— Katie Roth was a true Maple Hill High Wildcat.
She played basketball for her high school in Castleton, N.Y., becoming the all-time scoring and rebounding leader. She holds the school record in the shot put. A three-sport athlete, Roth also played volleyball.
But she didn't just wear her team's uniform and represent her school in the traditional manner. Roth, now a redshirt freshman on the University of Hartford's women's basketball team, actually was a Wildcat. She was the mascot.
"I didn't really know about her being a mascot, but I can tell you, it doesn't surprise me, knowing her now for a year and a half," her coach Jen Rizzotti said. "Her personality and her confidence in herself, and her ability to relate to people is extraordinary."
Roth was the Wildcat at boys basketball games. She was always at the games with her friends, and one night her sophomore year, there was no one to climb into the suit, so Roth thought, Why not? It looked like fun.
"I was one of the only people who could fill it out," Roth said, laughing. "It was so hot. I couldn't take the head off because you scare the kids. The fan was broken.
"It was fun. I ran around, gave kids high-fives, shot three-pointers at halftime. It wasn't as much involvement as it is, obviously at the college level."
Roth will not be taking over Howie the Hawk's job anytime soon. She's fairly busy now, starting for the Hawks, who are 6-1 after a 66-39 victory over Providence College on Saturday.
Roth, a 6-2 forward, is the team's leading rebounder (5.4) and averages 6.8 points a game on a team with a deep bench and seven players who average over 20 minutes a game.
She starts ahead of senior Nikkia Smith of Montville, who started 31 games last year. Smith is now the team's leading scorer (11 ppg) off the bench.
"Our team loves her," Rizzotti said. "For her to come in as a freshman and start over a senior, and there's no hard feelings ...
"People care if their spot's taken away, but there's no hard feelings toward her. She's earned their respect. She is a high-end-of-the-spectrum hard worker. They respect she's pushing through pain, still. She's not completely healthy."
Last fall, Roth arrived in Hartford ready to contribute to the team. But an ankle injury that bothered her as a senior flared up again, to the point where Roth had to have surgery which kept her out the entire season.
"It definitely wasn't the way I had pictured my freshman year of college going," Roth said. I thought it had been taken care of. I did extensive physical therapy and had seen quite a few doctors who said it was just an ankle sprain. But 2-3 percent of all sprains end up having to be reconstructed, and I happened to be part of that percentage."
But while she rehabilitated, Roth absorbed the Hartford culture, got used to school and the team and what was expected of her and was ready to hit the ground running this fall.
"She's a breath of fresh air," senior forward Ruthanne Doherty said. "That pretty much sums it up. You can never be in a bad mood around her. She's a great addition to our post family. But off the court, she's a great person."
One more thing Rizzotti added: "She'd never be the kind of kid who was too cool for something."
Like getting into a mascot suit and acting goofy. Katie the Wildcat even went to the state tournament with the boys team in Glen Falls, N.Y.
Not that that was easy.
"You're looking out of the mouth and everyone's looking into the eyes," she said. "I'm like, 'No, I'm down here' but they can't hear a word you're saying. You say, 'Excuse me' but they can't hear you, so you're trying to sneak around someone in a giant cat suit."
Shown a picture of Katie the Wildcat, Doherty laughed and said, "It's interesting, her nickname is — what is that, a lion, or a tiger or what? A wildcat? We call her 'Big Cat.' "