CHAMPAIGN — Tori McCoy has grown accustomed to the spotlight.
That happens when you’ve been offered a scholarship to play in college before you’ve played your first high school basketball game.
That happens when two independent national scouting services have you ranked among the nation’s top 10 prep players in your class.
That happens when you stand 6-foot-4 in an era when the average height for females is 5-41/2.
McCoy felt the glare, too, for reasons beyond sports.
When she enrolled at St. Thomas More in August, 2012, she felt like she was on an island. It was her and it was everyone else.
“I didn’t know anyone,” McCoy said. “I sat in class and didn’t talk. I don’t like to come and not talk to anyone because I love to talk. It was a bad freshman year.”
Part of her feelings were that she preferred not to be at the high school her parents selected for her.
“I didn’t want to be in uniforms,” she said. “The grading scale was hard. It was a struggle for me. Centennial was the school I wanted to be at.”
McCoy found many of her STM classmates had well-established friendships from middle school or church, or both.
“The only person I knew was Ashley Wax and she made me feel a lot more comfortable,” McCoy said. “She introduced me to a lot of her friends.”
It was almost three months into the school year before basketball practice began. That finally provided McCoy a larger support group.
STM coach Chris Mennig recognized the difficulty of McCoy’s transition.
“There were multiple teary-eyed moments in my office,” Mennig said. “There were discussions about why you are here and we talked about the long-term goals, what she was hoping for. To see her come out now with smiles is a 110-degree to 120-degree turn from Day 1.”
On the court, McCoy flourished as a freshman, earning All-Area first-team honors. This year, the sophomore reached the 1,000-point mark and headlines the 37th News-Gazette All-Area team as Player of the Year.
Mennig tried not to demand too much from McCoy as a freshman, knowing she was overwhelmed with the social and academic aspects of St. Thomas More.
“She was being challenged in those areas, and if I challenged her in basketball, it wouldn’t be fair to her,” he said. “I tried to make basketball painless. This year, we made basketball a little more uncomfortable and pushed her limits.
“She went kicking and screaming when we sent her over (in practice) to shoot threes.”
As she became more settled, helping lead a veteran team to the Class 2A state championship and a school record for single-season wins earlier this month, McCoy believes she has turned the corner.
“There were certain things I didn’t want to do, and he’d push me,” she said. “Sometimes we’d get in arguments and I’d say, ‘I’m not doing it,’ but I ended up doing it anyway.
“I’m becoming a better person and a better athlete. If I were anywhere else, I probably wouldn’t be the same.”
The difficulty, Mennig said, is getting McCoy to recognize much of his teachings are geared for the future, not for the short term while she’s in high school.
“The stuff I’m teaching is none of the stuff she needs to be successful right now,” he said, “but she needs to execute those things to play at a high college level.”
When McCoy hears that she’s ranked No. 2 by Blue Star for females in the Class of 2016 and No 10 by ESPNw, she doesn’t think that she has it made.
“It makes me work harder to push myself to be No. 1,” she said. “That’s why I like competing against girls that are better than me. It pushes me to work harder in practice.”
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Unlike many youths, who play a variety of sports before settling on one or two as they grow older, McCoy was a one-sport player from the time she was introduced to athletics.
“My first memory of basketball was getting a hoop at my house when I was 6,” she said. “That’s where I started.”
She stayed local, playing for church and park district teams until she got on her first AAU travel team after her eighth-grade year at Jefferson Middle School.
“Basketball was just a hobby for me until I got better at it,” McCoy said. “It’s one sport I can’t get over.”
At the beginning of her freshman season, McCoy wasn’t sure how much varsity playing time she’d get.
“I was pretty much a post,” she said, “but I wasn’t really good on post moves. It was a big change from middle school to high school, playing against kids that were older and bigger and a lot more aggressive. That made it hard for me.”
Mennig not only didn’t expect too much too soon, he also intentionally brought her along slowly. McCoy’s first varsity start didn’t occur until a post-Christmas tournament game in 2012.
“My job was to make her freshman year as instinctual as possible,” Mennig said, “and put her in positions where her instincts could take over.”
He wanted to make sure McCoy showed she deserved the varsity playing time.
“That’s one of the big reasons the chemistry worked,” he said. “If I put her in without her earning it, the rest of the team would have boycotted me. We talked about her tank of gas, and it was small when she arrived. She had to earn her stripes and a lot of it has to do with her work ethic.”
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McCoy hasn’t yet started narrowing down the list of colleges she’ll consider, just that she doesn’t plan on committing anywhere until her senior year. Though she won’t turn 16 until June, she has given plenty of thought to her future, both in basketball and away from the court.
“During college, my goal is to be Freshman of the Year,” she said. “Farther along the line, the Olympics are what I’m looking forward to being in.”
It is almost a given that at her games — and some practices — a big-time college coach will be in attendance. Illinois’ Matt Bollant is one of the suitors. So is UConn’s Geno Auriemma.
McCoy doesn’t let it affect her play.
“At first, I used to get excited when colleges that are interested in me showed up to my games, but my main focus is always on the game,” she said, “so coaches being there is not a distraction.”
There’s no pressure to play mistake-free to make a favorable impression on the coaches.
“I’m not really thinking about the colleges in attendance when I make a mistake on the court,” she said. “I get frustrated with myself whether there is a coach there or not. My dad (Tim) tells me often that all of the coaches coming to see me at my games have already seen what I can do when I’m at my best, and one bad game or mistakes on the court wouldn’t change their mind about me.
“That’s what I try to think about, and I continue to play my hardest.”
Once her playing days end, McCoy said, “I’d like to own a rec center, or a boys’ and girls’ club, a place kids can come and do work and stay on top of their game. That’s something I’m striving for after college. Coming out of Champaign, more kids would see my achievements and I’d be like a role model.”
Mennig has no doubt that McCoy will make an impact beyond basketball.
“The part I’m excited for her is the long-term potential for marketing opportunities,” Mennig said. “Finding positive female role models who’ve climbed their way through with their hard work is something our society embraces. Those are people corporations want to sponsor. Our job is to make sure she doesn’t cut any corners.”