Erin Buescher was getting that horrible feeling all over again--as if she were on an island, surrounded by an ocean of emptiness.
She'd go to parties at UC Santa Barbara, stand around, go home. There was no connection with anybody.
She'd pray. That filled the void for a while.
Then she'd forget to pray, harried by the demands of being an All-American basketball player, a three-time Big West Conference player of the year and leader of UCSB's most successful sports team.
She was recognized on campus and stopped for autographs when she walked among the trendy shops and restaurants on State Street.
Her identity was enviable: Erin Buescher, hoops star.
Yet she longed for another: Erin Buescher, servant of the Lord.
Buescher sat at her parents' kitchen table in Santa Rosa last summer and opened up to her mother.
"Mom, I don't think I can do this thing anymore," she said. "I don't want to go back for my senior year."
Margie Buescher offered a solution.
"The Lord gave you the ability to play basketball," she said. "Maybe you can use it and go to a place where you can grow with him. You can use basketball for his glory."
Buescher nodded. It wasn't the first time her mother had suggested transferring. But this time it made sense.
"I always told her, 'No way. I'm not going to quit. I'll be here to the end,' " she said. "Well, the Lord changed my heart."
The destination was clear: The Master's College, a tiny Christian school in Newhall she had visited after her junior year in high school. The basketball is NAIA, but the focus on Christianity is big time.
"If you want to grow in your relationship with the Lord, Master's is the ideal place," she said. "People are serious about God and about pursuing holiness."
All well and good, but she had to tell her coach and teammates. She knew they'd be shocked.
Buescher had been the Gauchos' star since early in her freshman season, when she came off the bench to score 25 points and take 13 rebounds against Colorado. A rangy, athletic 6-foot-3 guard, Buescher can bring the ball upcourt, slash the lane and trade elbows in the low post equally well.
As a junior, she averaged 17.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and two steals. She ranked second on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,697 points.
It wasn't easy going into Coach Mark French's office and saying, "I'm transferring." Not for Buescher, not for the coach.
French is free-spirited and liked by his players. He was a UCSB student in the turbulent 1960s and built the team to prominence using a holistic approach. The intellectual and spiritual development of his players are as important to him as winning.
Buescher's decision floored him. They talked for nearly three hours about how she was uncomfortable with celebrity status, how she had little in common with the Isla Vista crowd and how she felt her relationship with God had "gotten lazy."
Not once did he try to persuade her to stay.
"He is an amazing coach who really cares about the players off the court," Buescher said. "When I left his office, I had tears in my eyes. I said to myself, 'Lord, are you sure you want me to go?' "
Buescher believes God speaks to her often. The longer she's at Master's, the more resounding the voice.
"It's not like all of a sudden the lights go down and I hear a voice," she said. "But I think that by reading his word every single day, he speaks through the Bible and through the wisdom of those who are older and have been through different things.
"I'm growing and learning what it means to completely give your life to the Lord. It's a sacrifice. I'm creating habits that I'll take with me when I become a mom and a wife--if that's what the Lord wants."
For now, God apparently wants Buescher to play basketball.
Master's, already a flourishing program under Coach Ken Sugarman, is a power with Buescher, bringing a 26-2 record and a 24-game winning streak into Wednesday's first round of the 32-team NAIA tournament. A foot injury caused Buescher to miss four games late in the season, but her numbers mirror those at UCSB: 17.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and two steals.
The daily routine at 1,030-student Master's delights Buescher. Classes begin with prayer as routinely as games are prefaced by the national anthem.
Students attend chapel several times a week and promise not to smoke, drink or use drugs.
On the court, the focus remains on the almighty. Master's baseball Coach Monty Brooks addressed the women's basketball team Saturday and said games provide an opportunity to share the gifts God has bestowed upon them.
"The Lord gave you that ability, so glorify him by using it," Brooks said.
That makes perfect sense to Buescher.
"It's just human nature to try to look good," she said. "But we try to make the Lord look good through our actions."
Rather than feeling alone in operating on a higher plane, Buescher is now surrounded on her island with teammates who are soulmates.
"This is such an incredible group of girls," she said. "They all love the Lord and they play and have fun."
Center Lesley DuBois was Buescher's high school teammate at Rincon Valley Christian in Santa Rosa, and they won a state championship in 1997. Both transferred from public schools midway through high school and found the small, Christian environment to their liking.
Yet both opted for large colleges to fulfill their athletic potential. DuBois attended Arizona on a volleyball scholarship, then transferred to Master's after a year. Buescher wasn't far behind.
"Erin called me [last summer] and said she wanted to come to Master's," DuBois said. "I wasn't sure until I got here, whereas she was sure from that first phone call. She just wanted to get out."
UCSB took Buescher's game to another level. She is a WNBA prospect and wants to pursue her career.
Master's has taken her spiritual life to another level. Even if she becomes a pro player, her allegiance will be to God. Buescher plans to follow the lead of Mike Penberthy, a Laker guard and Master's graduate, and others who have balanced big-time basketball with a commitment to religion.
She said, "I am offering my life to the Lord, whatever that means, through whatever I'm doing and wherever I'm going."