SAN MARCOS — On a Friday night in January 2020 at Grossmont College, Julie Saelee played the game of her life with the Palomar Comets basketball team, sinking 36 points and setting the school record for most three-pointers in a game.

Her nine long shots that night eclipsed the previous record of seven and helped boost the team to a stunning 90-20 victory.

For Saelee, the game was as real as it gets: feet on the court, lungs working overtime, pushing her muscles and her senses to the limit.

But it was also—as basketball always has been for her—a means of escape, of rising above the stress and struggle of life.

“Basketball takes me to a different place,” said Saelee, 20, during a recent interview on campus.

Originally from the Sacramento area and one of 12 siblings, Saelee grew up in foster care. She started playing basketball in the sixth grade and played throughout high school.

Growing up, she recalled, “Whenever I was going through something or feeling down, I would go to the gym to get up shots. When I played, I would forget what I was upset about.”

As a teenager living in a group home, Saelee went to a local community college game in Sacramento and met Comets basketball coach Leigh Marshall, who has twice been named California State Coach of the Year.

“Julie is a tough-as-nails kid whom I’ve watched grow tremendously over the last three years, in both her physical and mental makeup,” Marshall said. “She’s someone you look forward to seeing every single day because she always has a great attitude, a smile on her face, and she comes to work hard.”

In the classroom, Saelee is pursuing her associate degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences, with plans to become a nurse. When she leaves Palomar, it will be to transfer to a four-year university and become the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

However, she admits, she doesn’t know where she’ll end up. Basketball will determine where she goes from here.