New Delhi: Growing up playing different sports in her hometown Bengaluru, Sanjana Ramesh often competed against her older brother in football and badminton, honing her competitive spirit.

Starting basketball as a hobby at the age of 12, Sanjana was already playing for her state, Karnataka, when she was 13.

Now, the 17-year-old has signed a national letter of intent to play at Northern Arizona University (NAU) right on the very first day of the NCAA's early signing period.

Standing at six-feet, after Kavita Akula (senior at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix via Garden City Community College in Kansas), Sanjana is just the second Indian-born woman to receive a Division I women's basketball scholarship. The connection that she has forged with the NAU coaching staff has given her the confidence that the United States is the place where she wants to be.

Sanjana said, “I think I would have never guessed that I would go to the US and get the scholarship. I started out just as a player for my school. Then I went on to play for the state. Then I aimed at India and after India when I made it here, I was also aiming at the NCAA division 1. So during my Under-16s for India, I came across this article written on the girl called Kavita Akula. She was the first woman to get this scholarship and when she got it, I also wanted to get it. I even contacted her and asked many people around how to get it. But only after coming to this camp, I knew I could go for it and I had the support system also to go for it. That was my story from Bengaluru to USA.”

Head coach Loree Payne had found out about Sanjana from Blair Hardiek, one of the global technical directors for the NBA Academies Women's Programs, who had worked with her in May when she attended a camp in Delhi. Sanjana will be NAU's first international player.

Sanjana is going to have a transformative experience in the US as the NBA Academies Women's Programs are designed to engage top female prospects from outside the United States, giving players an opportunity to experience elite coaching and facilities. Along with Hardiek, Ruth Riley and Jennifer Azzi are also the technical directors of the programme.

Tall. Versatile. Quick. Comfortable both on the perimetre and the block and a strong personality, Hardiek knew Sanjana could be successful in the US collegiate system.

"She's the type of kid that a coach notices right away," said Hardiek, a former associate head coach at the University of San Francisco and Missouri point guard. "One thing I love about her is that her teammates love her. She's a leader on the floor and off.”

Even though Sanjana had already captained the U-16 Indian national team in FIBA 2017 U16 Asia Cup, she still didn't fully believe in herself. The much needed confidence in her was gained from the experience she had at the NBA academy. Azzi and Hardiek had helped her with that.

“The experience I had in the camp was very important. They give you the confidence and opportunity for NCAA. When I had come to this camp, I wasn't sure if I would make it to division 1 or 2. But, after speaking to the coaches, they gave me the confidence that I can try out for that. And I think, in India, women especially need that confidence to go to the next level,” Sanjana said.

In India, cricket still dominates the hearts, but the talented Sanjana believes, “It is dominated by cricket of course but I feel like now they're giving equal importance to other sports and that is what is important especially when we're accomplishing more in other sports like basketball, athletics. So I think it is coming up.”

She is trying to encourage more and more people to take up basketball and help them out with their queries to reach higher levels in the game.

“I'm trying to help out a girl from Punjab and I'm trying to be open to people to help them out. I ask them if they have any questions, they can ask me, I've been through it all. Also, showing awareness about these many opportunities is important. People think basketball is nothing, there's no scope but that's not how it is. Any sport takes a lot in life,” Sanjana added.

Filled with energy and enthusiasm, Sanjana has a lot of future plans. She told, “After coming back from NAU, I want to play for India and take India to the next level. Show what all I've learnt there. But my main goal has been to play in WNBA or any basketball league. So for that I need to work really hard in the four years. That's my plan.”

Not only Sanjana is an extremely passionate basketball player, she, like other kids, has also learnt various other activities like music and dance.

“When I'm not playing basketball, I go and play other sports like badminton and football. I do have other hobbies too, I play violin and am trained in Bharatnatyam. I also sing classical carnatic music. I am a south Indian Brahmin so it's like a necessity to go learn either music or dance, so I have actually learnt dancing more than I've played basketball and it was a tough time to choose between music and sports. I started trying every single thing when I was younger and looked at every opportunity. I didn't only play basketball. I played badminton, soccer, frisbee but I chose basketball because I felt the most passionate about it,” the versatile youngster explained.

Her message for the youth is to never give up. Sanjana said that no matter what happens, whether one loses a game or doesn't make it to a team, he/she shouldn't feel sad about themselves or blame anyone else.

“Just take up the responsibility and start working hard because hard work always pays off,” is what the teenager had to say.

“In India, my inspiration has been Shilpa ma'am. She's the first international coach, referee and player. And she's just amazing. She knows so much and she has taught me so much in this one camp. Other than that, in the US, it's Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. I'm always watching their videos and they're just amazing people,” she added.

Sanjana will be able to return to the court in January but she'll be busy with her studies until April.

She's still hoping to sneak in a visit to NAU in February or March and plans to study sports psychology or criminology.

We wish her luck for all the opportunities awaiting her in Arizona.