Stephanie Carnes

When 5-foot-1 Penguins junior basketball player Stephanie Carnes enrolled at Dominican for the fall of 2009, she had no intention whatsoever of playing basketball. She was committed to being a student, not a student-athlete. She was a biological sciences major with a goal of going to medical school. That was her singular focus.

But there was an itch that Carnes couldn’t escape.  On March 6, 2009, she played what she thought was going to be her last basketball game. She and her Moreau Catholic High School teammates took a seven-game winning streak into Marin Catholic High School’s gym and left with a bitter season-ending 66-53 loss in a North Coast Section playoff game. Carnes, who had been averaging about 10 points a game during the winning streak, scored only four points in what she believed would be the final basketball game of her career.

Months passed but the sting of that defeat and her performance in it stuck with her. Carnes had to do something to ease her pain. The memory of it was dribbling around in her conscious.

“I was not satisfied with how I played in my last game and I didn’t want to end my basketball career being unsatisfied,” she said. “What the heck. I’ll try to walk-on at Dominican.”

So Carnes over that summer before her freshman year emailed Penguins women’s basketball coach Brianna Chambers and asked if she could try-out for the team.

“When she first contacted me, I had no clue how she would do. There are so many kids that want to walk-on but either never do or they just don’t pan out when they get here,” Chambers said. “When she tried out, I loved her fight. I loved her defensive intensity.”

Chambers was somewhat aware of Carnes because her assistant coach at the time, the late F. Michael Smith, had recruited Carnes as a freshman at Moreau Catholic to play for his traveling AAU team, The Players Club. Smith told Carnes that, with a lot of focus and hard work, she might someday potentially play basketball at an NCAA Division III or NAIA school.

Carnes has exceeded everyone’s expectations, even her own. When she entered Dominican as a freshman, the Penguins had joined the Pacific West Conference in NCAA Div. II. As a sophomore, the walk-on point guard played her way into the Penguins’ starting lineup. By the time Chambers started her in three consecutive games in a tournament at Alaska Fairbanks, Carnes figured she was a fixture on the team and player who could contribute to the team’s success.

She was satisfied. Chambers was impressed.

“Her height was an issue. She’s smaller than me,” the Dominican coach said, smiling. “But the improvement between her freshman and sophomore year was huge. She continued to work hard. She added shooting and scoring to the threat of being a really good defender. And she became a leader. That’s when I thought this kid is making that next step.”

Chambers rewarded Carnes, first with the “Coach’s Award” at season’s end then with a scholarship for her effort.  Carnes won over teammates as well.

When Carnes first came to campus as a freshman, she often found herself shooting alone in the gym.  But she soon hit it off with guard Kimi Nakamura, who was recruited to play basketball at Dominican and lived in the same dormitory as Carnes.  Then Carnes met established players such as Kelsey Janusch, Shawna Bryant and Raquel Gomes.

“At first I was scared of them. They can be pretty intimidating if you don’t know them,” Carnes said.

Eventually, Carnes saw some playing time behind players such as Alisha Flaaten, the all-time leading scorer in Dominican’s women’s basketball history. Yet Carnes admits it was tough mentality playing so little and she wondered if it might be best for her to drop basketball and concentrate solely on her studies.

 “But if I did not return, I might regret it because next year there might be a better opportunity for me to play,” Carnes said.

Opportunity came Carnes’ way as a sophomore. She played in 26 games and started in 21. She led the team in field goal percentage (.485) and 3-point shooting percentage (.537). She made all five of her 3-point shots and scored a career-high 15 points in a 70-56 win over Chaminade last Feb. 19.

Now it’s hard to keep Carnes out of the lineup. A sprained left ankle prevented her from playing in a preseason exhibition game against Pacific Union last November. She started the next game, an exhibition at the University of San Francisco. But, against the Dons, Carnes was hit in the forehead by an errant elbow. A huge lump appeared and she soon after started feeling nauseous. The lights suddenly got brighter and the crowd noise grew louder and Carnes came out of the game.

Carnes was diagnosed with a concussion. She missed the Penguins’ first four games of the season but returned in time to help Dominican upset Chico State 51-48 on November 22, 2011.

It was yet another satisfying moment in Carnes’ career. She’s a member of Dominican’s Gamma Sigma Honors Society and in 2011 was named to the Pacific West Conference’s All-Academic Team and she longs to be a pediatrician. Yet Carnes’ greatest achievement in her mind is progressing from unknown walk-on to dependable starter on the Penguins’ women’s basketball team.

“I’m definitely satisfied now,” she said. “Being able to have this opportunity to play and be an asset to the team is gratifying.”

In other words: Itch scratched.