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Taj Cole epitomizes Athletes Unlimited’s WNBA proving ground

Taj Cole weaves through traffic to the basket in Wednesday’s loss to Team Hawkins. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Taj Cole didn’t know she had made the 44-person roster for Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball season this winter until the end of an introductory Zoom call with all of the players.

“I didn’t know who was gonna be on the call,” Cole told Just Women’s Sports. “After a 30-minute Zoom call, they finally told us that we made the league. I was in complete shock.”

Cole attended AU’s open tryouts in early December, thinking it would be a good opportunity to get her name back out there after a standout college career. From there, she not only made the roster as one of four selected through the tryouts, she also showed right away that she can compete with the best in the league.

Through 13 games, Cole is averaging 16.3 points, 5.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. She currently ranks fifth in points and third in assists, putting her in 11th place on the leaderboard as the season heads into its final four games this weekend.

On Feb. 2, Cole also became the first AU player not already on a WNBA roster to sign with a team, when the Connecticut Sun picked her up on a training camp contract. She hasn’t been the last: Kalani Brown, a former No. 7 draft pick, signed with the Las Vegas Aces on Feb. 15, and Lauren Manis agreed to a training camp contract with the Seattle Storm on Thursday.

“I just hope that there’s other girls out there that don’t erase their goals, even though it don’t happen for them the first time,” Cole said. “Just keep working hard and always be prepared for the opportunity, and when you get it, go after it.”

Cole met Sun coach Curt Miller when he came to watch current Connecticut players Courtney Williams and DiJonai Carrington play with AU. From the moment they spoke, she sensed it was the right fit.

“I wanna go somewhere where I’m really, really wanted,” Cole said. “And I felt like not only do they want me, but they’re showing me that I can be a key piece of what they’re trying to build. So I’m excited.”

That feeling is important to Cole because her path to the WNBA has been anything but ordinary. After spending the 2015-16 season with Louisville and becoming a top SEC point guard across two seasons with Georgia, Cole transferred to Virginia Tech for her graduate year. There, she set the program record for assists in an ACC season with 121. But after a COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season, the NCAA Tournament was canceled and Cole went undrafted to the WNBA that April.

Rather than letting the situation deter her, Cole kept pushing.

“Once I didn’t get drafted, I just never let that not be my dream again,” she said. “I just knew that it was just gonna be a different path, a different route for me to get there.”

Cole spent five months playing overseas, from August to December of 2020, before she had to return to Virginia to take care of family. When she stepped on the court with AU in late January, it had been over a year since she’d last played in a professional basketball game.

“That’s why I value AU so much, because it also gave me that stage to play against pros again,” Cole said. “I’ve been learning a lot and listening to the vets a lot. It’s been fun. I love the competitiveness. The point guard battle, we all talk, we all compete. We go after it, we try to win and then off the court, we’re good, we’re close.”

Athletes Unlimited’s schedule, with three games a week during a five-week season, has helped prepare Cole for the pace of the WNBA, where consistency breeds success.

Soon, Cole will turn her attention to what will be a competitive training camp with the Sun, who return nearly the entire core from their No. 1-ranked team last season, including 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones. Until then, she intends to close out the AU season strong, grateful for the fresh start the new league has given her.

“I think a lot of people can say this is one of the best leagues for females, period,” she said. “Next year’s tryouts, the amount of people that are going to try to get in this league is gonna be crazy. I’m excited to see where it goes and how it evolves over the next couple of years.”

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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