Love & Basketball

February 17, 2016
I AM UAA: Sarah Afoa, center, played for the women's basketball team in the early 1980s. Now, daughter Sierra (left) plays and Shaina (right) coaches for the #1 ranked team in the nation (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

I AM UAA: Sarah Afoa, center, played for the women’s basketball team in the early 1980s. Now, daughter Sierra (left) plays and Shaina (right) coaches for the #1 ranked team in the nation (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Education grad Sarah Afoa, B.Ed. ’84, M.Ed. ’92, has observed a few things about twin psychology. The younger of the set is very responsible, financially astute and, importantly, an overachieving hard worker. That’s a definite benefit to the UAA women’s basketball team, with two hardworking younger twins on the roster. Better still, they’re sisters. And they’re both Sarah’s daughters.

Wait, what?

The big story from the team’s big season, aside from dominant scoreboard reports, has been assistant coach Shaina Afoa and sophomore forward Sierra Afoa, They’re sisters and twins, yet not each other’s twin, and they’ve been profiled by KTVA and Alaska Dispatch News. But the UAA connection extends one more generation; mom Sarah also played for the Seawolves during her own college days.

Raising two sets of twins is incredibly unique, but ‘incredible’ and ‘unique’ are apt words for the whole family: Sarah, husband Stan, older twins Shaina and Savannah, and younger twins Sierra and Stanson (in the Afoa family, everyone comes with a teammate). All four kids played college sports, and all six family members attended (and Stan later coached) at Dimond High School, where the gym—with banners from all their championship seasons—is essentially a giant family trophy case.

What does it take to raise a family of college athletes? And what’s it like to see your daughter reach a national No. 1 ranking on her (and your) hometown basketball team? The cameras have been on Shaina and Sierra all season, but self-proclaimed “proud momma” Sarah has a lot to add to the story.

Lynx & Seawolves

And that story starts at Dimond. In high school, Sarah was a three-sport powerhouse in track, basketball and volleyball. She collected 28 regional and state medals in her four years, and was later inducted into the Alaska High School Hall of Fame. When she graduated in 1979, UAA’s women’s basketball team was still a novelty, having played their first season only in 1977. So Sarah opted to head south for a spell and play basketball and volleyball at North Idaho College. After two years in Coeur d’Alene, she returned to Anchorage and joined UAA.

Sarah graduated in 1984 with a degree in elementary education. She later returned to UAA for a master’s of education, starting the program while pregnant with the first set of twins, graduating seven years later while pregnant with the second set. She’s a 2015 BP Teacher of Excellence and, as of this month, has been teaching in Anchorage for 32 years. “UAA gave me a great education,” she said.

Over half her career has been at Gladys Wood, the local elementary in her Sand Lake neighborhood. She started teaching there when younger twins Sierra and Stanson entered kindergarten and she’s been there ever since. “I’m really glad I [switched] because it’s always so cool to watch your kids grow up,” she said.

She also got to watch them develop into superstar athletes from an early age. Sarah enjoys kindergarten because “you get a lot of blank slates.” Kids at that age are learning far more than just the primary colors—“You get that chance to help build their character as far as social settings, and that’s huge,” she added.

“The staff at Gladys Wood really gives their time to kids in sports and academic programs, both before and after school,” she noted. “We teach the whole child and try to make sure they’re given all the benefits they might not get elsewhere,” Sarah added. “It’s just been a really great place to stay.”

But there were other benefits to teaching in the neighborhood. For one, winter break meant 3-on-3 family tournaments in the Gladys Wood gym. And throughout the year, it wasn’t difficult to tow the kids along on weekends. “On Saturdays when I was in my classroom working on lesson plans, you could find Shaina and, 7 years later, Sierra in the gym, solo, working on their game,” Sarah recalled. “They would take the boom box from my classroom and the key to the gym lights and shoot and rebound for hours.”

Then & now

A lot has changed since Sarah suited up for the Seawolves. For one, the venue is significantly different. “I grew up in the Wells Fargo [Sports Center]. Big difference,” she said. “I had to laugh because I looked at some of the attendance records when I played—175, 190. Our big crowd was in the first round of the Northern Lights Invitational at the end of February [the precursor to the GCI Great Alaska Shootout]. We had 600 people and that was a huge crowd.”

Shaina, a forward at Central Washington, also played in the Wells Fargo whenever her team played UAA in Anchorage. “We still considered that a big gym,” Sarah laughed.

Shaina gave her mom a one-on-one tour of the Alaska Airlines Center when the arena opened last year. “I think my mouth just stayed open and I turned in circles,” she said of her first impressions. There’ve been a lot of positive changes since her own college days; Sarah is quick to praise the team’s trainers, gush over the training equipment and, as an educator, she can’t help but celebrate the addition of mandatory study halls.

Stan and Sarah attend every home game in the new facility. They sit with other Dimond High parents (four of this season’s Seawolves were former Lynx teammates) and, from their vantage point across from the bench, the Afoas can watch both their daughters in their element.

“I’m pretty excited for her,” Sarah said of Sierra. At 5’10” on a good day, she’s often outmatched in height, but not tenacity. “No one thought someone her size was going to play college post,” Sarah added. “She is tough. She is strong. She just stands out. She’s always hustling and I think the more people get to watch her, she’s kind of a crowd favorite.”

She equally admires Shaina’s powerful work ethic. “This is like her dream job,” Sarah noted. “She loves coaching with Ryan McCarthy. Seriously, she would stay the whole day over at the [arena] if she could …. This is her, this just makes her complete.”

Of course, she also has glowing things to say for her children who aren’t UAA-affiliated (Savannah, also a college basketball player, is now an engineer in Anchorage, Stanson attends Emerson College in Boston).

But really, Sarah is a positivity machine; she has kind words for everyone in her life—her co-teachers, her friends, her friends’ kids, her daughter’s teammates (who have become proxy children in the family; Kiki Robertson even calls her Aunty).

“Three things I love talking about are teaching, basketball and my children,” Sarah smiled. Now, thanks to her daughters’ involvement, the UAA women’s basketball team combines all three.

 

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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