Court becomes haven for Ransford

Ronika Ransford sat on the bench with an unfamiliar feeling of helplessness.

Saddled with three fouls, Ransford could only watch as her H.D. Woodson (Washington, D.C.) teammates fended off an early rally from Good Counsel during last year's City Title game.

For several minutes, Ransford pleaded with head coach Frank Oliver Jr. to let her re-enter the game, but the veteran coach was not about to lose his star to a quick fourth foul.

Finally, Ransford pulled Oliver aside, looked him in the eyes and said, "You can trust me, coach, I got you." Oliver complied, and just like that, the 5-foot-7 point guard sprang into action, showing why she is Greater D.C.'s top baller and the nation's No. 21 senior in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100.

A quick turnaround jumper from the free-throw line. Swish.

A steal and a circus reverse layup. Count it. And one.

A 17-footer from the elbow. Take that.

When the dust settled, Ransford had netted 21 points -- 19 in the second half -- and spurred the Warriors to their second consecutive City crown.

The performance was a testament to her dedication to basketball, the sport that helped her escape the dangers of her surroundings. All too often growing up, Ransford heard the echoes of gunshots or saw her peers selling drugs on the street corners in her Uptown neighborhood in Northwest D.C.

To complicate matters, Ransford had no refuge at home. Her mother was incarcerated shortly after Ronika was born. Her relationship with her father wasn't much better, leaving her scrambling to find answers.

Who would she go to when she needed advice as she matured into a teen? Who would she run to when the temptations of the streets were overwhelming?

She would turn to basketball.

"If I weren't playing basketball, I wouldn't be going to school," Ransford says. "I'd be selling drugs on the corner or in juvie."

But Ransford did everything she could to avoid that life, instead laying the foundation for her hoops career. She got her start at the Emery Recreation Center, where she played with future Woodson teammate and surrogate big sister Tia Bell.
The two bonded on the court -- despite playing for rival middle school teams -- and shared an intense love of the game. They formed a support system to ensure neither would fall victim to the street life that seduced so many of their friends.

"We both experienced things younger females shouldn't have," says Bell, who moved on to play at North Carolina State after graduating from Woodson in 2007. "That's what gave us the motivation to stay on the court. Basketball brought us closer. It served as an outlet to get away from negatives."

That mindset led Ransford to frequent the gym to hone her skills, sometimes for upward of six hours. After rigorous team practices, she would head back to the court and heave hundreds of jumpers and fine-tune her handle.

But her trials persisted. Ransford, a self-described "bad child," struggled with her school work and in seventh grade moved out of her father's house to live with relatives. The move was only temporary. Ransford says she was mistreated and abused, and she eventually moved back in with her father. She then had to repeat the eighth grade before she could attend Woodson.
Instead of letting her personal life derail her basketball career, Ransford pushed even harder on the hardwood. She discovered a kindred spirit at the rec center: basketball and football coach Darrell Mack had endured similar trials. He and Oliver served as the positive adult influences she so desperately needed.

"Me and [Mack] really relate to each other," Ransford says. "He went through a lot of stuff. I know if he could get himself out the situations he did, I can do the same."

With positive reinforcement from Mack and Oliver and her budding friendship with Bell, Ransford was finally ready to make an impact on the high school scene.

"She was a unique kid and very mature," Oliver says. "If she had went somewhere else, she could've averaged 30 points a game."

But for Woodson, Ransford had to share shots with veterans Bernisha Pinkett and Jeniece Johnson. Ransford emerged as a legitimate scoring option, however, and helped the Warriors capture the DCIAA title as a freshman. She broke out with a 31-point performance that earned her finals MVP honors and left fans in awe.

"She broke a record for oohs and ahhs in the crowd," Oliver says. "It was one of those things legends are made of."
Ransford's legend continued to grow.

In her sophomore season, Woodson racked up 26 wins and captured the first of back-to-back City crowns. Last season, Ransford poured in 17.1 points a contest with an undetermined amount of did-she-just-do-that moments.

"It's hard to stop somebody that sees everyone on the floor," Oliver says. "All [her teammates] have to do is catch and shoot."

Her play also generated national buzz, with numerous Division I programs -- including Rutgers, Cal and Louisville -- lining up for her services. In late September, she committed to Georgia.

"I know I will be watching her on TV for a long time," Oliver says.

With the departure of Pinkett and Johnson, Woodson is no longer the overwhelming favorite for the City crown, but Ransford welcomes the challenge of retaining the title minus her star teammates.

"I think our chances are very high," she says. "Can't nobody stop us. We can fly under the radar and in the end, we going to come out on top."

Don't doubt her. Ransford has proved she's at her best when life throws her a curveball.

"I've overcome [trials]," she says. "When I get older and successful, I want to be able to come back to my community and tell them you can also be successful."

Woodson fans, don't worry. You can trust her. She's got you.

David Auguste covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.