A standout high school basketball player who led her team to a regional title, Celia Garcia Paunero knew the college level would be no slam dunk.
The native of Valladolid, Spain, near Madrid, faced a dilemma. She could go pro or go to college, where she could not play. Colleges in Europe don’t offer collegiate basketball programs, Garcia Paunero said, and she wanted to earn a degree while pursuing a collegiate basketball career.
The United States was the only place she could do both. But, Garcia Paunero spoke no English.
Determined to pursue her goal, she landed a basketball scholarship four years ago at Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colo.
“No one spoke Spanish. It took me three or four months to understand everything and five months to speak fluently,” Garcia Paunero said.
Two years later, another scholarship led her to the University of the Incarnate Word.
Being a newcomer to English did not hurt Garcia Paunero on the court or in the classroom, Cardinals head coach Christy Smith said.
“She did a tremendous job academically. It was almost as if she lived in America and spoke English since she was born,” Smith said. “She’s an incredible young lady.”
Garcia Paunero said what she learned on the court helped academically.
“Discipline and hard work are most important. Then you get good grades,” she said. “You have to organize your day. You have to sleep eight hours, but there are a lot of other hours, and you have to stick to a schedule.”
As a sophomore at Otero Junior College, she averaged 20.3 points and 9.7 rebounds and earned all-region and All-American honors.
As a junior at UIW, she played point guard, which was out of her comfort zone. “It was a change from junior college. I was getting used to the tempo. It was a learning experience,” Garcia Paunero said.
Smith commends her for coming on strong her senior year. “The only credit I should get is that I didn’t take her out of the game. I let her play as many minutes as her body could play,” Smith said.
Garcia Paunero’s determination made the difference.
“She gets in her gym practice even when she’s tired or everybody else is out having a good time. She wants to be good,” Smith said. “She was the same in the games. She made a lot of rebounds not because she could jump higher or that she’s taller.
“She wants the ball and goes and gets it.”
Garcia Paunero says she had to gain experience before becoming a better, more competitive player and praises Smith and her teammates.
“What didn’t I learn from Coach Smith? She was consistent, she cares on a personal level, and she’s someone you can relate to and trust. It’s easy to play for her,” Garcia Paunero said. “It wasn’t just me. It was my teammates more than anything else.
“They were looking for me to pass to at the right moments and helping me make shots when needed. I was confident because they were confident of me. We all worked hard every day no matter what was going on in life.”
She signed with an agent to find a professional team in Europe, where leagues pay better than the Women’s National Basketball Association. She may return to the states one day to play or coach. She also is eyeing a master’s degree in sports psychology.
One thing is for sure, though. Garcia Paunero plans to follow the UIW Cardinals games online, no matter where she ends up.
“I’m excited to see where they’ll be in a couple of years,” she said.
Cardinal Stats: Cecilia Garcia Paunero
The 5-foot-11-inch Cardinal forward ended her senior year with a stellar 2016-17 season. Her accomplishments, on the court and off, include:
- First UIW player in 26 years to average a double-double for a season including 11 in Southland Conference play.
- First Cardinal named to an All-Southland Conference Team and the first since 2012-13 on an All-Defensive Team.
- Led the conference with 11.6 boards per game.
- Placed first in Southland defensive rebounding.
- In conference play averaged 17.2 points, 12.3 boards, 1.9 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals.
- Racked up 79 community service hours in 12 projects this season, more than anyone on the team.
- Maintained a 3.9 GPA while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in kinesiology.
Story by John Goodspeed