As a seventh-grader at Ashland Middle School, Brenna Heater plotted out a future that included the loftiest of hoop dreams — a Division I scholarship at a top-tier program.
Less than a year after cashing in, Heater is back in Ashland, with no regrets and a newfound appreciation for the world outside of the game she's always loved.
"The last couple of years I just haven't had the passion," Heater said. "The heart hasn't been there. I'm in love with the game and I love being part of a team, but being on the court and physically playing the sport, there's just none of that spark anymore. I felt like I was forcing it."
Citing side effects from four concussions and a desire to open up the next chapter of her life, Heater has left behind the University of California basketball program and the full-ride scholarship it handed her. Heater, who graduated from Ashland High in 2009 after a sensational four-year run, told Golden Bears' head coach Joanne Boyle of the decision on March 1, three weeks after Heater suffered a concussion during practice that ended up costing her the rest of her freshman season.
In what turned out to be her final basketball game, Heater tallied two points and two rebounds in a Feb. 6 loss to UCLA.
"The meeting (with Boyle) was a mutual thing," Heater said. "She said, 'If you're not 100 percent committed "¦ then you need to go do something else that makes you happy.'"
The former AHS great is taking that advice.
Heater, who said she still wakes up in the middle of the night with migraine headaches, recently moved into an apartment in Ashland and has plans to chase another dream: beauty school.
"I want to be a hair stylist and make-up artist," she said. "I'm a really artistic, fun, bold person, and one of the things I've always had a passion for is beauty and art.
Some people would say it's the loser thing compared to the basketball path, but I've never had that freedom. I thought I had one of the greatest experiences ever through basketball, but to follow my dreams now, it's a completely different feeling. I feel totally alive. Even my friends are saying, 'Why are you always smiling.'"
Heater exploded onto the Oregon prep basketball scene as a 6-foot-3 freshman post in 2006, starting for a Grizzlies' team that advanced to the big-school Class 4A state semifinals before settling for the fifth-place trophy, then the highest finish in program history.
Powerful but also equipped with a feather-soft jump shot, Heater was at her best when it mattered most, leading the Grizzlies with 19 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks in the semifinal loss to eventual state champion Southridge. That performance helped Heater pick up a first-team all-tournament nod.
Two years later Heater was at it again, leading all players in scoring (24.3 ppg), rebounding (12.3 rpg) and blocked shots (4.3) in the 5A state tournament. This time, her dominance came at a price, however: Heater broke her nose and suffered a concussion in a quarterfinal loss to Willamette — a game that would go down as Heater's greatest. She had 36 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks against the Wolverines, but the injury was a sign of things to come.
Heater ended up missing a large chunk of her senior season after undergoing reconstructive ankle surgery, and struggled to regain her form in the postseason. Still, her potential was too much for Boyle to pass up, and in November of 2008 Heater signed a letter of intent to play for Cal.
"She's the tallest and most dominant, in terms of in the paint, that we have coming in," Boyle said of Heater at the time. "She has incredible spirit in terms of wanting to get better and contribute. You don't find a lot of kids who are her size and mobile. She wants to score, has a nice soft touch and can drive. There's a lot to work with."
Once at Cal, Heater immediately showed off some of that potential. She had nine points and 17 rebounds in 22 minutes in the first game of the season, an exhibition win over Vanguard on Nov. 3. That turned out to be the highlight of her short stint with the Golden Bears.
Heater averaged 2.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in 15 games, including two starts, for the Bears before taking an elbow to the head in a practice on Feb. 8.
When a week went by and Heater still wasn't ready to return to the court, she said the Cal coaching staff became concerned.
"The coaches sat down with me and were like, 'Look Brenna, I don't know if you still have headaches, but we need you to practice and start playing.' I was completely not ready at all. I was still having headaches and was sensitive to light at least three to three-and-a-half weeks later."
The headaches still hit every day, Heater said, and she also suffers from short-term memory loss.
Soon after the meeting with the coaches, Heater weighed her options. In the end, the lingering doubts about her long-term health combined with her growing desire to explore other interests led to a decision she now says was the best she's ever made.
"I do miss (teammates), but honestly, I've never been so happy with my life," Heater said. "I feel like I have windows of opportunity everywhere.
"A lot of people, they use the term 'quit,'" Heater added. "Yeah, technically I did quit. But I like wording it as more of a new beginning, or a way for me to start over and find my true happiness. It made me realize what I really want in my life and what I want to do to make myself happy. I don't think you can put a dollar sign on happiness."