UAA hoops star shines in motocross

TWO SPORTS: Herrin shines in motocross, with the Seawolves women's hoops team.

September 11, 2010 

Tomboy-since-birth Sarah Herrin is one of Alaska's best motocross racers in the summer and one of its grittiest basketball players in the winter, a two-sport combination that makes her easy to pick out in a crowd -- she's the redhead with all the black-and-blue marks.

She spends half the year as a gearhead and the other half in the near-constant company of other women on the UAA basketball team -- a perfect mix for Herrin, and one that works pretty well for her basketball teammates too.

Herrin, who years ago learned how to take apart an engine, does manly favors for them. And they do girly favors for her.

She has come to the rescue of teammates with battery problems and flat tires. "It's nice to have those skills," she said.

And it's nice to have a locker room filled with BFFs. Team rules require the Seawolves to dress up occasionally, but when it comes to frilly fashion, Herrin's wardrobe offers little more than a couple old prom dresses left over from her days at Nikiski High School. "I'll ask one of my teammates, 'You got something I can borrow?' ''

"I've been a tomboy forever. I had the bowl haircut and everything," said Herrin, who got her ears pierced years ago so people would know she was a girl. "I like playing in the dirt and doing boy activities."

Herrin, 22, started riding dirt bikes when she was 4 and racing them when she was 9 because she wanted to be like her dad and her older brother, who both rode and raced. Kevin Herrin knows his way around anything with a motor, and it didn't take much to turn his daughter into a grease monkey.

"We had motorcycles, three-wheelers, four-wheelers, snowmachines -- we're a motorhead-type family," Herrin said. "There's a little race course in our backyard and I've been riding that forever. Every year we get the dozer out there and change it."

Herrin recently collected her ninth state motocross championship. Most of her victories have come in the women's expert division but she competes against men too, this year placing fourth overall in the mostly male 125cc expert division.

Last week, Herrin sported a big bruise on her arm. It was a souvenir from a weekend of racing at Kincaid Park, where a rocky track spit out a rock that caught Herrin as she was going over a jump.

"I've got bruises all over," she said, with a grin and a shrug. "Pain's temporary."

Her plan is to head to the Lower 48 next summer, probably California, and try to make it as a professional racer. Jim Stewart, one of the state's most experienced and successful motocross racers, thinks she's got a legitimate shot. He says she's one of the best racers in Alaska regardless of gender.

"Some girls are kinda soft. I'm fearless," Herrin said. "I'm goal oriented. Racing against guys, you have to be aggressive."

'AVERY SPECIAL PLAYER'

Ward Romans saw plenty of talent and promise during two decades of coaching at Nikiski High School, where his Bulldogs were a girls basketball dynasty. Few impressed him like Herrin.

"I met her when she was in sixth grade and she came to a youth camp," he said. "You could tell there was a lot of potential if she wanted to be great. She was just so athletic, even as a sixth grader. It was exciting as a coach to see someone that talented and intense. Her eyes just locked onto (the coaches).

"I came home that day and told my wife, Denise, 'We've got a chance to have a very special player some day.' ''

Herrin, a 5-foot-8 guard, was Alaska's Class 3A Player of the Year as a senior for Nikiski in 2005-06. She chose to play college basketball with the Nanooks of UAF, but after two seasons was ready for a change.

She found a new home and a new challenge in Anchorage, where she became a member of UAA's powerful basketball team. After the required redshirt season, she burst onto the scene last season as a key reserve who delighted fans with her aggressiveness and almost always supplied a spark when she entered a game.

Herrin gets in plenty of tangles while fighting for a rebound or diving for a loose ball, and she absorbs a fair share of collisions while setting screens or planting herself defensively to draw a charge.

She averaged 14 minutes, 4.5 points and 2.5 rebounds a game and had 28 steals in 29 games for last season's 24-5 Seawolves. Her selection as the team's "Ms. Hustle" award was a no-brainer.

"I love doing the dirty work, things that aren't in the box score," Herrin said. "The snot-nose defense. The aggressive part."

Romans remembers her being banged up and bruised all the time. He knows she's tough and he knows she's aggressive without being reckless.

Even so, he wasn't quite prepared this summer when he saw her in a motocross race for the first time.

"She's so good at it," he said. "It was alarming. We sat in the bleachers right near one of the jumps and she just came over it and completely surprised me.

"It was obvious she was as good as anybody on a motorcycle on that course."

'IT'S A FULL-BODY WORKOUT'

Some sports go together naturally. Running and nordic skiing. Cycling and speedskating.

But basketball and motocross?

Both require endurance, Herrin said, whether it's for running up and down the basketball court or racing 15 or 20 minutes for each moto, of which there are a couple each race day.

"You have to be somewhat in shape for motocross. You can see some people who start out strong, but by the third lap they're slowing down" because they're getting tired, she said.

Racing a motorcycle over a twisting, hilly course requires coordination, balance, cat-like reflexes and physical labor.

"It's a full-body workout," Herrin said. "You're constantly twisting the throttle. Your shoulders are almost vibrating, it's going so fast, and you're turning your shoulders every direction you can think of. You're going up and doing like squats go over jumps (because) you've got to stand up. It's constant movement. Going around a corner, you've got your legs straight out.

"You don't realize it and then you wake up the next morning and you're like, why am I so sore?"

In all of her years of racing, she's only had one major injury -- a broken wrist suffered in the summer of 2007, before her sophomore season at UAF.

While she's passionate about both sports, basketball is tops for now. Although she raced against men this summer because she was craving the competition and the speed, she opted to skip the 125cc expert division the previous four summers. Though she isn't afraid of crashing or getting hurt, she wants to stay healthy for basketball.

"Basketball is my first priority," Herrin said. "It pays for school and it's a team sport, and I don't want to let the other team members down."

Plus it keeps those old prom dresses safely in the closet.


Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4335.

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