With the women's basketball team battling for an Ivy League championship for the first time in three years, Zakiya Pressley is finally beginning to taste the success that she came to know well in high school.
As a sophomore at Lakeside High School in Seattle, Pressley helped her team to capture the Washington State Basketball Championship. Her senior year she was named first-team All-state, while leading Lakeside to another state title and a national 12th-place team finish in the USA Today high school rankings. Even her cross-country team excelled, twice winning the state crown.
When Pressley committed to Princeton four years ago, she knew she may not enjoy the same success she had in high school.
Pressley could have played for larger, more athletically prestigious state schools, or could have even stayed close to home on the West coast.
For a girl with a knack for keeping things in perspective, however, Pressley came East. She knew her basketball career would end after college, but a degree from Princeton was worth far more than a higher level of collegiate basketball.
"When it came down to the decision between state schools and Princeton, they didn't have the academics," Pressley said. "Princeton gave me the chance to get an excellent education and fulfill my life dream to play college basketball.
"At the time, (basketball and academics) seemed equal, but I had the foresight to see that basketball wasn't everything, so I had to keep the doors open."
Pressley has had the opportunity to use that same skill of keeping her life in perspective even after arriving at Princeton.
With the Tigers' first-ever at-large postseason bid to the National Women's Invitational Tournament in 1996, she began to find success again. Coming off a fine second year in which she averaged 9.5 points, started 30 games, and finished in the top 10 in assists (10th), steals (8th), and field goal percentage (ninth) in the Ivy League, Pressley was poised for her junior year to further her and the team's success.
Unfortunately for Pressley, last season was not exactly what she had hoped it would be.
The team finished 7-19 and her points per game fell to 7.4. Typical for her personality, Pressley took last year in stride, using it to become a better player.
"Last year was a struggle," Pressley said. "It was a huge change from high school and it was a learning experience.
"It was easy to go to practice in high school because we were always winning. Last year, I still had to go to practice every day, even though we weren't winning. I'm glad to experience both sides."
As her teammates know, this upbeat attitude has always been one of Pressley's best assets. Perhaps no one knows this better than her friend and teammate for the past eight seasons, senior guard Sara Wetstone.
"She's up all the time," Wetstone said. "She makes us laugh and is always singing and making us have fun."
When she's on the court though, Pressley takes control of the team, whether it is as a point guard on offense or as a defensive specialist.
"Zakiya is our vocal and intensity leader," Wetstone said. "She can play 40 minutes of really intense defense and never get tired. She loves strategy and is more than just a skill player. She is the link between the players and the coaches.
"At the same time, she is the person that makes jokes at practice, and the one that stands in the tunnel before games jumping up and down, clicking her feet."
That leadership and loyalty to Princeton (11-8 overall, 5-2 Ivy League) was finally rewarded Saturday against Harvard (16-3, 6-1) in the Tigers' 56-53 victory. As the end of her basketball career nears, she and her teammates want to gain as much as possible.
"If you look at (the seniors) in games, we have killer looks on our faces because it's our last time around," Pressley said. "We're going after it."
That is exactly the determination that led the Tigers to victory, snapping Harvard's 32-game league winning streak.
"Last year was so rocky, the success we're having seems long overdue," Pressley said. "This season has been most rewarding. If you looked at the faces of the four seniors after the game. . . I don't even have a word to describe our feelings."
Pressley will attend the University of Washington for medical school next year. If she applies the determination and perspective to life as a doctor as she has as a player, Pressley will find more success.