After a four-year leave of absence from the game, one shot at a dream was all Sheila Shilati needed to make her presence felt on the UCSB women’s basketball team.

Every time the fifth-year senior point guard steps onto a basketball court, she proves that she belongs in a Gaucho uniform.

Shilati has had to endure all the hardships of a student-athlete without a scholarship and with little hope of getting into the game. But Shilati, who had not played organized basketball since her senior year of high school, takes it all in stride, knowing that she has only a few precious days of college basketball remaining.

“The biggest motivation for me was to know that this was my last chance in my collegiate career to do something like this,” Shilati said. “I played with a lot of these girls in summer ball and I thought I could compete, so I just decided to go for it.”

Shilati’s accomplishments are heightened even further, considering that she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 16. No affliction could completely stop Shilati when she averaged 16.3 points a game at Chaminade High her senior year and was named Second Team All-CIF. At one point Shilati could barely walk because her of ailment and was unable to play at full strength until she was 19, when the arthritis went into recession. The condition still bothers Shilati today, but it only serves to make her appreciate what she does have even more.

“It’s just one of those things that you have to deal with,” Shilati said. “The coaches know that there are going to be days when I can’t go at full strength. But they’d have to cut my legs off to keep me from being out there. When you lose the ability to walk, you realize what you take for granted.”

The addition of Shilati has proven to be invaluable to the Gauchos this season, as she has been setting the tone in practice and becoming a leader off the court.

“The biggest thing I try to do is to be as vocal as I can,” Shilati said. “It’s really important in a sport like basketball to be very vocal. I tend to lose my voice in practice everyday, so that’s definitely one way that I try to contribute.”

A consummate team player, Shilati practices hard every day in hopes of improving both her game and that of her teammates. Junior forward Kayte Christensen said that Shilati’s playing style and attitude toward the game are contagious and have helped the team immensely.

“I think what Sheila brings to our team is a lot of enthusiasm,” said Christensen. “She is always really supportive and very driven, and she always gets us really pumped before games.”

Shilati’s influence can be seen all over this Gaucho team, but not nearly as much as on sophomore point guard Debby Caine. Caine has gone from sitting on the bench her first year to averaging six assists a game, tops in the Big West.

“She’s always there working and really sets the example for our team,” Caine said. “She’s really fun to play against and makes me always keep my eye on the ball and aware on the court.”

Through her inspired play, Shilati has also become a fan favorite at the Thunderdome, with the crowd giving a roar of approval every time she enters the game. Both crowd and teammates alike want to see Shilati get some playing time and Head Coach Mark French says the players try to close out games early in order to get her in the game.

“I do think one of the motivating factors of our team is to play really well and is to get the games iced away to give Sheila a chance to get out onto the court and play,” French said. “Certainly we love to get her some playing time.”

With all she’s gone through, Shilati never expected the reception she has received from Santa Barbara’s sports community and is more than happy to enjoy the experience while it lasts.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be in this position,” Shilati said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity that very few people get, especially at this level, and for me it’s all just icing on the cake.”