Former AHS star Heater learning the ropes at Cal

Brenna Heater's introduction to the ultra-competitive world of Division I women's basketball has been a painful, stressful, mentally draining baptism by fire.

But, according to both Heater and University of California assistant coach Jennifer Hoover, it's a transition that every big-time athlete must go through and — here's the good news — the hardest part is almost over.

Heater, the former all-star post at Ashland High who became one of the most highly recruited athletes in school history before graduating in June, said in a phone interview Monday that the transition from high school to college has been rough so far, but also expressed optimism that she's about to turn a corner.

Heater arrived in Berkely on Aug. 20 after taking the summer off to spend time with family and immediately got to work. Her first order of business was to get back in playing shape, a process that's been even more strenuous than usual because Heater is playing on an ankle that was surgically repaired a year ago.

Heater says she's lost 20 pounds since arriving at Cal, but the progress has come at a price.

"Personally I'm just trying to get in there and do what I can, because I'm in a lot of pain," Heater said. "I'm doing good, but mentally it's very hard knowing that I'm going to have pain out there. It takes my mental state out of the stuff that we're doing.

"Right now, physically and mentally, it's just real draining and it's been a struggle trying to deal with it because we have practice every day and it's hard going to practice knowing that you're going to feel bad."

Hoover, who works closely with Heater as Cal's posts coach, said Heater is going through the transition that every freshman must experience and that she's in a four-way battle for the Golden Bears' starting center spot. The winner of that starting role will play key minutes for a team that was picked to finish second in the Pac-10 preseason coaches poll.

"We have four freshmen post players, so they're all just learning the difference between a high school and a college practice," Hoover said. "You have to realize that you're going to hurt, and it's not necessarily that you're injured."

"My trainers are doing what they can to get me better," added Heater, "but from what they say, I just have to kind of go with it, battle through it."

On the court, all indications are that Heater will be fine, according to Hoover.

"She's doing great right now," Hoover said. "She's coming back from the ankle surgery and she's been balanced throughout preseason and doing everything that she needs right now and looking good. She's been a bright spot on the court. There's a lot of things that come natural to her."

That's always been the case for Heater, who burst onto the Oregon prep basketball scene as a high-flying, 6-foot-3 freshman at Ashland High who could both post up smaller defenders and shoot over the top when necessary with a baby-soft jumper.

Heater averaged 16 points and 9.7 rebounds per game as a junior and was known for playing her best ball at the state tournament, where she averaged 24.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocks during Ashland's sixth-place run in 2007.

The ankle surgery nearly cost Heater her entire senior season, but she came back earlier than expected and helped the Grizzlies earn another trip to the state tournament.

Now, Heater said, basketball has become more like a job, but one she enjoys. She's bonded with her teammates, is looking forward to Wednesday's intrasquad scrimmage and is rooming with a Swedish tennis player who can relate to Heater's struggles.

"I mean, basketball is basketball, but at the same time the intensity level obviously is sky-rocketed compared to high school," she said. "The amount of running and the amount of time put in is a lot more. Also, in high school you're focusing on skills. Here, you come in and they assume you are good with most things so now we're working on getting our team together and playing with the flow.

"It's intense, but if you get behind on one thing it piles up on you. If you don't understand a play that day or a drill we're doing, the whole practice you're a step behind everyone and you don't want that to happen."

Cal's first game is Nov. 3 against Vangaurd. The exhibition game will be played at Berkely.

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