EDITORS NOTE: This is the fourth of a six-part series on the 2018 Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame Class.
By: DAN McDONALD
She was in an unfamiliar country and spoke only halting English, what little she’d picked up from older sister Marina’s two years of living and working in Baton Rouge. She’d already missed the first half of the 2001-02 basketball season.
When Anna Petrakova, her sister and then-USL women’s coach Gay Nix walked into former academic coordinator Danny Cottonham’s office before the 2002 spring semester, Cottonham was uncertain to say the least.
“She’d just turned 17 the month prior and it was my job to get her registered and enrolled in classes for that semester,” Cottonham said. “I was not very optimistic about Anna’s future. She spoke fluent Russian, but most of her other communication was with a smile.”
Flash forward three and one-half years, to the time that the Moscow-born Petrakova was completing one of the best careers in the history of the program, one that included being honored as the Sun Belt Conference’s Player of the Year. No other Cajun has ever held that distinction.
“I learned everything I know about work ethic there,” Petrakova said. “I learned you can pave your own way and make your own mark if you work hard and mean well. And Lafayette was the perfect place for me. I didn’t know if I would feel welcomed or would I feel like an outcast, but that all went away that first day in Mr. C’s (Cottonham’s) office.”
That began a career that eventually made her an Olympian, the Player of the Year in the Russian Premier League and to her current role in international basketball as an assistant coach with the Russian National Team.
In honor of those accomplishments, but mostly in honor of her performance as one of the top players in Cajun basketball history, Petrakova is one of this year’s inductees into the Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame. Her induction is part of the university’s Homecoming activities this week.
Petrakova will be honored along with fellow former student-athletes Damon Mason (football), Tiffany Clark Gusman (softball) and Scott Dohmann (baseball), and Lifetime Achievement recipients Yvette Girouard (softball) and Gerald Hebert (administration) as the newest Hall of Fame members.
The group will be inducted into the Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday at an evening reception, will be honored during the university’s annual Homecoming parade Saturday morning, and recognized during halftime activities of Saturday’s Homecoming game against New Mexico State at Cajun Field.
Petrakova’s mid-term arrival in 2002 didn’t help the Cajun program immediately. UL finished 7-21 in Nix’s final year and went 8-19 under new coach J. Kelley Hall one year later. But Petrakova’s work ethic continued to elevate her game, and she had a breakout junior year in the 2003-04 season and led the Cajuns to a 13-15 mark – their best record in 16 seasons.
That year, despite the record, Petrakova was named the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year after averaging 18.6 points and 9.5 rebounds along with 65 blocked shots. It was during that time that she and Coach Hall, who tragically died from a heart attack in 2010 at age 51, developed a mutual trust with Petrakova serving as a calming influence.
“I miss Coach Hall so much,” Petrakova said. “The first thing I think of while I was there was him with his Dr. Pepper can next to the bench and how mad he would get at us. At some point it became a running joke because we’d all be laughing a few minutes later and I’d tell him don’t worry, we got this. I was always afraid he was going to hurt his foot stomping so hard. But after the game we’d always laugh about it.”
Under Hall and with Petrakova leading the way, the Cajuns made a quantum leap the next year, finishing at 22-9, winning the Sun Belt West Division and reaching the finals of the conference tournament. Petrakova won her second All-Sun Belt honor and was named UL’s female Student-Athlete of the Year. A few years later, she was the only Cajun on the all-time Sun Belt women’s team.
The 6-foot-3 Petrakova finished her Cajun career as the 10th player to score 1,000 points, currently ranking ninth in school history in scoring, and she remains the all-time leader in blocked shots (188) and free throw percentage (76.6) along with high rankings in virtually every offensive category.
But Petrakova was only getting started. Almost immediately after her graduation – which included an overall 3.4 grade point average despite her initial language barrier – she joined the Russian women’s national team program. She won two European championships with the Junior National Team, and continued to improve until she was selected to her country’s Olympic team and was a stalwart on a unit that finished fourth in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Three years later, she was the Player of the Year in the Russian Premier League, and continued to be one of her country’s best players before retiring last year.
How well respected was she as a player and a person? Letters of recommendation for the Hall of Fame came from such basketball notables as Becky Hammon, an Olympic teammate and now assistant coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and Candace Parker, two-time WNBA Most Valuable Player and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who also played with Petrakova in Russia.
Petrakova now spends half her year as an assistant coach with that national team, and the other half in California in other basketball-related ventures. But she hasn’t forgotten those early steps.
“Since I was eight I played basketball almost non-stop, and it definitely paid off for me,” she said. “I feel like I got really lucky. I never had any major injuries and I chose when to finish my career and wasn’t forced to stop. And Lafayette and the Cajuns were a huge step for me. I loved all of it. I would do it all over again and wouldn’t change a thing.”