Ex-Anna star’s hoops story turns heavenly
Sister Mary Xavier, former Buckeye, plays for new team.
Tom Archdeacon
Sister Mary Xavier gets ready to launch a shot after speaking to a group at the Russia High gym in 2018.

Before the convent, when she was Sarah Schulze, she scored 1,569 points and grabbed 880 rebounds at Anna High School, then played 111 games for Ohio State.
She’s taken a vow of poverty, so she doesn’t have a lot of possessions.

Not like when she was a standout with the Ohio State women’s basketball team and, like every other scholarship athlete at a big, Power 5 school, had a locker filled with state-of-the-art footwear and other gear.

Now she doesn’t even have a pair of sneakers.

Nor does she own a basketball, something she always had going back to her days as a little girl growing up on the family’s 28-acre farm west of McCartyville in Shelby County and especially when she became a 6-foot-1 schoolgirl legend at Anna High School, where she scored 1,569 points, grabbed 880 rebounds, won first-team All-Ohio basketball honors and was the state cross country champion and the 800- meter champ, too.

All that came when she was Sarah Schulze.

Now she’s Sister Mary Xavier, a 32-year-old nun with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St.

George. And while she doesn’t have all the swag that once came with her D-I days, she does have a simple yellow rosary — a gift from a friend when she was teaching in Cuba — that she uses daily.

And she has a key to the St. Cecilia High School gymnasium in Hastings, Nebraska. She teaches sixth- and seventh-grade religion at the middle school there and leads the campus ministry for the junior high and high school students.

Access to the gym means access to the basketballs stored there and when her family comes out from Ohio for one of the two short visits with her they’re permitted each year, she takes them to the basketball court.

“She’s out there on the floor in her habit and she and her brother, he’s three years older than her, they usually play one-on-one,” said Jill Schulze, their mother.

“I can still beat him,” Sister Xavier said with a laugh Friday.

“And she still can dribble between her legs,” Jill said.

“It took me a while to master going between the legs while wearing a habit,” Sister Xavier admitted. “My one hand is on the ball, so with the off hand I’m bringing the ball to, I have to lift my hem just a little bit so I can switch over.”

She does it flawlessly, her mom said.

Then again, her hoops efforts have been heavenly for a long time. That goes back at least to her freshman season as a Buckeye.

“A lot of 18-year-olds go off to college and forget about their faith,” Jill said: “They think, ‘I’m on my own. Mom and Dad won’t know.’ “But Sarah was just the opposite.

Her faith grew in college.”

Basketball helped with that.

“My freshman year I was frustrated a lot of the time with basketball,” Sister Xavier said. “I went in with a really big head: I was gonna be a star and that freshman year I just sat on the bench.”

After averaging 23 points per game as a senior at Anna, she played sparingly in 17 of the Bucks’ 31 games and averaged two points.

“That was really difficult for me and the frustration I experienced really led me to Jesus,” she said. “I kid you not, sometimes when I walked into the chapel I was so frustrated, I was in tears. But once I discovered that Jesus was present and waiting for me in the Eucharist, I was like, ‘Well, if this is the truth, I have to match my life to it.’ “I started going to Mass every day and then making a holy hour each day, too.

At first, I’d said prayers and prayed the rosary, but really I just sat with the Lord and talked to him.

“Soon this tangible peace washed over me. He drew me to himself over and over and it became a great source of blessing and conciliation in my life.”

She said some people didn’t understand: “I remember one of the seniors telling me: ‘You know, you’re going to have to miss Mass for road games.’ “And I said, ‘Oh no! If I have to miss Mass, I’m going to quit!’ “I think she must have told my coach (Jim Foster) because I never really expressed that sentiment to him, but he made sure I was always able to go to Mass.

Even if that meant calling our shoot-around short and dropping me off at church as we took the bus back to the team hotel.”

There were other times on the road she walked up to two miles to church in the morning. Sometimes she took a taxi.

That year she read Mother Teresa’s book “Come Be My Light,” a collection of the private writings of The Saint of Calcutta and she said it changed her life: “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be a missionary just like her. I want to be a sister.’ After that I felt like the Lord started to pursue me and I thought, ‘Wow, He really wants me to be a sister.’”

As her spiritual side began to take shape, her basketball began to return to form, as well.

Her sophomore year, she came off the bench in all 35 of OSU’s games — against Dayton she had 11 points and three blocked shots — and as a junior she started 35 games, averaging 7.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and finishing fourth in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage.

As a senior she was named the Bucks’ co-captain and was a starter again. She had several big games, but on Jan. 16 against Michigan State she tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee.

As a high school sophomore she’d torn the left ACL.

A month later — with her knee heavily braced and surgery on the horizon — she played sparingly in some of OSU’s remaining games, including an NCAA Tournament loss to Tennessee at UD Arena.

“When we lost in Dayton, that was literally the last I could play,” she said.

Her basketball career — which she once hoped would take her to the WNBA — would end with three Big Ten titles, two trips to NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and three Academic All-Big Ten honors.

“It was actually quite phenomenal,” she said. “The Lord gave me an exact time to finish out my career, and once it was over there was this peaceful surrender. It was like, ‘OK Lord, you let me finish my season. Now I’m yours.’”

Sports-obsessed as a kid

She grew up the middle child of Jill and Mark Schulte — between brother James and younger sister Sami — and her mom said there was “nothing girlie girl about her.”

The family has a photo of her as a 2-year old at the beach, a basketball cradled in her left arm.

“Once she got past the age of 3, I had a hard time getting a dress on her,” Jill said.

She showed pigs at the Shelby County Fair, had a horse named Storm and she fished and hunted.

“I remember she ran the Shelby County cross country meet in the eighth grade and when she crossed the finish line, she got in the truck with my brother and my dad and they took off for a hunting trip in Wyoming,” Jill said. “She got an antelope that time.”

She was highly competitive in sports, so much so that there’s a story of her punching the dressing room window after a loss to Fairlawn as a freshman.

By the time she graduated from Anna, she held school track records in six running events and was a 4.0 student.

Her sports obsession got some heavenly redirection in college and by the time she was a senior she knew she wanted to be a nun.

After her 2011 graduation from Ohio State, she began to visit religious orders and said she felt a connection with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, an order founded in Germany in 1869. It expanded to the United States in 1923 and has its provincial house in Alton, Illinois.

Sister Xavier said it now has around 100 sisters in the U.S. She said she sat her parents down on Dec. 23, 2011 and gave them the news: “I’d told them about this over the years, but I think they were in a little bit of shock that it really was going to happen. But over the Christmas break my dad told me, ‘You know Sarah, I’m just really proud of you.’ “And my mom said, ‘If this is where you’re going to be happy, this is where I want you to go.’ “They were both very supportive.”

“Before Sarah left, she had a bucket list of things she wanted do,” her mom said.

That included sky diving with her grandfather and her best friend.

“I also tried Buffalo Wild Wings’ hot wing challenge, but I failed miserably,” she laughed. “And my best friend and I did an all-left-turn road trip. It was a random trip.

We did one with only right turns, too. We’d end up in places like Michigan or Tennessee.”

Her religious route was more structured. After nearly a year of discernment — working in the inner city of St. Louis — she entered the convent in the fall of 2012.

She’s had assignments in Washington, D.C. and Steubenville, where she got her master’s degree at Franciscan University and worked as a pastoral assistant to the basketball team. She spent two years in Santa Clara, Cuba, and is in her second year in Nebraska.

It’s a long process with several stages — postulancy, novitiate, juniorate — and she’s now in her 10th year.

She’ll find out on Christmas Eve if her final vows will be this year.

‘She’s taught us a lot’

The Hastings newspaper made note of her basketball past soon after she got there and that gave her street cred among the St. Cecilia students.

“Yeah, not much is secret in a small town,” she laughed.

“Most of the parish and the school community was like, ‘Whoa, a Big Ten athlete?’ Nebraska is in the Big Ten, so this is Big Ten country.”

She doesn’t wear her hoops resume on her sleeve, in part because her life is so different now.

“We leave the outside world to follow Christ,” she said. “I belong to the Lord now. I’m a bride of Christ.”

There are various ways the sisters separate themselves from the outside world. Their families can only visit them two times a year — two days at a time — and they can visit home once every two years.

They are permitted 30-minute phone calls with their families once every six weeks and they often practice periods of silence.

While there is a television at their residence, she said they rarely watch it.

While they use computers for school, she said they aren’t for personal pleasure: “I’m not watching You- Tube videos or surfing the web.”

She said she doesn’t miss sports competition, though she sometimes wishes she could coach basketball. And she misses running, though her battered knees no longer permit it.

Three years ago she returned home and spoke to a large group — some 650 people — at Russia High School. The gathering was sponsored by St. Remy Catholic Church in Russia and the sports blogger and podcaster Craig “Fish” Fiessinger of The Fish Report.

Along with telling the crowd how her hoop dreams gave way to a more heavenly pursuit, she had a shooting contest with St. Remy’s Father Martin Fox and played 3-on-3 with some fans.

She said her dream for the future is twofold: “I want to fall deeper in love with Jesus and I want to help other people do the same.

“The more I experience God’s love and healing in my own life, the more I want to share that with others. I want to help them find God’s mercy. I want them to find the freedom, the joy and the peace that comes along with knowing Jesus.”

Those lessons already are being imparted on her family.

She said she’s never felt closer to her family or loved them more. She believes they feel the same.

“She’s taught us a lot already,” Jill said in a voice that quickly welled up with emotion. “Her big quote is ‘Let’s be saints together.’”

Then again, as her brother will tell you, if she gets you in the gym and takes a basketball in her hands, you’re on your own.

Especially when you see her start to dribble with one hand and slightly tug on the hem of her habit with the other.

Contact this writer at tarchdeacon@coxohio.com.