasons as a starter, the Panthers are 95-38 and have been to the postseason four times (three NCAA bids -- the only ones in school history -- and one WNIT).
She has led the team to consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and today in Oklahoma City she will try to lead the Panthers (25-7) to the Elite Eight for the first time as they take on No. 1-seed Oklahoma (30-4) in the NCAA tournament.
"I think back to when I came and where we were as a program [she was recruited during a 6-20 season, the Panthers eighth losing season in a nine years] and what they were selling was a dream," Zellous said. "And coach B really believed in me because I wasn't really being recruited by many others. I never wanted to let her down or my team down -- so I believe getting to the Elite Eight would really be special for this team and it would be sort of a way to give back."
Zellous, who is averaging 22.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and has scored a school-record 729 points this season, is not just the team's best player ... she is Pitt's emotional leader.
Her emotions, as Berenato said, rub off on her teammates.
"When she is out there on the court, the competition brings that [competitive fire] out of her," said senior Xenia Stewart, who is sometimes responsible for calming Zellous down when her emotions are getting the best of her because of frustration.
"We all get pumped up when Shavonte starts jumping around and getting excited out there -- there are some times when we also have to bring her back to earth a little bit, but definitely we feed off of the energy she brings to the court each day."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720. First Published March 29, 2009 4:00 AM