By Jim Sumner, GoDuke.com
DURHAM, N.C.-- Senior Day has become a venerable institution of American sports. A final home game for a graduating player, a chance to celebrate, a chance to say goodbye.
Duke women’s basketball will say good bye to Faith Suggs and Sofia Roma Sunday afternoon, when the Blue Devils host North Carolina in the final home game of the season.
Suggs and Roma arrived at Senior Day by much different routes. But they leave as co-captains, team leaders and consummate complementary players.
Suggs is a 6-1 senior forward from the Chicago suburb of Flossmor.
Her father Shafer played five seasons in the NFL. But he also was a basketball star at Ball State and his daughter says basketball was a big part of growing up. She started playing organized basketball around the first grade.
But she also was a talented and dedicated ballerina. By the time she reached high school, the time demands forced a decision.
“Practices, rehearsals, games, recitals. I had to decide.”
Suggs realized that basketball provided a lot more high-level opportunities than ballet and left dance behind.
“I still think about it.”
Her first name stems from a family crisis. Her mother Susan was diagnosed with melanoma while pregnant with Faith, who was named as a sign of the family’s determination to fight the disease.
Susan Suggs did fight melanoma for 15 years, before dying in 2011, when Faith was 14.
Faith became one of the nation’s top prep players at Homewood High School and was nationally recruited.
Her official visit to Duke closed the deal.
Joanne P. McCallie is a melanoma survivor and shared her story with Suggs during the recruitment process.
“I fell in love with the campus and the people,” Suggs says. “Coach P was awesome. She was open and honest. That was one of the things that drew me to her.”
McCallie said she was “stunned” by the coincidence. “It was pretty powerful. A shared experience. She grew from it, learned from it, became tougher from it.”
Duke hosted a melanoma awareness day this January. “This game is my favorite of the season,” Suggs said at the time, “because of the awareness we raise for melanoma cancer. Melanoma is a disease that can affect anybody and I am hoping we can prevent others from being affected.”
Suggs admits she was overwhelmed by the caliber of ACC basketball early on.
“I didn’t know how I was going to fit in when I got here. It was frustrating. We had great leaders in Amber Henson and Mercedes Riggs. They told me you have to find one or two things you can do well. For me it was defense, rebounding, bringing energy.”
Suggs has been a rotation player for four years and started during last season’s Sweet Sixteen run, grabbing eight rebounds in a win over Belmont. Suggs has a pair of 12-point games this season. She can hit the open jumper, find an open teammate, lead a comeback.
Suggs is one of these players whose contribution cannot be summed up by a stat sheet. She’s the first person to hit the floor for a loose ball, the first to dig out a tough rebound, the first to ramp up the energy level if needed or calm down a flustered teammate, if that be the need.
McCallie says Suggs was recruited as a glue player, a “connector.” She says Suggs has a “great soul. She brings energy and keeps people on the same page.”
Suggs has averaged around three points and three rebounds per game this season.
She also leads the team with 11 charges taken through the end of February.
“It’s a hard thing to do. You know it’s going to hurt and you might not even get the call.”
“I try to be a leader and bring that energy and leadership every day, to every practice and every game. I try to give energy, give and give and give.”
That includes being the center of the pre-game circle, where she passionately reminds her teammates of energy and focus and toughness.
Suggs says she makes sure her younger teammates are learning the right lessons from its injury-plagued 2019 season.
“I try to teach lessons in how to handle adversity. The team has kept getting closer. It’s a test of our will but it’s laying the ground work for other seasons.”
Suggs isn’t the only veteran leader.
Sofia Roma is a Manhattan native. The 6-2 center played two seasons at Wagner College, where she averaged 10 rebounds per game as a sophomore, in 2016, 22 boards in a single game.
But Roma says she wanted more, athletically and academically.
“I wanted to be challenged more. I thought I could do better. Wagner didn’t have a lot of opportunities for women athletes.”
She decided to transfer. Duke had just lost Azura Stevens to transfer and Lynne Belton’s chronic knee problems were keeping her off the court. Duke needed a rebounder and Roma was a rebounder.
She was impressed on her visit by “the passion of everyone at Duke, not just athletically but academically and socially. They want everyone to be successful.”
Roma notes that she met not just with coaches and players but also with deans and professors.
She had to sit out the 2017 season due to NCAA transfer rules and battled through injuries that kept her out of much of the 2018 season. But she grabbed four rebounds against Boston College in her first game back and had five points and four rebounds in a big win over Wake Forest. She’s been a rotation player this season, providing physical play off the bench.
But as tough as she is under the basket, she’s just the opposite off the court.
“She’s the person you want to be around when you’ve had a tough day,” Suggs says,
“I’m pretty funny,” Roma acknowledges. “Coach P asked me to be the glue of the team. I had never been in that position before. She pushed me out of my comfort zone. I want to be part of people’s lives. I try to teach the details, the importance of getting the little things right.”
McCallie says the glass is “always half full” for Roma.
“She worked so hard to come back from her injuries. She’s naturally honest, naturally able to get to the bottom of things. She and Faith have the trust of the team, have the respect of the team.”
Suggs is graduating in May with a degree in psychology and a minor in African and African American studies. She says she’s 50/50 about trying to play overseas but long term wants to stay in sports, perhaps marketing, perhaps broadcasting, maybe even coaching.
Roma graduated last year with a degree in political science--she made the ACC Honor Roll--and will add a master’s this spring from Fuqua. She has an internship this June with a London financial firm and after that will join the Puerto Rican national team; her mother Virginia Hortas is Puerto Rican. Roma has played for her national team as far back as the 2015 Pan Am games. She made the 2018 team but couldn’t work it out with Fuqua. She says she’ll then look for a spot on a European team.
But first, they have to get through Senior Day.
“It’s exciting but with a little sadness,” Suggs says. “But it’s been a great four years and I get to share that with my teammates.”
Roma says the best part of the day will be her mother’s first trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
McCallie has been through a lot of Senior Days.
“It always sneaks up so fast. It catches you off guard. There’s so much going on that we try hard not to overplay the day. It’s a day of reflection, a day of celebration.”