Meet the 2018 N-G girls' basketball Player of the Year | Schlarman's Anaya Peoples

Meet the 2018 N-G girls' basketball Player of the Year | Schlarman's Anaya Peoples

DANVILLE — Anaya Peoples constantly seems happy. And she is. Really.

It's not always the case for high school students, going through the challenges associated with growing up and preparing for life beyond the bubble they've often occupied for a majority of their lives.

For Peoples, there's more than just maintaining good grades at Schlarman Academy. More than trying to form lifelong friendships amid a busy schedule. More than being a state-champion and Notre Dame-bound basketball player.

There's her faith.

And it's that faith that keeps The News-Gazette's repeat All-Area girls' basketball Player of the Year grounded. It's what keeps her relaxed in times of stress, on the basketball court and beyond.

And it's what always has her so cheerful.

"I know that God has bigger plans," the 5-foot-11 junior said. "A couple missed free throws and a couple missed layups isn't the end of the world."

That's an interesting point for Peoples to bring up. In last month's Class 1A state title game against Stockton, the 70 percent free-throw shooter converted just 2 of 7 tries at the line.

After each one, you didn't see the youngster pout, throw her hands in the air or refuse encouragement from teammates. She even grinned after some of the misses.

Sure, Peoples was well aware the Hilltoppers were en route to the program's first state crown, via a 53-31 victory in which she scored 11 points. But her time with Danville's Second Church of Christ youth ministry also has provided her perspective in moments such as this.

"I know I can go there and that's what the big picture is — God, family, friends and relationships," Anaya said. "If I'm having a bad game or bad day, I know bigger things are happening."

'It's a safe haven'

Keith Peoples is thrilled his daughter is successful at something she's passionate about. No doubt.

Anaya averaged 16.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 4.7 steals as Schlarman stormed to a 33-1 record this past season under Keith's coaching. She's now a three-time Associated Press Class 1A all-state first-team choice. Same for the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's 1A first team.

Oh, and there's the fact she's intertwined with Muffet McGraw's highly successful Notre Dame hoops squad before reaching her final prep season.

But Anaya is not just a basketball player. Keith and his wife Tricia have aimed to make sure she recognizes this.

"I want my kids to be known for who they are," Keith said. "Basketball is just a tool. It's a sport. One day, the ball's going to stop bouncing. What's going to last longer than anything are your values, your character, who you are and who you affect along the way."

Enter Second Church of Christ and its youth ministry programs. The Peoples family has attended this institution, located off Voorhees Street in east Danville, since 2002, when Anaya was just 11 / 2 years old. Anaya was baptized there at age 7.

Then, when Anaya and some of her teammates were freshmen at Schlarman, Tricia took the girls to Second Church of Christ to experience what it had to offer its younger parishioners.

This immediately stuck with Anaya.

"I look forward to it every Sunday now," she said. "It's a safe place. Calm, fun and exciting."

It's hard to imagine those who join Anaya for Sunday worship aren't aware of what she's accomplished on the hardwood. But by her own admission, some aren't privy to Anaya's sport of choice.

Neither was high school minister Tyler Russell, initially.

"She didn't tell me who she was (beyond her name)," said Russell, who has served in his position for nearly a year. "She just said, 'I'm Anaya,' and she told me she went to Schlarman and she was glad I was there. Later on, she was on ESPN and a ranked national player. I had no idea, because she didn't say any of that."

It clearly doesn't bother Anaya that basketball isn't among the youth ministry's talking points each Sunday. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And it's also obvious to Russell that Anaya isn't using her faith to better her standing among peers.

"She could easily come into our student ministry area and want attention or command attention," Russell said. "With the way our sports culture is, she could do that to gain popularity. But that's not her. That's not what she desires."

On the flip side, Anaya's father is glad for what the youth ministry establishment offers his daughter — a healthy shift from her sport of choice.

"I couldn't ask for a better outlet for Anaya," Keith said. "It's a safe haven. It's a place for her to go and not have to deal with the issues of basketball and competition."

'My eyes were opened'

Heading to college can be a tough transition, especially if an individual's school of choice resides a good distance from his or her hometown.

Keith and Tricia will have about a three-hour drive should they want to visit Anaya at Notre Dame. Not too crazy, all things considered.

And Anaya already has been preparing for this change, when it happens in 2019. Once again, she can thank Second Church of Christ for that.

Anaya had never taken a lengthy trip from Danville when she opted to join some youth ministry members on a 2016 excursion to Florida.

For a week at the BigStuf camp in Panama City, Anaya and Schlarman manager Ana Fitzgerald were immersed in an atmosphere that included beachside sermons, which Anaya described as "like a concert, but you're worshipping" with high-schoolers from across the nation.

But there were nerves for Anaya the first time she attended. She and the other youngsters were disconnected from their cell phones and similar electronic devices, breaking away from the sometimes-strong ties of technology in everyday society.

"The no-phones part, you hear that and you're like, 'How am I going to do this?' " Anaya said. "But then I get there and I'm like, 'Wow, I'm so happy I didn't bring my phone.' If you set your phone down for a while, you can see so many great things."

Anaya and Fitzgerald made the trip again in 2017, and Anaya said she's hoping to be involved with a mission trip to Haiti this summer.

For a girl who has spent much time in her formative years focused on bettering her basketball game, events like these have provided a life balance.

"I came back, and my eyes were opened," Anaya said. "I was just filled with happiness and energy and new life."

'It's a seamless transition'

Anaya's faith ties in to her college choice, too.

Sure, McGraw leading the Irish to 25 NCAA tournament berths — including the 2001 national championship — in her 31 seasons in charge of the program played a factor. But there are plenty of winning women's hoops programs to choose from.

"Location, basketball tradition, academic tradition and more importantly the spiritual guidance they provide," Keith said of factors that weighed into Anaya choosing Notre Dame. "I feel it's a seamless transition for Anaya. She told us, 'If I get the opportunity to continue playing for God, and if I have the opportunity to play for Notre Dame, that's where I want to go.' "

Anaya can sign her National Letter of Intent as soon as Nov. 14. Until then, she'll prepare with her fellow Hilltoppers to defend the 1A state title. And she'll stay active as a youth ministry member at Second Church of Christ.

But let's throw out a hypothetical: What if there was a scheduling conflict and she had to choose between doing something for the sport she loves and the religious institution she loves?

"I listen to a lot of Christian music at home, so I definitely look forward to church," Anaya said with a laugh. "And I definitely look forward to basketball. It's hard to pick."