Two years ago, Sabrina Engelstad thought her career was over. She was already concerned with the pain in her lower back, and the MRI scan seemed to confirm her worst fears.
The training staff at Saint Mary’s, where she played her first two years of collegiate basketball, sent her to the sidelines. She would remain there for the entirety of the next year. No practice, no basketball related activities. All in the while, the team pressed on without her. Nothing could have been more miserable.
The following year, it was confirmed that Engelstad needed surgery.
In an attempt to salvage the little chance that she had to return to the hardwood, she knew that it was time to red-shirt and move on to another program that would be willing to take her. “But where? Whose going to want a player who hasn’t played in two years and needs surgery? How’s the surgery even going to go?” The questions continuously rung and stirred around her head.
It is a wonder then that today, Engelstad finds herself playing some of her best collegiate basketball. In her inaugural season as an Anteater, the 21-year-old has emerged as the most efficient scorer for the UC Irvine women’s basketball team, enough to make her a formidable force in the paint that head coach Tamara Inoue has come to rely on. Heading into a massive team shake up where eight seniors will be departing by the end of this season, Engelstad is expected to garner some big minutes.
And with another shot, she aims to do everything in her power to ensure that her opportunity will not be misspent anytime soon.
“I’ve had basketball taken away from me,” Engelstad said. “There was a time where I didn’t know if I was going to play again, here or anywhere. So now that I’ve been given that, it’s kind of like a reality check…it’s kind of a wake up call because I’m not going to have a third chance … I tell myself everyday that I might as well do what I need to do now.”
After coming off the bench for the first three games this season, the 6 foot 3 forward quickly earned a starting position when she scored in double digits for seven consecutive games. Since then, the double-digit outings have doubled to 14.
More importantly, she has taken on the role of being the outspoken leader that her teammates have come to lean on.
“It’s not a role I specifically look for, but I always end up taking on because that’s just how I am,” Engelstad said. “I just like to speak up and let things be known.”
With her brows squinted and hunched, her eyes zeroed in and fiery, and her mouth wide open for a mean scowl, Engelstad barks at her teammates.
“Let’s go! Run it again!”
There was something about the previous defensive effort that has set Engelstad off and despite approaching the tail end of the drill; she is not about to let the team off the hook. Towering above most of the players on the floor, she ensures that no one escapes her glare.
Peering on from the sidelines, coach Inoue turns and winks at her coaching staff who sit near the scores table besides her. The corners of her lips perch up, forming a subtle smirk. Coach Inoue has seen that face before.
It’s the face of an aggressive, unstoppable score-at-will player that once pushed kids around on the courts in highschool, of a center that made players alter their shots and think twice about challenging her at the rim. And above all else, it is the refined assertiveness of a confident leader who, after sitting out for the better part of the last two years, has reinvigorated her own collegiate career.
While coach Inoue knows that Engelstad has a lot to work on, namely staying away from foul trouble and boxing out to rebound, it is hard not smile at the type of effort, drive, and inner tenaciousness that Engelstad exudes on a daily basis.
“She’s pretty hard on herself, so on the coaching side of it, there’s not too much to get on her about,” coach Inoue said. “She knows what she needs to work on … she’s a very smart player IQ wise and when you tell her something, she understands. It’s just about getting her mind and her body to do the same thing…that’s the goal right now.”
When Engelstad departed Brentwood’s Heritage High School four years ago, she was considered one of the most dominant players that her program’s division had seen in years. Earning a spot on the varsity squad as a freshman, Engelstad learned how to adapt to the games ever changing physicality and speed. It is at this point where she developed her bold, almost volatile temperament that, coupled with her 6 foot 3 frame, allowed her to score with ease.
“I was a very aggressive player and because I was bigger than most of the players, I was prone to hurting people … not purposely … but I was fouling a lot and doing a lot of things that I’m still working on today,” Engelstad said. “I had much more of a temper back then.”
Leaning on her assertiveness to control the paint, Engelstad would go on to be recognized as a Bay Valley Athletics League all-selection three times and by her senior year, she became the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots while leading the Patriots to an undefeated league title run. To cap it all off, Saint Mary’s took notice and approached Engelstad with an early offer that she could not ignore.
Intrigued by the school’s proximity to her family and the high caliber offense that the Gaels had ran, Engelstad verbally committed and penned her letter of intent on her birthday. It seemed like the best gift that she could have ever had at the moment.
The prospects of playing collegiate basketball put her one step closer to her dream of competing professionally, perhaps one day even finding herself in the WNBA or overseas.
It began with some slight back pain, different tingly sensations and numbness that plagued Engelstad while she was conditioning during her freshman summer camp at Saint Mary’s. Her coaches and the training staff insisted that they did not detect any alarming signs.
As a result, Engelstad suited up and played through a rollercoaster season where she showed glimpses of her potential, but ultimately averaged no more than three points per game.
All the while, the pain lingered on.
Unable to shake the discomfort by the end of the year, Engelstad demanded an MRI scan. When the team approved and gave her the scan, they discovered the source of her discomfort: a fractured vertebrae and herniated disc in her lower back. The training staff had overlooked the injuries.
Engelstad was immediately shutdown and told that she was to sit out of the next eight weeks to ease her back. The two months soon bled into the entirety of her sophomore campaign where she remained sidelined. The inner rage and frustration that once fueled Engelstad on the court would drive her decision to red-shirt and leave the team.
Then, the fear and anxiety kicked in.
Growing up in the Engelstad household, basketball was nearly inescapable. In fact, it was the reason why her family would travel 4,000 miles from San Dimas, California — her place of birth — to live in Porto, Portugual where her father, Wayne Sr. played professionally in massive stadiums. Her earliest memories were of the thousands of fans that hollered at the top of their lungs in a native tongue that she never came to understand. As soon as she returned to San Dimas, she would run around and fire away Nerf balls with her older brother, Wayne Jr., out back in their home. The lawn would be filled with all of their miscues. In the evenings, her family would routinely watch NBA games—Lakers were her favorite team—with the volume cranked up to its full capacity so that no one would miss the play-by-play commentating. This was all that Engelstad knew growing up—and she initially despised it.
“I would play for fun and shoot around with my brother and my dad…but I was never really interested in playing it because they all played it,” Engelstad said. “I wanted to do my own thing.”
Engelstad’s early personal interests were fostered from a place far from the court and out in the fields where she found an appeal in soccer. However, her father had other ideas.
Nobody was more infatuated with basketball than Engelstad’s father, Wayne Engelstad Sr., who played four illustrious years at UC Irvine from 1985-88. He would later spend a brief stint with the Denver Nuggets before taking his passion overseas where he enjoyed a considerable amount of success in Porto, Portugal. His family followed him all along the way. And after a professional career that spanned nearly a decade long, Wayne Sr. retired. He was not ready to completely give up the game, however, taking on the role of personal coach. His son, Wayne Jr., was more than thrilled to have his father work him out. His daughter needed a little convincing.
At this point, the family had settled into Brentwood in the East Bay area of San Francisco. Engelstad was already entering the 7th grade and had been nearing her 6 foot 3 height. Her father, who stands at 6 foot 8, was more than thrilled. He sat her down and told her that she was too tall and had too much of a natural talent not to play. But in spite of all this urging, Wayne Sr. ensured that Engelstad would have to be the one to decide whether or not she truly wanted to engage with the game.
Witnessing her father play at a professional level and seeing the confidence he had in her, Engelstad agreed to try out for the junior high girl’s basketball team at Adams Middle School.
Wayne Sr. might have been right about Sabrina’s height, but without the arsenal of tools to utilize it, she struggled to master some of the fundamentals of the game. Frustrations and pressure from her coaches began to simmer and break her down.
“I cried the first day that I had to go to practice, Engelstad said. “I hated it cause I didn’t really know much of what was going on or what I was doing.”
This was when the thousands of hours would start pouring into the gym, where father and daughter spent extended hours after practices, bonding over hook shots, spin moves, and low-post lay-ins.
And with her father’s guidance, expertise, and encouragement, Engelstad shaped up to be an integral part of her team’s offense. With the groundwork of the game coming to her, basketball did not seem all that bad and even became enjoyable.
The ultimate reward, however, came in the form of the team’s first taste at victory during the season’s home opener. From that point on, Engelstad was officially hooked and wanted more.
“It was a feeling that I had never felt before … nothing that I had ever experienced,” Engelstad said. “From there, I just wanted to keep playing … keeping working on my skills.”
A year later, Wayne Sr. no longer needed to nudge her daughter on as Engelstad requested to be placed in a local Church Organized Youth (CYO) league where she went on to help her team take home the championship. On that day, in the arms of her teammates and among her family, she cried again, this time, for the joy of the game.
When Engelstad accepted the offer from Saint Mary’s back in 2013, she paid little attention to another phone call that came from New Mexico State, where coach Inoue previously served as an assistant coach.
“We gave her a call but she never called us back,” coach Inoue recalls with a little chuckle.
Three years later, coach Inoue was contacted once more about Engelstad from Wayne Sr. The first-year head coach was still intrigued but with a back injury and some considerable time off the floor, Engelstad was not the same player that New Mexico eagerly recruited two years ago. There was no doubt in coach Inoue’s mind that taking on the redshirt junior now came with some apparent risks.
But then again, coach Inoue’s decision to take on the helm of Irvine’s program, a team that has struggled in recent years, was founded on one of the biggest leaps that she could have ever taken in her collegiate coaching career. Much like coach Inoue’s efforts in rebuilding a team that could turn around from their recent woes, Engelstad was digging for a shot at a fresh start. Considering the instinctive talent that once impressed the entire New Mexico State staff and the parallels that Engelstad shared with the Anteaters, coach Inoue was willing to give her that shot.
“Sometimes you gotta take the risk,” coach Inoue said.
On the second time around, Engelstad did not miss coach Inoue’s call. That June, she officially became an Anteater and by August, she had moved into a dorm on campus, picked up a few summer courses, and joined her new teammates for daily workouts. Engelstad could not have been more thrilled.
“I’d never been so happy in my whole life,” Engelstad said. “I mean … I was happy to sign with Saint Mary’s cause I wanted a big school and it was such a good team that I would just go, but it wasn’t what I was really looking for. Coming here and signing here…I was really happy.”
Despite being in the midst of her third year of collegiate eligibility, Engelstad still has much to prove and improve on. In many ways, she considers this season her rookie year.
“It’s weird because this would have been my senior year if I hadn’t redshirted and I hadn’t gotten injured,” Engelstad said. “In a way, it’s like a blessing in disguise the way everything played out… like everything had to happen the way that it did for me to be where I am out now.”