Athlete Spotlight: Steph Paluch

Senior Steph Paluch has always had a love for the game of basketball, a love that brought her to SDSU and enabled her to push through injuries to get where she is now – starting at guard for the Jacks.

Looking back on her childhood she remembers her first team memory – playing YMCA basketball when she was in fourth grade. She also remembers playing at home where she would practice her layups – actions that may seem rather typical to many, but that soon led to dreams of playing collegiate basketball.

“When I saw that these girls [on TV] could play at the collegiate level it was like why can’t I do that?” Paluch said. “Probably around middle school is when it really finally clicked. I probably dreamed of it forever since I saw it on TV, but it really clicked in middle school.”

At T.F. Riggs High School, Paluch was a three-sport star, being named all-state in volleyball and basketball and finishing seventh in the triple-jump at the state track meet as a junior. 

“I didn’t like running, so track and field wasn’t my favorite,” Paluch said. “I really enjoyed volleyball, but basketball was always something I could do on my own, practice a shot, dribble, all that sort of thing. So basketball was always the number one.”

In basketball and volleyball, Paluch always seemed destined to just miss out on the prize as her teams finished runner-up for two consecutive years in each sport. Despite the moments of heartbreak, she still looks fondly on those memories and recalls playing against several current and past SDSU teammates such as Tara Heiser, Ashley Eide and Chynna Stevens. 

Paluch’s favorite memory in high school came prior to the state tournament’s championship basketball game her sophomore year. Her team walked into the gym during the consolation game and their fans immediately erupted in cheers for them.

“We came into the gym watching that game before we went to get ready and the whole place erupted with green and white,” Paluch said. “They were all standing and cheering as we walked into the gym. I will remember that forever.”

Paluch committed to SDSU her sophomore year in high school. Though she believes she could have made it at a smaller college playing volleyball, playing basketball for SDSU was always her dream.

For Paluch, the coaches, the future teammates, the fans and the winning atmosphere all drew her to the Jacks. That, combined with the desire to stay in the state that had supported her for her whole playing career leading up to that point, made the decision easy for her.

“When you play you want to win,” Paluch said. “And to be able to play in front of my family and have my parents there was important to me.”

Despite knowing she had much to learn from the older players on the roster, Paluch came to SDSU and entered the game off the bench during 27 games her freshman year, including a 14-point performance against Virginia in the Junkaroo Jam – Reef Division Tournament in the Bahamas.

“That was I think a fluke of a game,” Paluch said. “… I think my freshman and sophomore years were more kind of growing years and finding out what kind of player I could be and wanted to be. So I got into games and stuff, but I don’t think by any means I excelled at them.”

Everything seemed to come together for Paluch her junior season when she started her first 31 games of the year going into the second round game of the 2012 Summit League tournament wherein Paluch’s future would be altered from anything she’d planned.

“I got the steal and went up for a layup, did a jump-stop that I always do and tore my ACL,” Paluch said. “It was crushing. I didn’t want to be a burden to the team by being sad, so I tried to have a good attitude and just know that I could come back next season, and if I couldn’t come back the next season I would come back the following year.”

Paluch then embarked on her long recovery process. Hard work put her ahead of schedule and when October practices rolled around she was doing everything her teammates were doing in practice. Even so, she still felt she needed more time to play at the level she wanted to be playing.

“I think that junior year set the bar and the tone and I wanted to reach that again and I wasn’t there in October,” Paluch said. “I didn’t want to waste a whole year of wishy-washy ‘is this going to work or not.’”

The decision to redshirt for the 2012-2013 season also affected Paluch’s academic plans as she was originally on track to graduate in four years, not the five another year of basketball would keep her around for. And so, she graduated in August 2013 and then began work on her Master’s degree in social entrepreneurialism. 

As she fought to work her way back onto the court, Paluch faced memories of her injury and sought to conquer them.

“I got rid of the brace because it was just a reminder that something had happened type thing,” Paluch said. “Especially that first year I would come into the gym sometimes and just do full court layups, full court jump-stop layups, full court breakaway layups.”

Having finally overcome her other obstacles, one challenge remained for Paluch as she prepared to enter the 2013-2014 season – cracking the starting lineup, something she had to wait until just days before the first game for and still knows she could lose at any time.

“It’s good having those older girls who are fighting for the spot but also those younger girls to keep me on my toes, to remind myself that I have more experience and I know what I’m doing to go win that spot,” Paluch said.

Paluch typically plays the two guard position the SDSU backcourt, but at times is called to run the point when Gabby Boever takes a rest on the bench. Out of the two, Paluch much prefers the two guard position.

“I think I’m most comfortable at the two,” Paluch said. “People don’t know what I’m doing when I’m at the one. They’re like ‘where’s Steph going?’ So I think for the sake of the team, no, I enjoy being the off guard and getting people open in other ways and making plays for myself.”

With just five games left in the regular season, Paluch knows her time is running out and every game matters. Beyond the regular season though, she wants to win the Summit League Tournament and then make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

“That’s the dream,” Paluch said about a postseason run. “Yeah, just competing at a level that puts SDSU on the map, that people quit calling us San Diego State and finally recognize that we have a good program, both on the men’s and women’s side, that we have good sports, good support, and good fans and that SDSU is on the rise.”

Although her basketball journey is coming to an end, Paluch is excited about what she’s doing with other areas of her life.

“I like the business side of non-profits and social-cause work,” Paluch said. “I took a full time job with the boys and girls club in town as the development coordinator. … I work with special events, donors, stewarding and just creating a sense of philanthropy for the community and the club.”

Looking back on her career at SDSU, Paluch is overwhelmed by all the support she has received from her school, community, and friends and can’t believe it’s almost over.

“When the crowd gets pumped for a big play, or a big D-stop, or a big offensive play and we’re excited and fist pumping and the crowd’s going crazy, that’s my favorite part,” Paluch said. “There’s nothing that will ever match that excitement, that pride and just the support that we always have.”