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Tuesday, March 6, 2007 | San Diego State sophomore Tamika Lipford slips off a stuffed backpack strapped over her shoulders and takes a seat across from me in an office at the Aztec Athletics Center.

It’s been a couple years since I first interviewed her as a senior at The Bishop’s School. As always, she’s smiling. I don’t know a better choice of a basketball player to cheer for than Lipford, who is an amazingly resilient person.

With SDSU’s men’s and women’s teams preparing for this week’s Mountain West Conference tournament in Las Vegas, it seems frivolous to fret over whether the Aztecs’ men’s team is living up to its preseason expectations if you know a story such as Lipford’s.

She’s the women’s team’s version of the SDSU men’s team’s Richie Williams — a small but jet-quick guard from a San Diego high school who can pass and play defense. SDSU women’s coach Beth Burns, whose team opens the MWC tournament Wednesday against Wyoming, considers the 5-foot-4 athlete from Oceanside a cornerstone to her rebuilding effort.

When I first interviewed Lipford, her father wasn’t able to attend her games as a senior. Marine Corps Sgt. Reginald Harris Sr. served the winter of 2005 in one of Iraq’s hot spots, Fallujah.

Although Harris is actually her step-father, she considers him her father since he raised her on sports as a little girl. His time in Iraq weighed heavily on her mind, but she still put together an All-CIF season while playing through a shoulder injury and earning a scholarship to San Diego State.

“I would watch CNN all the time for news,” she told me the other day. “My mom finally told me it wasn’t good for me to always be watching, but I would still watch sometimes.”

But her father has been home, safe and sound, for her college sophomore season, having returned in October from his third deployment to Iraq.

“It’s great to have my family here,” Lipford said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. They’re here at all my games.”

Tamika’s senior year at Bishop’s was also when I learned about her now 17-year-old brother, Reginald Harris Jr. They played together all the time as kids until that fateful day when he was five and he suffered a heart attack.

He’s been in a wheelchair ever since then, severely disabled after a lack of oxygen caused brain damage. If you’ve been to an SDSU women’s game, you’ve probably noticed her mom, Sheila Harris, caring for him at courtside

“My mom is the strongest person I know,” Tamika said. “She’s been through so much. She’s had to care for my brother while my dad was away.”

Reginald Jr. can’t speak and has to be fed by a tube, but the family says he always lights up at Tamika’s games.

“When we upset Utah, (assistant) coach (Kate) Paye asked Reggie about the game, and he started smiling,” Tamika said with pride.

Oh, and I didn’t tell you yet that Lipford has played this season with a knee brace after she suffered a torn ACL and MCL on Feb. 14, 2006. Then, an infection and complications forced a second surgery in May that slowed her rehab.

“I can’t feel sorry for myself,” Lipford said. “I’ve got the chance to play college basketball. I’m doing something I want to do. I just work through it every day.”

Winston Churchill, in the dark days of World War II, said, “When you’re going through hell, keep on going.”

That would seem to be an appropriate mantra for Lipford, but she’s too bright and positive.

“Tamika will not feel sorry for herself,” Burns said. “Her mother and father are an inspiration to her. Her mother and father are both an inspiration to me. They are completely dedicated to their kids.”

If you’ve been to a SDSU’s women’s game, you’ve probably heard Tamika’s father. He’s the guy built like Lorenzo Neal, the Chargers’ fullback, who urges on the Aztecs in a booming voice.

“I told him I could probably hear him yelling from Iraq,” Burns said.

But this is one father Burns doesn’t worry about interfering with her coaching. Burns wants Lipford to shoot more the next two years, and she’s enlisted Tamika’s father to coax her to be more aggressive offensively. Tamika is otherwise content to play her role of defense and passing.

Burns, in her second stint at rebuilding SDSU’s program after taking the Aztecs to the NCAA tournament four times, says Lipford sets a tone with her full-court pressure and her passing, but the Aztecs need her to be more of a threat in the MWC tournament and the next two years.

As an example, Lipford hit a three-pointer and scored nine points in a 71-66 upset of Utah.

Lipford had committed to SDSU before Burns took the job, but Burns knew of her because Lipford’s junior year she was coached by Lakeysha Wright, one of Burns’ former players at SDSU.

“Tamika is a very smart person who loves the game,” Burns said. “When I decided to take this job, I called her first. I said, ‘Tamika, I don’t know anyone else here but you, but you and I are going to get this thing going where we want it go.’ “

Lipford, who is a model student and athlete, strapped on her heavy backpack full of books when we finished talking. Onward and upward is the only path she knows.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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