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ND Women’s Basketball

‘The glue’ of the team, Kathryn Westbeld leads by example and wins a national title

| Friday, May 18, 2018

The first time Kathryn Westbeld donned her No. 33 jersey and tied her hair up in its now-signature top-knot to take to court at Purcell Pavilion, her attitude was one of pride and excitement for what was to come.

When she stepped off that same hardwood flooring for the final time four years later, now as a senior captain, during Notre Dame’s 98-72 win over Villanova, the veteran and her coach embraced on the sideline, as both struggled to choke back tears, not knowing that the highlight of Westbeld’s career was still to come.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer

Irish senior forward and captain Kathryn Westbeld looks to drive during Notre Dame’s 84-74 win over Oregon on Mar. 26 in Spokane. Westbeld scored a team-high 22 points.

And while her career may come to be defined by the 134 minutes she played after that hug, that final net she cut and that trophy she carried victoriously, even heroically, over her head, beaming from ear to ear from the national champions bus at Main Circle through the crowd of fans waiting to welcome she and her teammates home from Columbus, Ohio, it’s all the minutes in between those two moments in time at Purcell Pavilion that make Kathryn Westbeld the leader and athlete she is today.

“[Attending Notre Dame] actually wasn’t [an easy choice]. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve made to date. Looking back now, it obviously is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” Westbeld said. “My other top school was Ohio State. Being from [Kettering] Ohio, I had a lot of friends who were going to Ohio State. … I just kind of asked myself ‘Why wouldn’t I choose Notre Dame?’ And I just remember I couldn’t really answer that question, but I could answer that question for any other school that I had chosen. It never really put a limit on anything that I could do, whether it was something I wanted to do with my career or even basketball.”

Once Westbeld had made her mind up about where she would be going to school, there was no looking back for the former Irish forward. She began to make an impact her freshman year, seeing significant playing time against South Carolina in the Final Four and taking the court against UConn in the national championship game — playing time that would prove extremely valuable when the Irish returned to the same position for the first time since Westbeld’s freshman year this spring. Irish head coach Muffet McGraw described her as “the glue of the team” due to her selflessness on the court.

“She was always looking to help everyone else,” McGraw said. “ … What do I have to do to help us win? I don’t care if it means points. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

Selflessness has not exactly proven costly for Westbeld’s career totals either. She joined the 1,000-point club in February, scoring her 1,000th career point against Virginia Tech and finishing her Notre Dame career with 1,076 points. Her senior season, she shot 59.2 percent from the floor, good for second in the ACC, and finished her career with 731 rebounds.

What makes those totals more impressive, however, is the circumstances under which the Ohio native achieved them. Throughout her junior and senior seasons, Westbeld
battled through injuries, often playing in games without practicing. As a junior, Westbeld injured her ankle midway through the season and sat out a number of games. She was unable to practice and played limited game minutes until she was able to have surgery when the season ended. This season, she took a finger to the eye against North Carolina on Feb. 1, leaving it swollen shut. She played on, however.

Then, in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament against CSUN, Westbeld went down with a sprained ankle — her good ankle — in the game’s third minutes. She did not play the first half of the second-round game against Villanova, but coming in after halftime, proved, once again, to be that glue the team needed to survive and advance, and went on to contribute well over 30 minutes in each proceeding game.

“I’ve always, for one, just loved the game and just loved competing and I think that even with injuries, I don’t want anything to hold me back,” Westbeld said of her ability to play through pain. “And I just think I’m the type of player that my teammates know they can count on me. I’m going to give my all regardless of what’s standing in front of me, so, I really just think I can have my teammates and coaches and everyone in the back of my head while I was playing through those injuries and playing through pain and you know, just doing whatever I could to help my team, regardless of if I couldn’t practice or if I was on the sidelines watching, I was making sure I was contributing in any way I could, whether I was talking to them or using my voice and sharing my experience with them.”

Putting the team above herself is something Westbeld had to do as a senior more than ever. Throughout Notre Dame’s run to its national title, as the Irish roster took hit after hit and lost player after player, Westbeld was called on more each day as the team’s leader and captain to maintain a sense of calm and focus.

“Obviously, with [senior forward Brianna Turner] out, I knew I was going to have to step up and score more points and do a lot more, kind of fill up the stat sheet a lot, but in terms of kind of being a leader, I had multiple meetings with Coach [McGraw] about me just being more vocal,” she said. “I’ve always been more of a lead-by-example leader and so this year, Coach really tried to push me out of my comfort zone and kind of step up and speak more and use my voice and kind of lead our younger team to the national championship because, of who was on the court, I was the only one who had been in
that situation before, been to the Final Four — well, [graduate student forward Kristina Nelson] has as well, but, you know, I was the only one who had played in the national championship before — so I was just trying to use my experience to just kind of push through, especially with the adversity that we had.”

It was a combination of that leadership, resilience and determination that Westbeld showed over the course of her four years in an Irish jersey that allowed her to help her squad to the most important victory of them all — a national championship in her home state of Ohio, just an hour from her hometown.

“I won state in Columbus in high school, I’ve been there multiple times, so just for me to be able to complete my full circle from high school to college was unreal and something that hardly anyone gets to do,” Westbeld said. “ … My little brother’s elementary school that I actually went to, they made me this video and they went through all these different classrooms and they were all saying ‘Go Irish’ and ‘Beat UConn’ and all that stuff and it was just the cutest video ever and I think my high school also had a watch party for it. But just to hear things like that, it just is so special, just to look back and see all the people that have been there from the very beginning.

“There was a red carpet entrance for the national championship game, and there were so many people, fans from all the teams, so you really didn’t know who anyone was, but I was just walking down the red carpet and all of a sudden, I felt someone grab my arm and I looked up and it was my high school coach, who I had a really great relationship with, and then I continued to walk down the red carpet and I felt somebody on my other arm and it was my middle school basketball coach. It was just a really surreal moment for me, just kind of breathtaking, honestly, just you know walking into the gym for my last time in my collegiate career, just to know that everyone was there and was supporting me. It was a very special moment.”

And after playing some of her best basketball over the course of the 2018 NCAA tournament, including finishing the Elite Eight matchup with Oregon with 20 points, just one point shy of tying her career high, and playing an integral role in slowing Mississippi State junior center Teaira McCowan in the national championship, life did not slow down. After a whirlwind few weeks, Westbeld found herself in Los Angeles after signing a training camp contract with the Los Angeles Sparks.

“It was such a quick turnaround because after our season ended, the Draft was like in a week-and-a-half and you have to do all this stuff, you have to find an agent, and do all this and I was so behind on all that because I really wasn’t thinking about any of that, obviously while we were playing and so I was kind of behind after the season and just kind of wanted to take a breath.” Westbeld said. “ … So, the Draft came around, I didn’t get drafted, I wasn’t getting picked up because I still didn’t have an agent and then just to have them call — I remember I was in the basketball office and they called [associate head coach Niele Ivey] and were just asking if I had any interest in playing professionally.”

Westbeld said she spent the next day anticipating a call she was supposed to receive from the Sparks organization — a call that never came. She ultimately saw a post on the team’s Instagram page which stated the finalized training camp roster had been posted, leading her to believed she had been passed over.

“Literally 10 minutes later, Niele, our [associate head] coach called me and was like ‘They want you.’ I was like ‘Are you kidding me? I literally just checked and it said it’s finalized.’ And she said ‘No, they want you,’” she said. “So, the GM texted me later that night at 11 p.m. and said ‘You have a flight at 7:20 tomorrow morning.” And so, I was like ‘wow.’

I didn’t know what to pack, for how long. So, I just kind of threw everything in my suitcase and left and went to LA. I didn’t really have time to think about it, process it and right when I got off the plane, I got my physical and went straight to the gym and started playing. So, I haven’t really had a lot of time to process it, but it’s definitely been an unreal experience, LA being the place, such a cool city, so much to experience and do here, so it’s definitely been a blessing and I’m very excited to have this opportunity. Hopefully things turn out in my favor and I make the team and get to play another season here.”

Kathryn Westbeld has played 3,090 minutes in a Notre Dame jersey. But her contributions to her team and its run to the national championship are unquantifiable, from the first time she stepped onto the court with Notre Dame emblazoned across her chest until the final time she and stepped off the court, a victor.

“I feel like at this point, since I’m past everything, since I’ve played my four years here, I don’t really look about what I didn’t accomplish, but more looking back at everything that I have accomplished,” Westbeld said. “It’s just really nice just to kind of reflect on that and see how far we’ve come as a team and individually as well.”

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

Contact Elizabeth