SAN ANTONIO – As a high school student, Hailey Atwood once ignored a recruiting questionnaire from UTSA because she thought she wouldn’t be good enough to play for the school’s women’s basketball program. Years later, she has been a leading force in helping head coach Karen Aston establish a winning culture for the Roadrunners.
Atwood, a product of Bowie High School in Austin, played two years for Blinn College, averaging nearly 19 points, seven rebounds and three assists as a sophomore. She was familiar with Aston, who spent eight seasons in Atwood’s hometown as the head coach at the University of Texas, and was immediately interested in becoming a Roadrunner.
“When you grow up in Austin, Texas, you know who Karen Aston is,” Atwood said. “I was talking to a bunch of schools and, literally at the very end of the season, I saw that Karen Aston was hired at UTSA. We had just lost our game at the regional tournament and Karen called me. As soon as she offered me, I knew where I was going to go because it’s always been a dream to play under her.”
For Aston, Atwood was exactly the person she needed to help change the culture of the program. Almost immediately after being hired on March 29, 2021, Aston began getting calls about the 5-foot-8 guard, including from a close friend and from Atwood’s high school coach Vickie Benson.
“It was a no-brainer,” Aston said. “Every person I talked to, all they said was, ‘If you want to build a culture, you want to start with someone who may not be the best player on your team, but will be the best player on your team. She has such a good spirit about her. You can’t help but love her and you can’t help but be proud of her.”
Things have come full circle for Atwood who averages just shy of 13 minutes per game and is always ready when her number is called. In a recent double-overtime win against Charlotte, Atwood converted a clutch shot and came up with a key deflection in the last minute of the final period to secure the victory.
“I definitely think it’s the work that I’ve been putting in and I think that I do deserve the results,” Atwood said. “I’ve always been a team-oriented person, so helping my team is what I’m here to do. Whenever I can do that, it feels great.”
Nowhere has Atwood been more committed to serving others than through her work with Team IMPACT, a multi-year program that matches children facing serious illness with collegiate teams across the country. She went above and beyond to build a relationship with Mia, UTSA’s adopted teammate, who has battled leukemia.
“I did not know some of the things that Hailey was doing,” Aston said. “We had different functions that we would go to with Mia or we would have her come to practice, but it was probably into the spring before I realized all the things that Hailey had been doing on her own. The bond that she created with Mia and her family is real. I think she’s a part of their family.”
Atwood, who had been greatly influenced in her life by her great grandparents Harvey and Lucille Howard, lost both of them within a year’s time in 2021 and 2022. It was that difficult experience that helped her bond with Mia.
“The key turning point in me and Mia’s relationship is that her grandfather passed away,” Atwood said. “I was 21 when I lost someone really close to me. Mia was 9 or 10 years old. Dealing with that and the pain you feel, it doesn’t get any easier. Being there for her was something that I really wanted to do. I had met her grandpa and for me to go over to see her a couple weeks later and he’s not there, that was very surreal. And, on top of that, she was battling cancer. For me, being there for her to help her through that death as a friend really meant a lot to me. She didn’t have a lot of time to make friends because of her treatment. My heart really felt for her.”
She may have been the mentor in the relationship, but Atwood feels that what she learned from Mia was far more meaningful.
“The most important lesson I have learned from spending time with Mia is just to be grateful for every single day and be grateful for the position that you’re in,” she said. “I went to several treatments with Mia. One in particular was her last chemotherapy appointment at the children’s hospital. Walking in there, there are infants and children that look like normal kids, but they have potentially deadly diseases that have not only impacted their lives, but their parents’ lives. And then you have nurses who have angel wings on them. One nurse had lost her own child to cancer and here she was.
“I was sitting there and my jaw was dropping because, in my mind, these people have been impacted in such a negative way, but they have been able to give back to others and understand that you never know when your time could come. You have to live every single day to the fullest.”
This past summer, Atwood was honored nationally with Team IMPACT’s Teammate of the Year Award, recognizing the incredible influence she made on Mia’s life. For Atwood, it was simply being true to who she is.
“It meant a lot, first, for people to recognize Mia and also just the relationship that we had was amazing,” Atwood said. “But, for me personally, as funny as it sounds, I don’t think that I really did anything special. I think that I did what every person should do to mentor a young child. Spending time with her, that’s a non-negotiable. And she taught me things as well.”
Service to others, in a variety of ways, has always been one of Atwood’s core principles. She’s volunteered with countless other community organizations in addition to her work with Team IMPACT.
“I feel like if you’re in a position to give back, you should,” she said. “Everybody thinks giving back means money, but it’s also knowledge, it’s also confidence. If I could help a kid that might not have a big sister or leadership figure in their life, I would like to be that for them. I think it’s selfish to hold in what you can be giving to others.”
It should be no surprise that Atwood also excels in the classroom. Last season, she was named the Conference USA Scholar-Athlete of the Year for women’s basketball. She earned her undergraduate degree in May 2023, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice. She was a three-time member of the UTSA President’s List. Atwood is currently pursuing her Master’s in Business Administration.
Atwood, who has completed an internship with the San Antonio Police Department, aspires to attend law school and pursue a career in either criminal justice or law. She talks about how her grandparents and mother always encouraged her to “shoot for the stars.”
Her career aspirations fit perfectly with her constant desire to help others. But there’s also another reason they will be a good match for her.
“I’ve got four words for that: I like to argue,” Atwood said with a laugh. “I’m very passionate about my points and what I believe in. I do enjoy arguing about the constitution, laws and regulations. I like presenting my point of view.”
According to Atwood’s coach, that point of view and her approach to life are what make Atwood such an impressive individual.
“Her spirit is really pretty amazing,” Aston said. “Every day, I’ll walk in and there’s always a smile. She is unapologetic about who she is and how she runs her life. She’s not afraid to be herself. She is an amazing person.”
When her career at UTSA comes to a close, Atwood won’t be concerned with the baskets that she made or the statistics that she recorded. For her, it will always be about others.
“I would like to be remembered for being an outgoing person that really cared about others and really strived to help others around me,” Atwood said. “Basketball will come to an end and I don’t want to be remembered as just this basketball player who went to UTSA. I want to be remembered for the things that I did outside of basketball and the example I set for others and for women who come through this program in the future.”