By Mark Jurgena
When Raven (Berry) Zackery left Collinsville High School in 2009 there was no way she could have predicted the journey she was about to experience.
That voyage has taken her from the highest level of college basketball to a career on the hardwood in Europe and into the halls of St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis during a pandemic.
“The unit that I work on with the telemetry neuro unit is currently a COVID unit,” Zackery said. “We’ve been taking care of COVID-19 patients since March.”
As she graduated from CHS, nursing was not in her immediate plans, nor was the ten-mile trek to Edwardsville.
“I didn’t want to go ten minutes down the road,” she admitted. “I wanted to go 2-3 hours away. My AAU coach Todd Hill called me and said ‘Raven, don’t be stupid that’s a full scholarship. This school is turning Division I. You have the opportunity to be part of something great.
“Long story short, that was the best decision of my life.”
While studying Exercise Science as a Cougar, she became one of the best players in the history of the school. She was the first Lady Cougar to amass over 1,000 points and rebounds for her career while earning Ohio Valley All-Conference honors twice.
After graduation in 2013, she turned pro and found herself in Lemvig, Denmark. The following year she competed for Strakonice in the Czech Republic.
As far as basketball goes she quickly learned the pro game wouldn’t be the same as her college days.
“It was a great first year I learned a lot about myself as a player and what I actually needed to work on,” she began. “I grew up in Collinsville, I went to school in Edwardsville. I’ve always been around people that know me and they’re like ‘you’re great.’ I went overseas and I was like, ‘oh now I know what I need to work on!’”
One of the biggest challenges for Americans playing overseas is the language barrier. In this regard, her two experiences were vastly different.
“In Denmark, they spoke Danish but their second language was English,” according to Zackery. “It was easier to communicate; it was only maybe like elderly senior citizens that couldn’t speak English. I didn’t have a problem communicating in Denmark.” The same could not be said for her experience in Central Europe.
“In Strakonice, their language was harder to catch on to,” she began. “Unless they were younger, finding someone to speak English was pretty difficult. But I caught on and my teammates helped me out.”
Her teammates were mostly Czech with another from Canada and one from Bosnia. One teammate was from Nebraska.
Because of the language differences, her team struggled that season.
“A lot of my barriers in the Czech were (from) my coach, he could not speak English whatsoever,” she began. “My assistant coach, he could speak some English but it’s a lot of choppy English so there’s a lot of misinterpretation and misunderstanding that went on there.”
Strakonice also gave her a chance to compete against several WNBA players including former league MVP Candace Parker and all-star Kia Vaughn.
One surprising aspect of the European experience she didn’t necessarily anticipate was the pace of life.
“I enjoyed living simple,” she said. “When I was over there I didn’t have a car. I shared cars with teammates, hitched rides everywhere. We walked to the grocery store. When I came back home I realized I can’t just walk to the grocery store I’ve got to actually drive. It was the little simple things that I actually didn’t realize when I was overseas.
“I was a lot healthier meaning I was eating a lot more fresh produce because I didn’t have fast food right at my hands. You couldn’t just go to McDonald’s.
During the summers, she moonlighted by playing more professional basketball. Instead of crossing the Atlantic Ocean, she simply had to cross the Mississippi River to join up with her teammates from the St. Louis Surge of the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League.
“Khalia Collier reached out to me and asked me to be a part of her team,” Zackery said. “At that time they had just won a national championship. I came back, worked out with them, played games with them, we got to the championship but didn’t win.”
After her year in the Czech Republic, she had determined that her overseas career was over.
“After the Czech I was complete,” she stated. “Meaning I didn’t need to continue my career overseas. I felt really satisfied with myself and I was okay with retiring that aspect of the game for me.”
She did return to the Surge for another summer. This time they won the franchise’s second national championship.
“It was that moment when I said, ‘I think I’m ready to retire and go back to school,” Zackery said.
She was accepted into the accelerated nursing program at SIUE in 2016 and just over a year later had graduated into a new career path.
Despite her whirlwind tour of the last decade, she still holds fond memories of her days as a Kahok.
“Collinsville High School… it was amazing,” Zackery recalled fondly. “Those were some great years. Coach (Steve) McFall and coach (Lori) Billy were amazing. It is a real-life family.
“I’m 29 years old and coach Billy’s able to text me or I’m able to call her to see how she is doing and the same thing with coach McFall.”
That extended Kahok family increased just over a year ago when Raven married Jeremiah Zackery. The couple lives in Collinsville.
While her trek to work is certainly not as long as some of those in her past, it is her daily commitment to her profession that determines the future of so many.
“COVID-19 is real,” she said. “Please mask up when you are out in public.”