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Jaylyn Sherrod rose from under-recruited point guard to CU all-timer. Buffs need her spark again in March Madness: “We go as Jaylyn goes.”

BOULDER — Before Jaylyn Sherrod became synonymous with the rise of CU women’s basketball back to national prominence, she first had to find her new home on a map.

When CU initially contacted the Birmingham, Ala., native via a call from then-recruiting coordinator Shandrika Lee, Sherrod covered up the phone and whispered to her mom, “Where the hell is Colorado?’”

“She might not have known where Colorado is, but my pitch to her was, ‘You can come be something different here,’” Lee recalled. “‘You can come and leave a legacy — and when you leave, people are going to know who Jaylyn Sherrod is.’

“And now, one of the biggest parts of her legacy is leaving this program so much better than she found it.”

Over five seasons in Boulder, Sherrod’s emerged as the Buffs’ leader and primary driver of what will be the program’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. It’s the first time that’s happened since the end of the Ceal Barry Era in the early 2000s, and Sherrod’s performance in her graduate season put an exclamation point on her impact.

This winter, she became the program’s all-time leader in games started (130) and emerged as just the third CU women’s player to record over 1,000 career points (1,449) and 600 assists (624). While averaging 13 points and 4.9 assists in 2023-24, she became an all-Pac-12 selection again and candidate for multiple player of the year awards.

Sherrod accomplished all that despite receiving just one Power 5 scholarship offer out of Ramsay High School — from that box state she originally knew so little about.

CU’s diamond in the rough

The Buffs first discovered Sherrod when they went to watch one of her teammates in an AAU tournament game. Associate head coach Toriano Towns wrote down Sherrod’s name, and Lee picked up the recruiting from there.

The Buffs had yet to sniff the NCAA Tournament under JR Payne at that point.

Sherrod’s 5-foot-6 frame hardly fit the long, tall prototype the CU head coach preferred in guards. But there was something about her chip-on-the-shoulder style of play that got the Buffs’ attention.

“We always said we could never recruit a guard that small unless she’s quick, tough, fearless, unafraid of the moment, always wants to rise to a challenge,” Payne said. “… That was our only chance of competing at that time — to get those (under-recruited) blue-collar players. And she definitely fit that mold.”

In Sherrod’s CU debut in 2019, she dished out 11 assists, the most by a Buffs player in her first game since 1979. She went on to finish second on the team in scoring that season at 9.9 points per game.

But a major setback came as a sophomore, when Sherrod was limited to only 12 games due to a hip issue she had been dealing with since her senior season in high school. Doctors originally told her she might have avascular necrosis, the same hip disease that derailed Bo Jackson’s career.

That turned out to be a misdiagnosis. Sherrod’s right hip was actually being affected by a deep bone bruise that wasn’t properly healing, as well as a torn labrum and hip impingement. After sitting out eight months following surgery, she came back better than ever as a junior, leading the Buffs back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years and scoring a then-career-high 27 points in CU’s opening-round loss to Creighton.

Along the way, Sherrod came out of her shell as a quiet, reclusive player, and her transformation into a leader continued through last season’s Sweet 16 appearance.

“Learning how to be more than what I thought I would be has been the toughest part (of my college journey),” Sherrod said. “I’ve always been one to lead by action but I learned I have to be a vocal presence in this program, step outside myself and communicate, build relationships, really get outside my comfort zone.

“It’s been a consistent learning lesson, in how to have hard conversations that I have to initiate because I’m seen as one of the leaders on this team.”

Sherrod’s toughness, intellect

As a young girl growing up in Birmingham, Sherrod’s tenacity was apparent early on.

Her mom, Tamika Williams, recalled how Sherrod competed against a trio of neighbor boys in backyard hoops when she was in elementary school, often beating them.

Sherrod was never the top recruit on her high school or AAU teams, but the grit she showed in sessions with her trainer, Otis Leverette, forecast the dive-on-the-floor, pop-with-emotion player CU faithful later came to know and love.

“I go hard on my athletes to condition them to a point where they’re unbreakable,” said Leverette, a former NFL player who has trained Sherrod since she was 13. “She’s got the fight-the-bully mentality. She had athleticism and grit on top of that, and I knew she was going to be special from the first day I met her. The more I got on her, the harder she worked.”

Under Leverette’s unorthodox training program at Modernday Fitness, Sherrod jumped fences and pushed cars. She did fireman carries, gymnastics and boxing — all alongside boys, including cornerback and wideout drills with Leverette’s NFL prospects.

As a young teen, Sherrod trained with Heisman Trophy winner Jamies Winston, as well as cornerbacks Mike Jackson and Starling Thomas V. She was younger than all of them, but never shied away from the challenge.

“She embraced every challenge, especially against the guys,” Leverette said. “The other thing that set her apart was, she has a spirit of selflessness. Point guards, like quarterbacks, they have to be willing to give all the credit away when it goes good, and take all the blame when it goes bad. She showed signs of that from 13.”

Outside of athletics, Sherrod — who started kindergarten at four years old — thrived. She boasted a GPA north of 4.0 in high school. At CU, she earned her undergraduate degree in sociology in three years.

Sherrod completed her first master’s degree in organizational leadership last year, and is set to finish her second in criminal justice this spring. Earlier this month, she was named the 2024 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

“If you watch her playing style, obviously she’s really aggressive,” said De’Ron Jasper, Sherrod’s academic advisor her first four years at CU. “But deep down, she’s the biggest sweetheart. She has a whole different side. She has this smart, intellectual aspect to her. You wouldn’t necessarily think about that when she’s on the court, but off it, she’s up (in her room) secretly playing with Legos.”

In addition to Sherrod’s Lego-building hobby, the student who first arrived in Boulder an introvert has given speeches and presentations on diversity, equality and inclusion over the past few years, both on campus and out-of-state.

“She’s let down her guard a lot, and she’s allowing people to see the other side of her,” Jasper said. “Now, she’s someone (her peers) go to for help, like, ‘Oh, I’ll go talk to Jaylyn about this assignment, because she’ll explain it better than the professor.’”

CU’s chances in the tournament

After starting this season with a head-turning win over No. 1 LSU in their second game, the Buffs went on a tear, building their record to 16-1 and climbing as high as No. 3 in the AP rankings.

Then came the rigors of Pac-12 play. CU lost to UCLA on Jan. 19 in front of a record crowd of 11,338 at the CU Events Center. A defeat to Oregon State on the road followed the next week. After a four-game slide in conference play from Feb. 11-26, CU dropped out of the Top 10 and its ability to be a March Madness host was put in doubt.

In the wake of CU’s double-OT loss to OSU in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament on March 7 in Las Vegas, Sherrod stayed in bed for most of the next day, down on herself for how she performed in the game’s pivotal moments.

“I take a lot of responsibility about what happened at the end of that game, because I’ve got to be better,” Sherrod said. “There’s some mistakes I made I can’t have in terms of turning the ball over and just managing the game. But at the end of the day, after I got out of my feelings, I knew we still have a really good opportunity in front of us.”

After losses by a few teams ranked ahead of them over the past week, the Buffs still have a shot at being a regional host. According to the latest ESPN Bracketology projections, CU (22-9) will get a No. 4 seed and host the first two rounds of the tournament after playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

“At the end of day, either we want it or we don’t,” Sherrod said. “That’s what this team boils down to. If we make our mind up that we really want it, we can beat anybody. And if we don’t, it’ll be a short tournament.”

Regardless of what happens when the bracket is revealed Sunday night, Payne remains steadfast in her belief that “we control our destiny. … and we’re capable of going as far as we want to.”

“I think back to praying we’d get into the NIT (in my first few years), and hoping teams would lose so we could get into the NIT,” Payne said. “Then praying when we were on the bubble of the NCCA Tournament. To think of how we’ve been able to build our program to where we’re on the cusp of hosting, to me, that’s incredible. So I’m living in that (positive) space.”

For another deep run like CU pulled off last year, it will require more consistency than they played with down the stretch of the regular season.

Sherrod’s backcourt mate, Kindyll Wetta, will have to be a defensive pest. Center Aaronette Vonleh, the team’s leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, must play big. Guard Frida Formann, who is one trey from setting the program’s career 3-point record at 258, will need to find her rhythm behind the arc. And CU needs clutch performances from forward Quay Miller and role players such as guards Maddie Nolan and Tameiya Sadler.

But make no mistake, it’s Sherrod’s heart and intensity that will be the X-factor for CU on the big stage. She’ll wear a fitted black mask for the tournament, as she has since breaking her nose against Washington on Feb. 29, fittingly lending No. 00 a superhero look.

“We go as Jaylyn goes, and we’ve seen that all year,” Maddie Nolan said. “We’re a veteran-heavy group with a lot of other players who are capable of stepping up. … But when Jaylyn’s pumped up and has energy, it infects everyone else. She sparks us, and we’ll definitely need that from her in the tournament.”

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