Bill Fennelly reflects on Monica Huelman Zaruba’s life

Garrett Kroeger

Iowa State’s women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly was clearly at a loss for words during his Monday press conference. 

He struggled to find the words he wanted to open with. But then he found them.

“Those things aren’t suppose to happen,” Fennelly said. “You aren’t suppose to lose your players, as a coach, before you go.”

On Sunday, the Cyclones announced that former player Monica (Huelman) Zaruba, Fennelly’s first recruit at Iowa State, passed away at age 40 Saturday night.

As Fennelly put it, she took a chance on the coaching staff when no other player would. And that chance turned out to be a storied career in Ames.

Zaruba, a native from Vinton, Iowa, played at Iowa State from 1996-2000. During that time, she appeared in 125 games for the Cyclones while totaling 513 points, 436 rebounds and 98 assists. Zaruba also shot 50.2 percent during her time in the cardinal and gold.

“It’s just numbing,” Fennelly said.

Probably the most talked about moment of Zaruba’s career as a Cyclone was in the 1999 Sweet 16 against top-seed UConn. The then-junior hit a 3-pointer with less then six minutes remaining in the game to put Iowa State ahead of the Huskies for good.

“I think the ball is still in the air,” Fennelly said. “It was up there for so long. I remember the TV people, I’ve watched that video I don’t know how many times, about how she wasn’t the first option.”

The Cyclones would win that game 64-58, marking their first Elite Eight appearance in school history.

As Fennelly put it, that shot changed that game and also the program. However, that isn’t Fennelly’s fondest moment of Zaruba.

One of Fennelly’s fondest moments of Zaruba was when he recruited her. Zaruba wanted and did major in horticulture. But during the recruitment period, Fennelly didn’t even know if Iowa State had that program.

“She came on her visit and I learned that we have banana plants here at Iowa State,” Fennelly said.

Another memory Fennelly has of Zaruba was that she landscaped his house for a senior project. Overall, Fennelly enjoyed how willing Zaruba was to not just be a teammate, but willing to do whatever was best for the team. 

Zaruba was never the star of the team. But with her effort and willingness to do whatever needed to be done allowed Zaruba to have a lasting impact at Iowa State.

“She was the star of our program,” Fennelly said.

“She’s been a part of us for a long time.”