Hidden agenda

Times Staff Writer

It was four years ago, but Katie Holloway can't forget.

The college coach, on a recruitment trip to Lake Stevens High in Washington state, proclaimed the highly ranked senior as the missing piece to her women's basketball program. She invited Holloway for an official visit -- a scholarship as part of the deal.

Holloway remembers shifting in her chair at that moment, knowing she was about to reveal what she had staunchly kept concealed for so long.

She wears a prosthetic lower right leg.

Born without a fibula, a defect that wasn't discovered until she was 10 months old, Holloway underwent an amputation before she was 2.

But don't feel out of the loop, she told the coach, because most people didn't know.

The rest seems like slow motion: The recruiter's eyes growing wider with each sentence, glancing at her watch, then shaking hands and walking away. For good.

"They stopped recruiting me," she said. "I felt that was because of my leg."

Not everyone stopped.

The 6-foot-4 Holloway is now the starting center for Cal State Northridge, which four years ago was struggling to retool after winning only five games during the previous two seasons. Northridge coaches, though surprised to learn of Holloway's disability, considered her worth the risk.

"We needed a banger," remembers Carla Houser, an assistant coach for the Matadors. "A back-to-the-basket post player."

Holloway, a senior, averages 10.3 points and a team-high 7.0 rebounds for the Matadors. She was named to the Big West Conference all-freshman team, and the last two years was selected the conference's sixth woman of the year.

Her success on the court and overall maturity have enabled her to become more secure with her situation. She took her biggest strides in the last two years, joining a Paralympics women's sitting volleyball team that is scheduled to compete in Beijing in September.

"If people want to know, I'll just tell them now," she said of her disability. "I'm grown up more, so I don't really care."

That wasn't the case while growing up in Lake Stevens, a small town in the shadows of the Cascades, about 40 miles north of Seattle. Holloway started playing sports at about 4, following in the footsteps of her sister, Chelsey, who is three years older. Their parents, Jeff and Jane, did their best to camouflage Katie's prosthesis and treat the two the same as possible.

"We didn't make any allowances," Jeff Holloway said. "Other than get a new leg once a year."

When she reached middle school, Holloway took on the task of concealing her disability. Her efforts became increasingly difficult once she began playing high-level athletics in the community, however.

"It was a juggle whether to tell the coaches," Holloway said.

She began focusing solely on basketball after her sophomore year, about the same time she received her first recruiting letters. After her team won a district title as a junior, the recruiting buzz ratcheted up. Holloway also tried to market herself to college programs, though she remained reluctant to disclose her entire medical history.

"I wanted them to recruit me and see how I played," Holloway said. "It all starts with them. I put myself out there and then they come to you."

Northridge Coach Staci Schulz, then an assistant with the Matadors, remembers scouting a rangy post player with soft hands and polished inside moves, skills that are increasingly difficult to find in a high school player. Schulz took note of Holloway's awkward gait, but figured she was just experiencing a growth spurt, or was playing through a minor injury.

"There's a lot of young people out there who don't have perfect body movement," Schulz said. "We just figured she had a bum knee or something."

Desperate for size and not necessarily concerned about Holloway's speed, Schulz scheduled a home visit. About a week beforehand, the coaching staff learned of her disability. When the Holloway family divulged the news, the Northridge coaches just nodded their heads.

"We didn't second-guess anything before, why do it now?" Schulz remembers thinking.

Holloway committed to Northridge, but more important, the coaches seemed committed to her. All she asked was that she be treated like her teammates, even if it meant running a training mile in less than 7 1/2 minutes, just like the other post players.

"She wanted to be treated like a basketball player," remembers Houser, now the Matadors' associate head coach. "I said, 'OK, but if you're not going to do media, and you're not going to put that story out there to inspire other people, I'm going to treat you like everybody else.' "

When Holloway arrived at Northridge in the fall of 2004, she struggled with her conditioning, Schulz said. They also began to discover some physical limitations, such as Holloway's ability to change directions at the same pace as other players and push off both feet with equal strength and balance.

During her freshman season, the Matadors finished 18-11, only their third winning record in the previous 16 seasons. The program took a step back her sophomore year, finishing 10-20, but Holloway continued to gain attention for her play, earning the conference award for best reserve player. Still, she didn't feel comfortable being recognized as disabled.

"I was still hiding it," she said.

A breakthrough point came immediately after her sophomore season when she was invited to join the U.S. women's sitting volleyball team, a group of amputees who play indoors while sitting on the court.

The team trains at Northridge part of the year and, at Schulz's nudging, Holloway attended a practice. The team's coach was immediately impressed with Holloway's net coverage and invited her to a camp that spring in Atlanta.

"I loved it," Holloway said.

The sport not only has stoked her competitive desire but also helped her become more at ease with her disability. She had never spent time with other amputees.

"Coming on this volleyball team, they all have different stories," Holloway said. "There's probably only me and another girl that were congenital [amputees], the rest were accidents or cancer, and I couldn't imagine having an arm or leg and then losing it."

Jeff Holloway said he realized his daughter's insecurity was evaporating after he boarded a flight to Atlanta with the volleyball team, and the team members, including Katie, began storing their prosthetics in the overhead bins.

"I wish I could have taken my leg off," he said.

Northridge coaches have also noticed a difference, and not only in Holloway's openness about her disability. Houser said the sitting volleyball team has drastically helped Holloway's conditioning.

"She's constantly active, she's getting up and down the floor better, she's a lot stronger and she's not asking for blows," Houser said. "She wants to be out there, she wants the ball."

The Matadors, who graduated seven seniors from last season's team, are still looking for their first victory. After losing to Montana, 87-52, in a nonconference game Dec. 15, Northridge (0-9) began a four-game homestand Wednesday with a 69-65 loss to Cal State Bakersfield.

Holloway is carrying 20 units this fall in the hopes of graduating with a sociology degree in May. She plans to spend most of this summer with the sitting volleyball team. After the Paralympics, she said she'll decide the next path in her life.

Wherever it takes her, she won't feel as if she has something to hide.

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dan.arritt@latimes.com

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