Digna Strautmane makes her mark as Georgia Tech’s valuable do-it-all wing

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

All of the emotions came flowing back for Digna Strautmane when she stepped back into a gym where she had planted her basketball roots.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Yellow Jackets

On Jan. 20, Georgia Tech traveled to play Syracuse, the team that Strautmane made her mark with as a four-year starter. She averaged double figures as a freshman, played in NCAA tournaments and became a beloved figure inside the Carrier Dome. That evening became a reunion for Strautmane.

Tech beat Syracuse on that unforgettable evening for Strautmane, 65-55, and she saw all of the people with whom she built bonds. A fifth-year senior forward, Strautmane visited with those who supported her through any triumph or turbulent time. There were only around 800 fans inside the arena, and many of them had Strautmane in mind.

“We love Digna,” a banner in the crowd read.

“I’m rooting for Georgia Tech now,” a fan told Strautmane. “Because you’re there.”

She gave a farewell to her old family while playing for her new cherished Tech family. On that night, everything came full-circle.

“It was very heartwarming,” Strautmane said.

Strautmane left Syracuse in October after the departure of former coach Quentin Hillsman. She entered the transfer portal, and Tech “got straight on it,” coach Nell Fortner said, and began immediate pursuit of a player who has caused problems for teams across the ACC.

Months later, when Tech has found its success and appears en route to another high-seeded NCAA tournament berth, Strautmane is one of the big pieces in the starting lineup. She’s become one of the more impactful transfer additions nationally, averaging nine points and 5.7 rebounds per game and recording double-digit scoring totals in seven games. Fortner, after the Sweet 16 loss to South Carolina last season, indicated that the Yellow Jackets didn’t have enough weapons.

Strautmane has become that missing piece.

“Diggy has so much experience and is still expanding her game,” Fortner said. “She has been a phenomenal addition to us. Her value is incredible.”

At the time when Strautmane decided to leave Syracuse, she faced a tough decision. She could return to her hometown of Riga, Latvia, to begin her professional career in Europe. The other choice, which won out, was to use her extra season of eligibility and stay in Division I. Strautmane felt like there were more ways to refine her game, and another season in college would allow for that.

Tech didn’t waste any time. It knew Strautmane, because Fortner often found her name on scouting reports. Strautmane immediately saw strong relationships between the coaches and players and already knew plenty of the Europeans on the team from previously playing with or against them — Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (Helsinki, Finland), Lorela Cubaj (Terni, Italy) and Elizabete Bulane (former Latvian teammate from Riga).

Along with the coaching staff, Cubaj became a big advocate for adding Strautmane. She knew her capabilities as a wing player and how Tech could add another element to her game with a half-court offensive scheme centric upon versatility. Cubaj immediately became a friend, and they had plenty of conversations including FaceTime calls that would be hours long.

“She is a great player, and I always thought we would have great chemistry on the floor,” Cubaj said. “I’m still really thankful I am sharing my last year with her as my teammate.”

“In the back of my head, I always knew it was the right choice,” Strautmane said. “I just had to say yes.”

Strautmane got to Tech and realized a completely different situation than at Syracuse. Every piece already had been in place after Cubaj and Kierra Fletcher returned to the program. She was one of only three newcomers, along with freshmen Bulane and Carmyn Harrison. Everybody had a leg up on Strautmane, but experienced teammates gave her an opportunity to learn deeply and quickly.

Fortner started her out at the forward position, but in a bench role. Strautmane immediately earned the “team player” tag, so she didn’t care whether she started. She contributed nicely off of the bench role, too, on a team that doesn’t feature loads of depth. She debuted with 19 points at Central Michigan.

“I loved having her come off of the bench,” Fortner said. “She was a good energy punch.”

After three games into the season, Tech had a vacant spot in its starting lineup. Guard Loyal McQueen entered the transfer portal and eventually committed to Alabama. Tech had big plans for McQueen as a focal point of the guard rotation, but an unexpected move left no choice but for Fortner to insert Strautmane into the lineup.

The Jackets lost their bench spark, but the transition happened rather seamlessly. Strautmane moved to the wing while Eylia Love moved from the wing to shooting guard to play alongside Lahtinen, the new point guard.

“Everyday, we came in and they made us better,” Strautmane said of Tech’s returners. “I started behind them, then worked my way up to be at the same level. I had to earn it. That’s what I did.”

Strautmane’s influence is felt each day inside Tech’s locker room. Fortner said she’s the nicest person “you’ll ever meet.” She’s the player who won’t let a player practice in the gym alone. Bates recently stayed after practice for extra shooting. Strautmane waited for her and rebounded without a bit of hesitancy.

“She gets it,” Fortner said.

On the court, Strautmane’s notable performances have been aplenty. She’s more of an all-around player than she showed at Syracuse. She’s an active defender, can play in the post and shoot from the perimeter. In Tech’s most-recent win over North Carolina, Strautmane had 14 points and 11 rebounds. Four of her made baskets were 3-pointers, three of which came from the wing.

Strautmane’s versatility is what stands out most, and Fortner wants continued confidence. The fifth-year player, though, wants more. Strautmane is ready to show more in games, which she called the end results of practices. In between her stronger showings were two- and three-point performances against Florida State and Virginia.

“Even still, now, I need to be more consistent with every game,” Strautmane said. “I feel like I’m a work in progress sometimes. I’m a player, so that’s normal.”

The steps Strautmane took through the Carrier Dome not only brought upon memories of where her college career started, but also where she’s finishing it. She’s found a home at Tech, if only for a year, for a journey thousands of miles from home to have an ideal finish.

She first realized it in the home opener. The big wins over Georgia, Connecticut and in the ACC reassured her choice. The moments in between create admiration for those around her at Tech.

“The main goal is to win a championship,” Strautmane said. “I don’t look at anything less or expect anything less. We’re definitely capable of that. I want to leave the best behind me, and I want to be a part of something great.”