Two seniors, two different paths and one common challenge

By Patrick Engel
Medill Reports

The floral bouquets were delivered, the tribute videos were finished and the 2-foot by 3-foot action pictures were framed. It was 12:45 p.m., which on March 3, 2018 at Gentile Arena, meant the time had come for a sendoff.

Loyola’s seniors lined up with their families, paraded out to center court, embraced their coach, received bouquets and smiled for the cameras.

“You think about the end even from the beginning of this season,” said senior forward Katie Salmon. “You know going into it, it’s the last first.”

Salmon was the last player called on Loyola’s Senior Day, with guard Jessica Cerda preceding her. They held their pictures and posed for photos at center court with Loyola’s third senior, guard Lee Williams.

Salmon and Cerda, two guiding presences on a team with five freshmen and two sophomores, have combined for 46 starts this season. Saturday was their last one at home. Before an 0-2 weekend against two of the Missouri Valley’s top three teams, they had helped Loyola go 4-4 in the previous eight games. Their careers will end this weekend at the MVC tournament in Moline.

The real story, though, is a confluence of two different needs for change that led to refreshed careers.

“Jessica wanted something different, and Katie didn’t want to go out and have her whole basketball career wasted, in her opinion,” said Loyola coach Kate Achter.

The paths and circumstances were distinctive. They united, though, at the same challenge: Change your story.

The list of college basketball players who have won as many games in their senior year as they did in their previous three seasons combined surely isn’t long, but Cerda is on it. In three seasons at Chicago State, she won seven games and lumbered through an 0-29 campaign in 2016-17. Loyola, even in a 7-22 season, has matched her Chicago State win total.

“You had to be mentally strong to come into practice and say, ‘We’ve lost 28 games, but we have that last one to play,’” Cerda said. “It was a struggle because every day, you’re like, ‘Is this even worth it?’ You put in the work and don’t find the reward at the end. It’s hard to keep going.”

An opportunity came to keep going – elsewhere. Her sister, Natalie, a Loyola athletic trainer, told Achter last year that Jessica was graduating in spring 2017 with an extra season of eligibility, obtained because she redshirted in 2014-15 due to a knee injury.

Turns out, Jessica had already introduced herself to Achter by scoring 22 points and hitting four 3-pointers in a December 2016 Loyola win.

“If a kid is a competitor against you, that’s probably a pretty good indication of what kind of student or co-worker they’ll be for you,” Achter said.

When the season ended and Cerda had her release, Achter gave her pitch. Loyola needed a shooter, she told Cerda. The bigger sell, though, was a chance to break the losing theme. Cerda liked it, decided not to look elsewhere and committed in mid-April.

“I talked to her about changing her story,” Achter said. “What people talk about with Jessica is that she hasn’t won very many games.”

Cerda is shooting 36.7 percent on 3-pointers and averaging 10.0 points per game. She has taken 81 more 3s than the next closest player. In her last nine games, she’s shooting 41.6 percent from deep. She will try and win one more game this year than she did in the previous three when Loyola goes for win No. 8 on Thursday.

A question persists, though. If Cerda wanted to win, why was Loyola the choice? It offered familiarity, her desired social work graduate program, and proximity to her hometown of Streamwood. But the Ramblers were in the early stages of a rebuild and were 2-28 in Achter’s first year.

“I’ve always been attracted to the building process,” Cerda said. “It was harder to build off of a team that was continuing in a losing pattern for four years. It was difficult to find a building process because I started there and ended in the same spot.”

Salmon and Achter
Loyola senior forward Katie Salmon (center) with Ramblers head coach Achter (left) and mother Brenda on Loyola’s Senior Day on March 3, 2018 (Patrick Engel/MEDILL).

Salmon once sought a fresh start as well – away from Loyola.

In April 2016, she was one of 10 players to request a release and permission to transfer. Some alleged that then-coach and former WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes had mistreated players. Swoopes denied the allegations, but Loyola fired her that July following an internal investigation. The school didn’t give details for the firing or disclose the investigation’s results.

Salmon looked at other destinations, but hadn’t found one by mid-July. The newly hired Achter called Salmon to say she could come to practice. So she did, the two met, and the decision was made. Salmon would remain at Loyola.

“I’d like to think it was my charm,” Achter said, grinning.

What really swayed her into staying may sound familiar.

“She wanted to change her story, much like Jess wanted to change hers,” Achter said.

Salmon, who grew up in suburban Milwaukee, started all 30 games in Achter’s first season, raising her scoring average from 1.0 point per game the year before to a team-high 8.8 points per game. This year, she has started all but five games and is averaging 6.7 points.

“Honestly I’m super fortunate to have had two years to kind of let loose and play,” Salmon said. “I didn’t get that opportunity my first two years. Being looked to for advice, being looked to as someone who’s going to set the example has been really neat because I think I’ve worked hard to get where I am.”

Salmon’s and Cerda’s career revivals don’t expunge their prior trials and tough times. And Loyola, even in quest its climb upward, still finished ninth in the MVC. The pair has, though, taken control over the final chapters of their basketball narratives. That was the goal, and in reaching it, they formed a shared desire to try and change a culture and nurture the positive environment they sought earlier in their careers.

“I don’t know that I’ve always been in that position, so it’s really neat to start seeing some of that and know that the freshmen are in a good place for years to come and are more than likely to have the experience that I wanted to have coming into it.”

Those were Salmon’s words, but Cerda may as well have said them too. She echoed a similar refrain.

“To come into this culture of trying to change that, since they struggled last year too with not winning, it’s nice to be a part of it,” Cerda said. “It’s not necessarily a winning season, but it’s getting in that direction.”

If Loyola eventually becomes a perennial conference title contender, this season will be remembered only as another step up the ladder toward that. No banner will hang in the rafters in celebration of 2017-18. Achter, though, will remember her seniors’ new stories.

“I think we gave both of them a reason to love basketball again.”

Photo at top: Loyola seniors Jessica Cerda (left), Lee Williams (center) and Katie Salmon post with their framed pictures on Senior Day on March 3, 2018 (Patrick Engel/MEDILL). (Patrick Engel/MEDILL).