Azurá Stevens pulls back curtain on mental health as Chicago Sky aim for repeat as WNBA champions

Azura Stevens #30 of the Chicago Sky celebrates a three pointer against the New York Liberty.
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As the Chicago Sky continue their bid for their second straight WNBA title with their semifinal series this week vs. the Connecticut Sun, Azurá Stevens looks back to last winter’s overseas experience as key to her standout 2022 season.

“I think confidence is the biggest thing,” said the 26-year-old Stevens following the Sky’s regular-season finale vs. the Phoenix Mercury.  “I think just believing in myself as a player. I mean, I think I’ve been capable of this, but it’s sort of like, people won’t see how you play unless you go out and do it.”

This season, Stevens has posted the best overall numbers in her five-year WNBA career, averaging 10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.8 assists while playing 21.9 minutes in 35 games.

“I think you just get to play really free overseas,” added Stevens, who competed for Nika in the Russian Premier League and EuroCup for several months during the WNBA offseason before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led her to return home early. “And it really helped me, just coming back, just to not hold back. You know, there’s nothing to lose.

“It’s really just yourself that sometimes holds you back. So really coming into this year, I didn’t want that to be anything that stopped me from just (doing) all that I can do.”

But it was more than just a successful offseason that put Stevens on the right track for her third full season with the Sky. The fiercely private Stevens recently revealed that it was a concerted effort to tend to her mental health that truly made the difference – on and off the court.

“I came into this year making sure I took care of myself as hard as I could because I don’t want to go back to that place again,” Stevens said in a recent feature for WNBA.com, where she talked about the anger and depression she faced after back-to-back seasons were cut short in 2019 in 2020, first due to a nagging foot injury that required surgery followed by an out-of-left-field knee injury that also required surgery.

“I went through a lot last year, and I got to a place that I didn’t like myself being in,” she added.

Now, Stevens is looking to help other who might be facing similar struggles. She is one of three Sky players – along with Ruthy Hebard and Rebekah Gardner – who are the face of Chicago’s “The Net” initiative, which launched in early August and is designed to help athletes prioritize their mental health and “provide a full-court press of support.”

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“It feels good,” Stevens told On Her Turf on Saturday, a day after the WNBA feature was published. “I think I’ve gone back and forth this year on like, how much I wanted to share and what I wanted to say, but just to have an organization that really wanted to back me up was really awesome, as well as Rebecca and Ruthy wanting to be a part of it, too.”

Stevens shared some additional insight into her motivation for participating in the initiative, noting: “For too long players have been seen as one-dimensional superstars whose athletic prowess is celebrated and debated,” she said. “But underneath the trash talk and 3-pointers, many of us struggle with the pressure to be perfect, to perform flawlessly and to do it all with a smile. We get injured and we face the mental challenges of getting better. Sharing these stories makes us human and helps people see how we cope with trauma – and hopefully it helps others dealing with the same issues.”

Born in Rhode Island, Stevens grew up in Cary, N.C., and spent the first two years of her college career at Duke before transferring to UConn. She played one season for the Huskies before entering the 2018 WNBA Draft, where she was a first-round draft pick – sixth overall – by the Dallas Wings, where she spent two seasons. During her first season in the league, Stevens was named to the 2018 WNBA All Rookie Team behind a solid 43-percent shooting (111-of-258) and scored a career-high 26 points in a July matchup against Indiana.

She played just nine games in 2019 and 13 in 2020 while dealing with the aforementioned injuries, and she started the 2021 season on a minutes restriction, which only exacerbated her frustrations. But getting over the hump – physically and mentally – translated to an increased role in the Sky’s 2021 WNBA Title run, where Stevens started all 10 games and averaged 9.8 points and 6.9 rebounds.

The turnaround is evident in Stevens’ social media presence, particularly on Twitter where she posts daily affirmations and positive quotes.

“I love posting those quotes,” she told WNBA.com. “I have an app on my phone that sends me them, and it helps me to keep the right mindset throughout the day. I actually send quotes to some of my closest friends every day. It just helps me to be on the right things.

“Some days, you wake up, and it’s easy to not be feeling it that day as an athlete, or even just people in general, but as an athlete, you don’t really have the freedom for an off day, especially if you’re trying to achieve something.”

As the Sky try to achieve their current goal of back-to-back titles, Stevens said they are taking nothing for granted ahead of their best-of-five series vs. the Sun. Although Chicago swept Connecticut in their season series, 4-0, none of the wins were blowouts, with they Sky winning by single-digit margins in all four.

“At this point, it’s more just who wants it more,” Stevens said. “You know, we can sit here and talk schemes all day, but it’s really just who wants it more and we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report. 

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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.