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Example's Walker Plays With Chip On Shoulder, Commits to USC Upstate
The senior guard’s toughness helped her become a Division I recruit.
By Kaleb Carter
Nyla Walker admits she plays with something of a chip on her shoulder.
So it should come as no surprise that the determination she shows on the court garnered some of her recent college interest, according to Example Academy coach and founder Barry Bradford.
“The week she earned the scholarship attention of coaches she chipped a tooth in one game, busted her chin in another and got knocked out the air in another,” Bradford said. “All this on the road, but kept playing in spite of it all, showing incredible toughness that I think also got coaches’ respect.”
On August 22 the now-senior guard committed to USC Upstate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, less than three weeks after visiting its campus. The 5-6 playmaking guard chose USC Upstate over another D-I offer from Chicago State.
“Throughout the whole process, I got overlooked because of my height,” Walker said. “A lot of times, people underestimate me because of my height, so that’s something that has always driven me. I feel like being undersized, so-called undersized guards have to work that much harder and make zero mistakes, work that much harder and perfect my game.”
Like most in the Example family, Walker is a South Suburban native, growing up in Glenwood. Walker spent freshman year at Marist, then the past two at Mother McAuley with fellow future D-I players in Bella Finnegan (Indiana State commit) and Faith Okorie (numerous DI offers).
Playing with future college players during both the high school and AAU seasons, with Example Sports AAU, has expanded Walker’s playmaking abilities.
Bradford said Walker sees things happening early on the court, allowing her to make on-time passes, and she communicates with teammates in a way that facilitates connections.
“I always try to make sure I know personnel so I can make the right decision, who to pass it to, when to pass it to them and how to pass it to them and stuff like that,” Walker said. “Being a playmaker, I feel like I have to know when and when not to take a certain shot, and when to pass the ball and when to do this and that. Just making the best decisions off a certain read.”
For USC Upstate, second-year head coach Becky Burke is only the program’s second coach in its 16 years at the D-I level.
The now-senior point guard wasn’t overlooked by the Spartan program.
2022 PG Nyla Walker got that 🎒 of goodies. She is ⚡️energizer with that chip on her shoulder. Has not even scratched the surface of what will be! Kid will be a giant slayer! @OfficiallyNyla #ExampleStrong #JustWork... B.— Barry Bradford (@barrybradford3) May 2, 2021
(I do not own the rights to this music) pic.twitter.com/CcmIZBBet6
2022 PG Nyla Walker continues to elevate her game. Electric Guard that defends 94 feet, nice handle, can score on all 3 levels as well as sets up teammates. Her game continues to grow, excited for this kid! @OfficiallyNyla #ExampleStrong #JustWork... B. pic.twitter.com/n7nKPLDL1o— Barry Bradford (@barrybradford3) April 5, 2021
Walker, who said she appreciated the family-like and supportive atmosphere shown by the basketball program, chose USC Upstate in-part due to its Kinesiology major. She may pursue a path in athletic training or physical therapy.
“Off the court she is as quality of a human being as you could find,” Bradford said. “She lights up the room with her personality and character. Brings positive energy to all.”
An unconventional learning process in a prep school — Walker attends campus on-site and takes remote classes in an online classroom with her teammates/schoolmates — she has found that her time thus far at Example Academy is preparing her for the future.
“Just having to lock in, with us being so busy especially when we start traveling, you really have to lock in and stay focused,” Walker said. “I know a lot of the time when you talk to college coaches or students and stuff, they always talk about time management and how they struggle with that or how they struggle with the transition [to college]. Prep school at the academy is basically like the college experience, it prepares you for that to make sure you have time management and stay locked in.”
When she heads down to Spartanburg, she is welcoming the opportunity to chase a better version of herself with the support she’s hopeful to receive from coaches and teammates alike.
“The basketball program … they really lock in on, ‘This is hard work,’” Walker said. “They’re very detail-oriented also. If you mess up … if one small detail is off, they’re correcting it. I’m not saying they want perfection, but they want as close to perfect as they can, you know? And that’s the vibe I got and I thought it was awesome.”
Top Illinois 2022 Recruit, Kenwood's Brianna McDaniel, Commits to Texas A&M
For Brianna McDaniel — the top-ranked player in the state of Illinois and a consensus class of 2022 top 50 recruit in the nation — the past year has produced some of the toughest months of her life.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed and then shortened her junior season, and she caught the virus herself. She had a grandfather and cousin pass away. And on March 7 she sustained a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus in a game against Evanston.
Now she only looks forward, counting on the support she’s received from family, coaches and friends, committing to play college basketball at Texas A&M University.
“I knew that that was the best fit for me because after I hurt myself, they called me to check on me, see the things I needed, asked some of the trainers to give me some information,” McDaniel said. “They were really hands-on. Even though I wasn’t physically with them, they were really hands-on with my injury and I really appreciated that. I love the team so much. They called me while I was going through [my recovery] … they checked on me, texted me after I had surgery … they gave me a family-type of vibe and I appreciated that.”
McDaniel, who plans to use her education to become a veterinarian, announced her commitment on Zoom and at a party Thursday. She chose Texas A&M over offers from more than 30 Division I programs, with Mississippi State and Georgia following close behind. Texas and Louisville were also among the final five.
Brianna and her family felt that the coaching staff at the perennial power presented a supportive but motivating presence. A personal connection with the assistant coaches made McDaniel feel more comfortable in her visits to College Station, Texas. Shamona McDaniel, Brianna’s mother, was strongly in agreement with her daughter about the nature of the A&M staff.
“I really love how straightforward coach (Vernette) Skeete is,” Shamona McDaniel said. “Though, she is very happy and she’s playful with the kids. She can get down on their level, but when it’s time to really dig in and really get them to focus, she does not play.”
Brianna McDaniel comes from a basketball family. Her mother is a coach at Hyde Park Academy. Her father, Adrian McDaniel, is a coach with the Lady Dribblers and Chi Hoops Express, programs Brianna McDaniel has been part of in AAU. Her sister, Shadrian, plays guard for St. Francis University in Joliet.
“I really leaned on them a lot,” McDaniel said of her family. “They’ll be shipping me off to school. I’m in someone else’s care, and I’ve always been in their care for 17 years, so it’s gonna be hard for them to give their child away. Knowing [Texas A&M’s] coaches and knowing they’ll have [in mind] my best interests was a little easy on their minds. It’s hard to let their last child [move] away.”
Under Gary Blair, head coach at Texas A&M since 2003, the Aggies have gone to 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments. He is fifth among active coaches at the Division I level with 838 wins. Also playing a role in McDaniel’s recruitment, the Aggies have two other Chicago natives on the roster: Whitney Young alumni Kay Kay Green and Maliyah Johnson.
“They’ve done an extremely great job of making her feel wanted and needed,” Kenwood coach Andre Lewis said. “Going above and beyond and being a top priority.”
“I think she’ll fit in tremendously,” Jerald Davis, McDaniel’s longtime grassroots coach, said. “She’s always had a great relationship with Kayla Greene. They’ve always been great friends. That helps bridge the gap.”
McDaniel will come into the program with preexisting relationships with her new teammates.
“[Green is] a good person to play with,” McDaniel said. “I love her. She’s just a great person. Maliyah, she’s literally another me. “We’re so silly together.”
Davis, who has coached McDaniel with Lady Dribblers and Chi Hoops Express, felt that several schools established good relationships with McDaniel. But Texas A&M’s academic options were ideal for her future.
“Ultimately it came down to how she felt going down to the Texas A&M campus and wanting to be a veterinarian,” Davis said. “I think Texas A&M really showed out and gave her a feeling like she was home.”
McDaniel Recovering for Senior Season
McDaniel, already a 1,000-point scorer for Kenwood in essentially two-and-a-half seasons, was in the midst of another all-state caliber season when she was injured. She had surgery and is still in the midst of her recovery process, expecting to return to came action in December.
“It’s been a little tough because I’m taking a few steps forward and I’m taking a few steps back,” McDaniel said. “But at the same time, I just know I’ve got to look at the brighter side. I’m doing better than I was when I first went into physical therapy. When I went into physical therapy before, I couldn’t lift up my leg on my own.”
In the COVID-19-shortened 2021 season, Kenwood finished with a 13-0 record, winning the last handful of games without McDaniel, including a comeback road win at then-undefeated and defending state champion Simeon. According to Lewis, she was shooting 63 percent from the floor. She became the first girls player in Kenwood history to earn first-team all-state honors.
The Broncos also bring back fellow senior Whitney Dunn, a Loyola commit we profiled in March. The pair will lead a roster loaded with future Division-I players that will be among the most talented in the state.
“[McDaniel has] helped transform this program from being an above-average program to a very good program,” Lewis said. “She’s also done a very good job of attracting other players. She’s done so with a bull’s eye on her back.
“Bri has always been a leader,” Lewis continued. “It has changed in a sense in that she’s had to be more a [leader] vocally now than by her actions [because of the injury]. And she’s helped me. She’s always working hard on the floor.”
As her physical therapy continues, McDaniel said she has had to look at basketball through a different lens.
“I think it was God’s plan to tell me to slow down, because I don’t ever slow down,” McDaniel said.
Still, those closest to her know that doesn’t mean her tenacity is gone.
“Her passion and her love for the game have never waned,” Davis said. “[She has] the tenacity and the toughness to grind through the good days and the bad days.”
For the SIU-Edwardsville women’s program, the 2022 recruiting class is coming together with Illinois prep talent.
Its latest commit is Sophie Sullivan, a Willowbrook point guard who spent her underclassmen years Montini. As a junior she helped lead the resurgent Warriors, to a 14-2 record overall, including 6-0 in West Suburban Conference Gold play, as well as a WSC tournament title.
Sullivan, who announced her commitment on August 13, joins Edwardsville’s Macy Silvey in the recruiting class. Illinois-Basketball.com recently profiled Silvey about her decision to stay close to home.
Sullivan will lead the way this season for Willowbrook after the graduation of Taris Thornton, who is now at Eastern Illinois. Still, the Warriors will return a boatload of talent.
I interviewed Sullivan about her college decision, SIUE’s program, the upcoming high school season and much more.
Illinois-Basketball: What were the most crucial factors that went into picking your college, and how nice does it feel to have that decision out of the way when you start your senior year?
Sullivan: I absolutely loved SIUE right when I stepped on campus. Edwardsville is a really beautiful town I would say. I feel like no one really knows it until you get there. It just gave me a feeling of home, and I knew I could end up going there. I’ve also known coach Quigley for a long time. She’s seen me play since I was a freshman at Montini. She’s such a nice person. I can’t wait to learn more from her experiences as a player and a person because we played the same position.
I-B: What appeals to you about what SIUE does on the court?
Sullivan: I really like how they play fast because I’m a point guard and I like to push the ball up the court. I feel like I can contribute a lot with my rebounding because for like a smaller guard I would say I can rebound amongst the bigger players and that’ll help get the ball up the court in transition.
I-B: With last year being an odd season, what did you get out of your junior year at Willowbrook and what are you hoping to get out of your senior season?
Sullivan: I was leading on the court, but not so much vocally because I was younger with a bunch of upperclassmen. But then as I got to Willowbrook I think I really took on a leadership role and I helped my team to the first conference championship in a long time. So that was really exciting for my team and for the girls in general. Especially for the seniors to end on a win against a really good (Lyons Township) team was really awesome.
I’m really excited for this year. Especially when I was a freshman, I always looked forward to being a senior and being able to lead all the team workouts and lead the team in general. I feel like the girls really looked up to me and the other upperclassmen on the team since there’s not really a lot of us. There’s two seniors and seven juniors and we have a pretty young team I would say.
I-B: Now that you’ve committed, what are your long-term goals on or off the court?
Sullivan: I’m going to work really hard in this offseason my senior year, and then when I get to SIUE I hope to make the biggest impact possible, whether that be what I do on the court or how I’m cheering my teammates on the bench. I’m thinking about majoring in physical therapy or as a physical education teacher. And then maybe train kids when I’m older on the side.
I-B: When the coaching staff spoke with you, was there anything about your game that they really liked or really wanted you to work on?
Sullivan: I know coach Quigley has always loved how hard of a worker I was, and she’s seen it in me since I was younger so she knew I would be an impact on the program in that way. She was just saying how she likes to recruit great players and people, so not just on the court but how they are off the court as well.
I-B: When was the first time coach Quigley saw you play?
Probably as a freshman at open gym when she was the coach at Lewis [University, in Romeovillle].
I-B: Anything else we should know about your commitment or the upcoming season?
For the upcoming high school season, I’m excited because hopefully we’ll have playoffs and everything, and I would love to help lead Willowbrook to the most wins as possible, and maybe regional and even sectional titles.
Expected Illinois natives on the 2021-22 SIUE roster:
- Redshirt junior Madison Hackstadt (Okawville native, Okawville graduate)
- Grad Student Allie Troeckler (Bethalto native, Civic Memorial graduate)
- Sophomore Caite Knutson (Maryville native, Collinsville graduate)
- Senior Mikala Hall (Danville native, Danville graduate)
- Freshman Tyler Butler (Belleville native, Belleville East graduate)
Macy Silvey — soon to be a senior at Edwardsville High School — has always been surrounded by talent.
Silvey shared plenty of attention on the court: She grew up with two older basketball playing sisters, and she has been playing basketball with future Division I players Sydney Harris and Elle Evans since middle school. Still, she’s found a way to flourish by growing into her own role.
Now she’s a Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville commit out of the class of 2022, heading into an environment that her high school coach says she can compete in. She committed on July 30, less than three weeks after receiving an offer from the program.
“I really like the coaches and how they spoke about how they will be running the team,” Silvey said. “I really enjoy playing basketball at a fast pace, and that is how coach (Samantha Quigley Smith) likes to coach as well. From what I’ve seen so far, the team feels like I would really fit in there which also helps. It helps that the coaches really believe in me, and I think they think I will come in and help shape their program.
Playing at a fast pace against tough competition in high school, Silvey anticipates leaving a mark as a guard at the next level, where she excels at distributing the ball and shooting from deep.
“It helps her for the college game even more,” former Tigers assistant and first-year head coach Caty Happe said. “When kids go play at the next level, all five kids are going to be able to score … it’s not like Macy gets easy buckets. I think the way she plays now is going to translate well to the college level a lot better than many kids coming from different programs who don’t have to compete with many good kids.”
Following in the footsteps of two collegiate basketball players in sisters Megan (Lincoln Land) and Makenzie (Southern Illinois), Silvey has always had to play against tough competition.
“I actually never got to play with Makenzie just because she is a lot older than me, but we do have a lot of similarities when it comes to basketball,” Silvey said. “She has always been my role model in basketball, so it’s so cool when I do get to shoot with her [or] scrimmage somewhere with her.”
Happe said it was special to watch Silvey flourish at the varsity level as a junior last season after not starting as a sophomore.
Silvey shot 36.3 percent from deep last season, averaging 11.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2 steals per game.
“She’s going to bring them versatility at the guard position and be able to shoot it,” Happe said. “I think what she really wanted was to be able to compete somewhere right away and be at a program that really makes you compete.”
“She’s very close with her family … so them being able to see her play [was important],” Happe added. “She also has the chance to make an immediate impact at SIUE.”
With a three-headed senior trio in Silvey, Harris and Evans, the Tigers have three bonafide Division I players on their roster as they seek to win a 13th consecutive Southwestern Conference championship.
Both Evans and Harris have been picking up their fair share of Division I offers and could land at bigtime programs soon.
“My role on the team is being one of the leaders,” Silvey said. “I’m expected for my teammates to know what play we are in. Since there (are) three seniors, me and the other two are expected for the younger kids to feel welcome, and for them to feel comfortable when playing with us. I’m hoping to become a better defender as a senior as well.”
The Tigers head into the coming season with undoubtedly one of the best trios in the state.
“Once we lose them, not only do we lose a ton of leadership, scoring and minutes on the court, but also great, great kids and those three kids have played together all through middle school and into high school,” Happe said. “I know it means a lot for them to be able to play together.”
Now, the Tigers head into their second season post Lori Blade’s leadership as head coach, but with an experienced Happe leading the way.
“The past few years in the program, I feel like the coaches definitely shaped me into a better player and have really wanted me to grow into a leader on the floor,’ Silvey said.
Quigley Smith takes reigns at SIUE
Quigley Smith was introduced as the new head women’s coach at SIUE in May. She was previously the head coach for Lewis University women’s basketball in Romeoville and before that at St. Francis University in Joliet. She is a 2006 graduate of Joliet Catholic and played her college ball at DePaul, where she is third all-time in assists (484). Her sister is the Chicago Sky’s Allie Quigley Smith.
Expected Illinois natives on the 2021-2022 SIUE roster:
- Redshirt junior Madison Hackstadt (Okawville native, Okawville graduate)
- Grad Student Allie Troeckler (Bethalto native, Civic Memorial graduate)
- Sophomore Caite Knutson (Maryville native, Collinsville graduate)
- Senior Mikala Hall (Danville native, Danville graduate)
- Freshman Tyler Butler (Belleville native, Belleville East graduate)
Benet's Morgan Demos, a Navy Recruit, Has Demeanor for Service
In summing up Benet Academy senior forward Morgan Demos, coach Joe Kilbride called Demos “high-caliber, high-character.”
He noted that Demos is one of the only players he’s ever coached where opposing team’s parents will reach out to compliment Demos’ demeanor.
“She’ll go and fist-bump the kid that was beating the hell out of her all game,” Kilbride said.
Those are the types of attributes that lend themselves to a high-potential future at the Naval Academy, where Demos, a 6-2 standout, verbally committed on Friday, July 30.
Demos talked on and off with Navy’s coaches for over a year and creating a rolling list of her top 10 programs with Kilbride. She widened Navy’s eyes further with strong play with IL Lady Lightning this July.
After a trip to Annapolis while at a Nike event, things fell in line. She said everything about the trip and the campus enthralled her.
“Everything about that trip felt right,” Demos said. “I met some of the players on the team. I saw the court. I saw what they had to offer with the campus.
“Currently, they’re in their plebe summer,” she continued. “So all of the incoming freshmen have to do this six-week boot camp, and so we got to see some of them in action while they were doing it. You get to see in-person what you have to go through when you go there, and I was all for it.”
I’m honored to announce that I have committed to the U.S. Naval Academy where I will continue my academic and athletic career! I would not have gotten here without my family, friends, coaches, and teachers who have never stopped believing in me. Thank you! Go Navy! ⚓️ Beat Army! pic.twitter.com/tIfTl9tj18— Morgan Demos (@modemos_) July 30, 2021
Demos’ sister Madison, a Benet graduate that Morgan saw some time on the floor with, is in a service academy basketball program, playing for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
As the younger sister, Morgan learned quickly to soak in the information Madison was sharing at home during her own recruiting process and in talking about her time with the school.
“I would hear what she’s going through absentmindedly and I would (take) it in,” Morgan Demos said. “When I was thinking about college, I would ask a question and she would give me all the information about it, like what you can do when you’re serving after college, what you experience, you don’t have to force yourself. She was very supportive, ‘If it’s not your thing, don’t do it, you’re going to know though.’”
Demos had her sister to battle against growing up, and things got even more challenging when joined Benet Academy. She consistently found herself competing against bigger, more experienced players despite playing competitive travel ball herself. Though she’s now a Division I commit, Morgan Demos was not a starter as a freshman.
Kilbride noted that right from the outset of her varsity career, she sat behind and battled fellow post player Ashley Konkle every day. Kilbride said that Konkle, now at Western Michigan, was understandably stronger and more physical than Demos, who he said now is strong like “a horse in the post.”
“She’s just a very responsible, hard-working, focused (player),” Kilbride said. “The colleges love the fact that she’s … a worker. She’s gotten better every year really since fifth grade. She’s gotten better every year at Benet. She’s one of those kids who’s going to keep getting better in college, and that’s important to them. They want kids where we’re not looking at their ceiling, we’re looking at where they’re starting from.”
Competing against the likes of Konkle and 2021 graduate Kendall Moriarty (now at Nebraska) helped Demos learn to adapt on the court. As Kilbride has told his players plenty of times, “Champions adjust.”
“I learned there’s different types of games for each player, and I adjusted to each type, so it was very beneficial,” Demos said. “In the post, Ashley Konkle, was a lot stronger than I was, so I had to learn to battle with that strength. She taught me very good habits that I have today.”
And while the effects have COVID-19 hindered recruiting for class of 2022 players, Kilbride felt that Demos was the type of player who was particularly affected by colleges’ inability to see her play in-person in the summer of 2020 and this past winter.
“She’s incredibly strong,” Kilbride said. “I’ve told coaches, ‘You can put her in a Division I practice right now and she’s not going to get broken or beaten up.’ She’s going to hold her own.”
“She’d have games where she only scored 8 points, but she got double-teamed on every catch,” Kilbride said. “So she’s creating wide-open shots for teammates on kickouts and dives and stuff. She’d have 10 rebounds and 5 blocks and she’d dominate the game having single-digit scoring.”
Benet heads into the coming school year with talent in waves. Class of 2023 guard Lenee Beaumont comes back on the heels of a summer that has yielded her over 20 college offers. Demos said Margaret Temple is a good shooter on a team full of them. Others like Emma Webb and several other underclassmen guards have given the Hawks reason to be excited.
“We have new players and I’m excited to help them get the handle of the ropes and everything,” Demos said. “Everyone has put in so much effort when I played with them in June.”
Demos also had a parting message about the recruiting process, which has been extra stressful for many since the pandemic began.
“Whoever has committed or hasn’t committed, they should just enjoy the process as they’re going along with it because COVID,” Demos said. “It was a bit unfortunate because it slowed the process down, but everything will work out.”
During the college commitment process, Harlem senior Mya Davidson’s mother gave her the comforting advice she needed to make a decision.
“She really emphasized, the college you choose has to feel like a home away from home,” Davidson said. “And that’s what Lindenwood was for me when I first set foot on campus, it … really felt like home.”
A skilled player on the NIC-10 runner-up Huskies a season ago, Davidson learned that lesson and others from her mother during her recruitment. Mya’s mother, Lauren, played at the University of Indianapolis — a fellow Great Lakes Valley Conference member with Lindenwood.
“I was talking to a few D-I’s, a few D-II’s,” Davidson said. “I’ve always had interest since starting freshman year (AAU and travel), and I’ve been in constant communication with them but not really offers and visits.”
Davidson got her offer from Lindenwood on July 13 and received one from McKendree as well. Davidson said her mom’s love of basketball was passed down to her early on, and she knew from the time she started playing the game that she wanted to play in college. Now, Davidson has a game that her future coaches love.
“They really don’t want to change much about me,” Davidson said. “They say I’m really versatile and they just want to enhance what I already have.”
Davidson, a 6-3 wing, scored a team-leading 13.2 points per game as a junior. She added 5.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.1 blocks per game, shooting 50% from the floor on 10.6 shots per game. She was named to the NIC-10 all-conference first team.
“Mya is so versatile in both her offense and defensive expertise,” Harlem coach Beth Meyer said. “She can score and defend both inside and out — and she is confident in doing so.”
This summer with Midwest Wildcats, a Rockford AAU travel squad, she worked on improving her perimeter game — she shot just 18 three-pointers as a junior, though she made 6. She said she feels comfortable taking smaller girls to the basket and handling the ball on the perimeter with bigger post defenders on her, knowing she can beat them off the dribble.
“I don’t consider myself much of anything because I can do most of it, but I guess I consider myself more of a wing,” Davidson said.
Meyer noted Davidson’s footwork and how she is ‘smooth’ in attacking the hoop from anywhere on the floor. That contributes to her ability to finish inside with finesse.
“As she transitions to the next level, I think she will be a long guard who plays primarily from the perimeter,” Meyer said. “We want to do everything we can to help her develop there.”
For Harlem, critical contributors Myah Udell and Julie Bailey will be back at guard as seniors, as well as junior guard Keyara Bailey.
With Grace Vyborney, Davidson’s cousin to the fold as a rising junior, the Huskies are hoping to make a run at defending NIC-10 champs Hononegah.
“I feel like with our team, everyone should not be afraid to be a leader, and that’s something coach Meyer hounds in,” Davidson said. “Everyone should be able to talk, your voice matters. We want to be a really good team and talk a lot more.”
Illinois natives on the 2020-21 Lindenwood roster:
- Senior Hennessey Handy (Joliet native ad Plainfield Central graduate)
- Senior Julia Ruzevich (Orland Park native, Marist graduate)
- Senior Kate Ruzevich (Orland Park native, Marist graduate)
- Junior Blair Borrowman (New Canton native, Western-Payson graduate)
- Freshman Kendra Lee (Arlington Heights native, Buffalo Grove graduate)
'Throwback' Tatiana Thomas Commits to Kent State, Continues Bolingbrook-to-MAC Pipeline
Tatiana Thomas is a throwback player of sorts in the mind of Bolingbrook girls basketball coach Chris Smith.
“She does what she’s supposed to do,” Smith said. “You can get on her and she’s going to say, ‘Yes coach, my fault coach, I’ll do better next time coach.’ There’s never no disrespect from her at all.”
He says Thomas doesn’t take plays off, and that she has a burning desire to compete.
“Whether she does something positive or negative, she’s always positive,” Smith said. “No matter if I have to get on her and be hard on her, she’s always positive.”
After notable receiving interest from Division I programs as far back as 2019 — Thomas was offered by Marquette that June — the 5-11 forward committed to Kent State on July 3.
“They’ve been recruiting me for a year-and-a-half, and at first I just had a lot of different schools talking to me so I wasn’t pinpoint on one school,” Thomas said. “But once I visited them, I liked the coaches. They were really nice, kind and genuine. I got to hang out with the girls and they were super sweet, and I would ask them questions and I feel like they told me how it was. Some people just gaslight you … I feel like they were pretty truthful … it seems like a good place to call home.”
Currently, four other Lady Raiders are on MAC rosters: De’Ahna Richardson at Western Michigan, Jayden Marable at Northern Illinois, Jahari Smith at Central Michigan and Treasure Thompson (LSU transfer) at Eastern Michigan.
There wasn’t too much of an adjustment period for Thomas after her transfer from Montini before her junior season, as she exploded for 22 points in her first game with the program. Before she had even made the decision to play at Bolingbrook last summer, several of her future teammates took her on a trip to a mall to make her feel welcome.
“I meshed with the girls really well,” Thomas said. “They’re all super nice and welcoming.”
Thomas can fill out the stat sheet in a number of ways — note her seven-steal performance against Homewood-Flossmoor — and Smith says rebounding ability sets Thomas apart from her peers.
“She is notorious on the boards and as a defensive presence,” Smith said. “Offensively she can hit the mid-range, attack off the bounce and use her quickness.”
Despite not being the primary scoring option on the team, her all-around ability yielded her Southwest Suburban Conference Blue Division Athlete of the Year honors. And now she can potentially repeat that honor as a senior.
While the Raiders haven’t spent much time in competition this summer — Smith likes his teams to work on conditioning and skill development during the June team period — Thomas was content with the time used to further bond with teammates and prepare for the upcoming season. She’s been playing more of a shooting guard and wing spot for travel squad Illinois Lady Lightning this summer, a program that she has been part of for years.
“I’ve definitely improved over the last year,” Thomas said. “I do a lot more outside shooting and I handle the ball a lot more. For my travel team I play the two instead of the three or four. I do play those positions still, but I’ve been mostly a two (this summer). I’m really excited to be able to go to Kent State and for them to work with me. I feel like they’re going to make my skillset so much better from what it is now.”
Kent State coach Todd Starkey told Thomas that he likes her game as is and that made Thomas feel comfortable and appreciated, she said.
“If I go to Kent State, I’ll be able to be an impact player and I’ll be able to help my team,” Thomas said. “If that means I were to be able to sit on the bench, I would do that and be the best bench player ever.”
“I really want to make sure I keep myself in shape, especially not just during the high school season but after going into college so I don’t feel like I’m going to die at the college workouts. I want to do that and I want to improve my outside game, my shot, my mid-range and get my handles better before I go off to college so I have a better transition.”
With another bonafide Division I recruit back this season in Angelina Smith, and a strong core of returning players who saw major time for Bolingbrook a season ago, Thomas enters her senior season ready to focus.
“It’s a big relief to know where I want to go and have it all figured out and stuff, so I don’t have to be stressed out through my whole senior year so I can focus on my grades, basketball and just having fun,” Thomas said.
Glenbrook North's Brooke Blumenfeld Overcomes ACL Injuries, Commits to NIU
The summer before her junior year, everything was going right for Glenbrook North forward Brooke Blumenfeld.
As a sophomore in 2019-20, she led the Spartans to their best record since 1992-93, and their first regional final since 1999. Despite limitations from COVID-19, her recruiting was picking up, and she’d just received an offer from Northern Illinois. Playing for her AAU program Wolverinas, Blumenfeld scored 19 points in a game — her high with the team.
Just seconds into her next game, everything changed.
“It was the first possession,” Blumenfeld said. “I cut across the lane, my teammate threw me the ball. And it was almost like I was trying to go up for a right-handed layup, but my feet were planted. So when my body twisted, my right leg didn’t move with it.
Blumenfeld tore her left ACL in eighth grade, but initially didn’t think this injury was as severe.
She was wrong.
The ligament was torn again, an injury that typically takes nine months or more to recover from — this time in the right knee. She said she was in disbelief after receiving the diagnosis, that it was almost an “out-of-body experience” for some time afterwards.
“The first thing that popped into my head was, ‘I can’t play,’” she said. “‘I can’t play the sport I love. I went through this once, why is this happening to me?’”
Still, Blumenfeld said giving up basketball was never a consideration. Even though she knew how much work the rehab process would be and that she’d miss junior year, she had no choice but to come back once again.
“It’s just kind of who I am,” she said. “I love waking up early and going to practice. I love the feeling after a practice. … If there’s a party, I’d rather be in the gym. That’s where I feel most comfortable. It’s my escape from the world. I really don’t know who I’d be without [basketball].”
“She’s a gym rat,” Glenbrook North head coach Nick Capalbo said. “I’ll open the gym up whenever she wants to come in. She puts a lot of work into her game — she’ll stay for hours after practice, come in every day in the summer, [use] the weight room. She’s super driven, especially with this injury.”
Without Blumenfeld, the Spartans struggled, finishing 3-12 in the shortened season. But she was there with her teammates, their biggest cheerleader in the empty gyms.
“She’s a big personality, which I love,” Capalbo said. “It’s super great to have your best player be such a leader. … I remember that something happened in a game and the whole bench went crazy, and Brooke jumped up, with a [torn] ACL, so high and so excited. And she did a chest bump with one of our players, and she hit the floor.
“I was so concerned that she was going to get hurt again when she was recovering,” he added. “But she was just so excited and happy. … That’s just her personality right there.”
Blumenfeld Commits to Northern Illinois
Despite missing her junior season — a crucial year in recruiting — Blumenfeld made her college decision on June 26, staying near home at Northern Illinois. Still, proximity wasn’t the biggest factor in the choice.
“Northern, they kept their offer [to me], and they easily could have taken it [away],” Blumenfeld said. “But they didn’t. Through the nine months, there were some schools that dropped me. … All the way through, Northern stuck with me.
“That just says a lot about the program and how they see me not only as a basketball player, but they care about me as a person,” she continued.
With their first commitment in the 2022 recruiting class, the Huskies are getting a 6-0 forward who was one of the best players in the Central Suburban League South as a sophomore, averaging 15 points and 7 rebounds per game.
As the Spartans’ biggest player, she spent most of her first two years near the basket.
“Freshman year she was just our strongest, biggest player, and she could make some layups,” Capalbo said. “Her jump shot is outstanding right now. … Her ability to go to the basket now, she’s worked on her left hand, her right hand, she’s worked on her post moves. Right now she’s getting that three down, that’s her next phase, what we’re working on this summer.”
For Blumenfeld, the work on her jump shot has been an effort to diversify her game.
“People, they figured out my game sophomore year was driving to the basket, I can finish around the rim,” Blumenfeld said. “They figured that out, so coaches now have [defenders] sag off me because they think I can’t shoot. In the summer league games, that’s my time to, when they’re sagging off, pull up and hit the three. And I think that just opens my game up a lot.”
That versatility should help Blumenfeld fit the role of the modern collegiate power forward, and fit in with Northern Illinois’ system.
“The way they play, it’s a lot like my AAU team,” Blumenfeld said. “They play fast, they like to push it up the court. I really wanted to make sure that the school I committed to would allow me to, if I got a rebound, take it and go. … That’s my thing, I’m six foot and I can handle the ball. And I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stuck down low in the five position all game. And the way they run their offense, they’ll allow me to do that.”
This summer Blumenfeld said she’s working on gaining back all of her explosiveness, but she has been healthy playing for both Glenbrook North and the Wolverinas. Capalbo expects her to compete for conference player of the year this winter, and both have their eyes set on a regional title and beyond. No matter what, she’s put in the work to have a chance at both, and then to play at the next level.
“I tore my ACL once, and then I did it again when everything was at my peak — my recruiting, how I was playing,” Blumenfeld said. “I’m back from that. People have doubted me, but I know what I want to do, and I’ve done it.”
Taylor Charles’ defensive prowess has had colleges inquiring about her since middle school.
“That defensive presence, at the rim specifically, she has incredible ability to change the game from the inside of the basket and out,” Burlington Central coach Collin Kalamatas said. “Not only the shot-blocking element, but her presence around the basket really discourages (other teams).”
The 6-2 Charles, who comes from an athletically gifted and academic-focused family, averaged 10.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 2021’s shortened 15-game season. It was her first with the Rockets after spending her underclassmen years at Montini. It was numbers like those that brought programs such as Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Virginia Tech, Purdue, DePaul, Colorado and others calling.
The Burlington Central senior, with her collegiate decision behind her — Charles committed to Ivy League power Princeton on June 22 — has been able to focus on the aspects of her game that could make her a major part of the Princeton rotation immediately after high school.
“I think I fit in really good with how they play,” Charles said of Princeton. “They’re more defensive-oriented and that being my favorite part of the game … I also think I’ll be able to help them on offense. I have that ability.”
In the meantime, she’s taking charge as a vocal leader on a long-successful program at Burlington Central. The Rockets have a record of 205-54 over the last nine seasons between coaches Mark Smith and Kalamatas — who enters his third year as head coach. Burlington Central will look to Charles to a great degree after the loss of seniors Avery Andersen and University of Indianapolis signee Elana Wells.
This summer, the Rockets have taken on tough competition from the likes of St. Charles North, St. Charles East, Carmel Catholic, Geneva, Sycamore and Huntley, among others. Kalamatas said Charles has stepped into a bigger leadership role this offseason.
“It’s been a really good experience for her as well as the other girls to slide under Taylor’s wing a bit and learn a lot about the game from her,” Kalamatas said.
He also said Charles’ ability to get up the floor with long strides makes her a big weapon in the fast break. Charles said she wants to expand and better her mid-range game.
Three-year varsity players Rylie DuVal and Becca Caratti will be integral parts of a team that lost its leading scorer in Wells. Still, Burlington Central returns key contributors from a 12-3 squad that did not lose a Fox Valley Conference game a season ago.
“I’m just trying to get all of my team motivated,” Charles said. “I think this season especially we’re going to have to play as a whole unit. Nobody can do it themselves. I’m really just trying to build confidence in all of my teammates.
“I just really want to help my team win,” she added. “Of course try to score, block as many shots I can, but I’m not one who has ever really been focused on the stats.”
Both of Charles’ parents are engineers. Looking forward to college, she hopes to study pre-med and ultimately become a neurosurgeon. She’ll jump into a Princeton program on great footing, finishing 26-1 in 2019-20 (the Ivy League cancelled its 2020-21 season due to the pandemic).
“They’re coached by coach (Carla) Berube, she’s an ex-UConn player,” Charles said. “The season before COVID … they were a top-25 team. They’ve been competing at a high level, a good level and the fact she can make that with academics is unmatched.”
Kalamatas’ look into the recruiting process provided him an unfamiliar insight into the Division-I recruiting cycle. Princeton’s desire to bring Charles aboard was notable.
“Most of the teams that had interest from really early on like the Michigan and Illinois types, they didn’t contact me at all,” Kalamatas said. “But there were a handful of schools including Princeton and Yale and Davidson that did reach out to me and talked to the head coaches a handful of times.”
Charles is the third Illinois girls prep player in the Class of 2022 to commit to an Ivy League program after Morton’s Katie Krupa (Harvard) and Evanston’s Lola Lesmond (Yale, after senior year at a prep school in Massachusetts) did so.
“She’s such a good kid, you see it immediately talking to her, talking to her family,” Kalamatas said.
“I’m really happy she made that decision,” he added. “I know she had her pick of a lot of the top power conferences, but this is the best thing for her to play immediately, get a good education and be set for life.”