Three years ago, there was a vacancy on the FIU women’s basketball depth chart. After senior point guard Michelle Gonzalez played her last game as a Panther, the team was in need of a new floor leader.
Head Coach Cindy Russo argued in favor of inserting a sophomore guard, St. Petersburg native Jerica Coley, into the role; she had led the team in points per game as a freshman. But Russo’s assistant coaches at the time argued against the move, favoring moving her into the two-guard spot.
Russo stood firm. “I want the ball in her hands,” she recalled saying.
Her resoluteness on the issue paid off in a big way, sparking one of the most prolific collegiate careers of any FIU student-athlete in school history.
Two-and-a-half seasons after that off-season decision, Coley’s list of records and accolades seemingly grows every week. She is the first FIU student-athlete to have her number retired while still playing for the team. She even has a website dedicated to chronicling her impressive accomplishments and milestones.
Who comes close to the kind of player she has been for FIU?
“Nobody,” Russo says without hesitation. Being at the helm of the program for 34 years, she would be the one person to know if there was. “It’s hard to compare Jerica to anybody else that has played here. They’ve been great in their own sense but she’s a total player.”
OUT WITH A BANG
The beginning of this season, her last, presented several new challenges for Coley: a supporting cast that needed to gain experience on the fly, a new conference with a new set of opponents and opponents zeroing in on her like never before.
These challenges have failed to slow her down. After losing their first four games of the season, the Panthers regained their bearings and won eight of their next 12 games to climb back to a .500 record.
“We grew up a little on the court and got more experience,” Coley said. “Each game we keep getting better.”
On an individual level, Coley is on pace to have arguably her best year yet, which is no small feat after leading the nation in scoring at the end of her junior season. She became FIU’s all-time leading scorer, set the record for most points in a single game with 47 on the road against Wake Forest, and, as of Jan. 21, Coley is second in the nation in points per game (29.6).
“She has gone to another level. It amazes me,” Russo said. “Her IQ for the game is at an optimum level all the time. She doesn’t get overanxious or underanxious. She is always ready to compete. She’s a gamer.”
Beginning play in Conference USA was an exciting proposition for Coley, embracing the opportunity to face teams who haven’t seen her play outside of game film.
“I think it’s cool because now we get to play a lot of new teams that haven’t played us,” she said. “They don’t know much about us. We don’t know much about them. It’ll be a good new experience.”
So far that has proved true, with Coley dropping 32.8 points per game in FIU’s first four games in conference play, two of them resulting in Panther victories.
Despite all the records, accolades and recognition Coley has received, there is still one final elusive accomplishment she hopes to attain: a conference championship.
“That’s always the goal,” she says.
AFTER IT’S OVER
Thinking about life after her playing days at FIU come to an end has been difficult to avoid.
“Every time I do an interview or see one of the articles written I think about it because it reminds me that it’s almost over,” Coley says.
Long before she stepped on campus, Coley knew she wanted to work in a hospital setting after watching her mother, Cathy, work as a surgical technician. She was just unsure in what area to pursue.
After taking an elective class focused on nutrition, she decided to major in dietetics and nutrition. “We talked a lot about all the different ways nutrition harms people if you don’t follow a balanced diet and how it can help you if you do,” Coley said. “There are a lot of ways to help people nutritionally and help with preventive diseases, which is what I want to do. I love the idea of helping people, helping the sick heal.”
She will graduate this fall after completing an extended program that will allow her to participate in an internship that will give her tangible experience in the field she wants to work in.
But Coley hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing basketball professionally. She plans on actively looking for opportunities to continue playing basketball, perhaps in WNBA or overseas in Europe.
“School is very important for her and I think she can definitely do both,” Russo said.
Years ago, Coley’s aunt and UCF women’s basketball all-time leading scorer Tamika Coley – whom she refers to as “Coach Tamika” – shared with her some wisdom that has stuck with her throughout the course of her basketball career.
“She told me ‘Basketball is basketball no matter who you play or where you play’ and I always remember that whenever we are playing a bigger school or a smaller school,” Coley said. “As long as you play the game right, you’ll be fine.”
Even though Coley didn’t start out with the intent of shattering FIU records, it’s safe to say her career has turned out much better than “fine.”
“I wonder how it all happened sometimes,” she laughs.
Russo believes that her legacy will loom large at FIU and that she will be remembered as “one of the most exciting players in the country.”
Her career can be wrapped up in two words that have become the slogan for her collegiate career: Holy Coley.