WPI’s Ama Biney doubles down on athletic stardom

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WPI’s recruitment of Ama Biney was a classic double team.

Whitney Goldstein, the Engineers softball coach, knew Biney as a power-hitting, fleet-footed centerfielder, who would be a home run for her program.

In the early stages of recruiting Biney, though, Goldstein learned her target was an outstanding basketball player as well and may decide to pursue a college career on the hardwood rather than the diamond.

Upon hearing this, as well as a rumor that some schools may offer Biney the opportunity to play both sports, Goldstein met with Cherise Galasso, the women’s basketball coach at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Galasso had Biney on her radar, too, but the longtime coach was under the impression that one of the city’s brightest scholastic hoop stars was going to play softball in college.

Ama Biney hit .445 as a freshman center fielder for WPI's record-setting softball team.

Courtesy WPI Athletics

Ama Biney hit .445 as a freshman center fielder for WPI’s record-setting softball team.

“During the recruiting process Ama told me she loved both sports,” recalled Goldstein, whose grandfather was former Red Sox manager Don Zimmer.

“So, one day, I just went to Cherise and said, ‘I think this kid is an exceptional athlete who has All-American potential in softball.’ I told Cherise, ‘She’s a game-changer. She is an immediate impact player for us. Is there a way that she can be a part of your program, too?’ We kind of went from there.”

So, the two coaches – in part by going together to Biney’s basketball games at Holy Name Central Catholic High School – made it clear to Biney that she could enjoy the ultimate double-double with the Engineers.

In the end the opportunity to play both sports collegiately at a school with such rich academic and athletic traditions was a key reason Biney brought her many talents – and positive personality – to the Institute Road campus.

Just a sophomore, Biney has already flourished athletically at WPI.

She led the 24-5 Engineers in both scoring (11.1 points per game) and rebounding (5.9) and played a key role in the Engineers capturing their first New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Tournament title Feb. 27 with a pulsating, come-from-behind, 60-59 victory over Babson, the team which halted WPI’s school-record 18-game winning streak 17 days earlier.

Ama Biney has quickly become one of the top guards in the NEWMAC.

Jon Endow / Courtesy WPI Athletics

Ama Biney has quickly become one of the top guards in the NEWMAC.

With the win WPI earned a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament [bracket here], its first in 20 years. The Engineers traveled to Pennsylvania where they faced the 28-0 University of Scranton Blue Royals — the No. 3 team in the country and a program in its 28th postseason — in a first-round game Friday, March 4.

[It was a contest the powerhouse Scranton team generally controlled, resisting a number of Engineer rally bids en route to a convincing win. Biney struggled from the floor but managed a game-high 11 rebounds. The last time WPI played in the national tournament, 1996, it was a member of the New England Women’s 8 (NEW-8) Conference. Its only other appearance was in 1984.]

For her efforts, Biney, who also stood out defensively with a team-best 2 steals per game, was named to the NEWMAC All-Conference First Team. Last year, as a freshman, Biney averaged 8.2 points and 3.6 rebounds.

And after she was finished on the court, last spring Biney batted .445 (65 for 146) with a team-best five home runs, nine doubles, nine triples and 45 runs batted in. Biney’s .445 average and 23 steals were second-best on the team, to fellow freshman standout Nina Murphy Cook. WPI finished the season 34-11, a school record for wins, and advanced to the Super Regional round of the NCAA Division III tournament.

How impressive has the start to Biney’s WPI career been? Rusty Eggen, associate athletic director and sports information director at WPI, believes it’s unprecedented.

“If Ama continues on the track she is on she will end up being the best two-sport athlete in the history of WPI,” Eggen said, “while at the same time making a run at being the best female athlete in the history of the school.”

[To wit: According to a WPI Athletics release Saturday, May 5, Biney was named to the initial watchlist for national Division III Softball Player of the Year.]

Almost two years removed from a lot of hand-wringing about a potential decision she didn’t want to make, Biney couldn’t be more thrilled with the way things have worked out.

“WPI has really been a good fit for me,” the always-smiling Biney said. “It’s not too big, it’s not too small. I love it here; I’m glad I picked it.”

From Granite Street to Institute Road

Biney, whose full first name is Ewurama, was born in Worcester and raised on Grafton Hill. After attending Roosevelt Elementary School she attended Holy Name from Grades 7 to 12. Her parents, Yedu and Adjoa “Judy” Biney, were born and raised in Ghana before immigrating to Worcester many years ago. They still live in the city and are regular attendees at Biney’s WPI games, as are her sister Efua, 29, and brothers Kwamina, 25, and Paa-Kwesi, 22.

Ama Biney

Courtesy WPI Athletics

Ama Biney

Biney acknowledged that as a high school senior she was troubled by the prospect of having to play just one sport in college.

“I had thought about all the scenarios; playing both, playing just basketball, playing just softball,” Biney said. “It was going to be really tough for me to decide on one or the other. I did not want to let go of either one.”

So, at the height of Biney’s torment, Goldstein offered a solution.

“If playing both is something you want to do,” Goldstein said, “you should definitely think about WPI.”

Which is how, in the winter of 2013-14, Goldstein could be found alongside Galasso in the bleachers at Francis P. Kelly Memorial Gymnasium watching the Holy Name girls’ basketball team.

“We decided that we had to show her a united front,” said Goldstein, who laughed when she recalled going with Galasso to the games in their fire-engine red WPI shirts amid a sea of Holy Name supporters adorned in baby blue and black.

“Basketball is important to me and softball is important to Cherise, because we know the sport we don’t coach her in is also going to be part of her WPI experience, and her overall experience at WPI is extremely important to both of us.”

The fact that Goldstein and Galasso appeared, first and foremost, interested in Biney making a decision that was best for her – no matter where that would lead her – really got Biney’s attention.

“They were always positive and genuinely interested in helping me make the best decision for me. That is something I really connected with both of them on very early in the process.

“My experience had been that most coaches just want you to commit, they’re not overly interested in your decision being the best for you,” Biney said. “They tried to help me as a person, not as a player. That was something that I really liked; something I really want to be a part of.

“I didn’t get that sense from some of the schools that were recruiting me,” she continued. “That was something that really stood out. It made me realize this is a different type of community; that they were going to do everything that they could do to help you be the best you could be, on and off the field or the court. “

Engineering a star

In both sports Biney has made an almost seamless transition to the college level.

Her breakout in basketball came on the next-to-last day of 2014, when, in just her 10th collegiate game, she scored 17 points in the championship game of the Westfield State Holiday Tournament, leading WPI past the hosts, 72-48. Biney was named tournament MVP.

“Everybody I talked to about Ama – her softball coach, her basketball coach, her teammates – used the same word to describe her: special,” Galasso said. “But, until you experience it firsthand, you don’t know exactly what they mean.

Biney's 5.9 rebounds per game led WPI, and she was a top ball-handler too.

Courtesy WPI Athletics

Biney’s 5.9 rebounds per game led WPI, and she was a top ball-handler too.

“We knew the first day of practice how talented she was athletically, but the rest of it really came through in the Westfield State Tournament,” Galasso continued. “That was where it really started and it has just taken off from there. She stepped up, stood out and shined that day.”

And as a result Galasso took the wraps off her talented freshman.

“We just kind of opened things up for her,” she said. “We told her, ‘Just go out there and do you within the system.’ ”

Biney just nodded her head when the Westfield State game was mentioned.

“Oh yeah, I remember that game. I remember coach gave me a chance to go out and play, and that’s just what I did,” Biney said. “There is definitely a mental adjustment as well as a physical adjustment to the college game, to being able to play with the big dogs, so to speak. That game coach just threw me out there and let me play, and good things happened.”

Biney said she knew that it was her window of opportunity.

“Looking back I think I did know that,” she said. “In the game I’m always thinking about what I can do to help the team win. After a couple of shots I was feeling pretty good and I just had a really good game. That’s when I knew that I could play at this level and that I could have an impact on our team for the season.”

A where-do-I-start look crossed Galasso’s face when asked what makes Biney special.

“Well, No. 1 she is a phenomenal person, a sweetheart – kind, caring, a great teammate and an excellent role model. She’s always positive, she’s always picking people up,” the coach said. “And you’re just not going to meet a kid that’s going to work harder than Ama does. On top of being so talented she wants to get better every day and she works hard at that.

“She sets the tone for us,” Galasso continued. “When some of your best players are your hardest workers, you know you’ve got something special. And, on top of that, she can do a lot of different things. Because she can I don’t think she gets enough credit. People notice her because she makes a flashy play, or because she’s very fast and she can shoot and drive; but she’s an outstanding rebounder, too.

“Ama has come up with some huge rebounds for us on the defensive end. And she keeps plays alive by tipping the ball. And she dives on the floor for loose balls. And she takes charges. And she’s a good defender,” the coach explained. “… She is an all-around player. She is willing to do whatever the team needs her to do on any given day.”

Dy-Nap-ic duo

One thing softball offers Biney that basketball does not is the chance to play with her best friend and former Naps teammate, Kelsey Saucier, a classmate who popped four home runs in limited at-bats as a freshman last season.

“Kelsey and I, we’re like Batman and Robin; we’re always together,” Biney said, before flashing maybe her biggest smile of the interview. “She’s a pitcher and we room together. We’ve been together since fifth grade. That’s a long time.”

While Goldstein is credited by many for getting Biney to WPI, she said the person most responsible was Saucier.

“The response to my initial email to Kelsey was that her best friend, Ama, is also an excellent athlete and plays basketball and softball. Nothing about herself,” Goldstein said. “The impression I got off of that first email from Kelsey was that Kelsey and Ama are kind of a package deal.

“They’re best friends, they love being around each other and they’re both competitive,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein said Biney had a minor adjustment when switching from basketball to softball her freshman year.

“Basketball season ended in mid-February last year and I told Ama to take two days off to give her body a rest, but I asked her to come to practice those days and watch so she could start to get her mind in softball mode,” explained Goldstein, who said the team was going on its spring break trip to Florida at the end of that week. “On Day 3 I get in the cage with Ama and start tossing the ball to her – I’m maybe 15 feet away from her – and she must have swung and missed, completely missed, 10 times in a row.

“I was saying to myself, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ She didn’t even make contact. I was having a mild heart attack,” the coach continued. “I’m thinking, ‘It’s because she plays two sports. She hasn’t picked up a bat in five months. Is this what’s going to happen every year?’ ”

Goldstein told Biney, and the team, to take a water break, and continued her freak-out with her assistant coach.

Biney was recently named to the 2016 national Division III Player of the Year watch list.

Courtesy WPI Athletics

Biney was recently named to the 2016 national Division III Player of the Year watch list.

“She swung and missed 10 times in a row; I thought she could be the starting centerfielder for us this year,” Goldstein said to her assistant coach. “Katie Bettencourt, now the head coach at Assumption College, just looked at me and said, ‘Whitney, relax. Remember, it’s day one for her; remember how athletic she is.’ I said, ‘You’re right. I can’t expect anyone who hasn’t done anything in a while to be in midseason form.’ ”

Once the Engineers got to Florida, Goldstein saw the player she recruited.

“Out of her respect for her teammates I didn’t start her in the first game – her teammates had been working really hard and practicing and she hadn’t really practiced at all,” the coach explained. “So I put her in the second game, just to get her feet wet even though we’re just a few days removed from 10 straight swings and misses.

“So, Ama gets up and she just starts ripping doubles, ripping triples, flying around the bases, stealing bags, making diving catches. I swear to God, three days earlier, [she] was swinging and missing and looked like someone who hadn’t picked up a bat in months – which she hadn’t – and now she is in midseason form,” Goldstein said with a hearty laugh.

“So, it just kind of shows you how athletic she really is, and how her brain just switches from one sport to the next in just a matter of a few days. But, I’ve never seen anything like it. She has a natural gift which a lot of people don’t have. She is a special kid.”

There’s that word again.

“Ama is competitive and athletic and she just swings the bat,” Goldstein said. “Ama doesn’t always have the best fundamentals when it comes to softball, but she knows how to be a gamer. She knows how to turn it on.

“She is competitive 100 percent of the time. It’s not just once in awhile; it’s every at-bat, every pitch, every time she’s in the field. She just knows how to be competitive. It’s just in her nature. She wants to win every single battle she’s in. I love that because it pushes her teammates to be like her.”

The interview ended with the same question with which it started: Are you a basketball player who also plays softball, or a softball player who also plays basketball?

“I don’t even know how to answer that question. I really think that it is whatever sport I’m in, that’s who I am,” Biney said. “I don’t know, they’re both so different and I have such a special bond with both teams. What I do know is I’m glad I came here, a place where I don’t have to choose.”

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