As fate would have it, the first time Nancy Kennelly saw any real action on the Maine West varsity, the freshman guard was thrust into the spotlight by a medical emergency.
But once she got her first taste of the limelight, Kennelly stayed there the rest of her high school career.
After beginning her freshman year by averaging 29 points a game for the junior varsity, Kennelly was promoted near the end of the season and immediately assumed a mopup role at the end of the Warriors' varsity bench.
But shortly after Maine West had won its supersectional game to advance to the Class AA quarterfinals in 1985, two starters became victims of a salmonella outbreak. Coach Derrill Kipp had to go to his untested 5-foot-5-inch freshman.
"She had never even started a game for us before, but with those two kids sick, Nancy had to play about half of every game in the state tournament," recalls Kipp. "And she played well for us. Didn't make any turnovers the whole tournament."
"All I remember is that I didn't score much," Kennelly says of that weekend. "But I also didn't lose it out there."
Not only did Kennelly not lose it at Champaign that year, but once she entered the starting lineup for good in her sophomore season, she led Maine West to three more tournament appearances and a 94-6 overall record.
Maine West finished fourth in the state during Kennelly's freshman year, was eliminated in the quarterfinals when she was a sophomore and placed third her junior season after she severely injured her right ankle in the Warriors' quarterfinal victory.
Kennelly saved her best effort for her final year, however, leading Maine West to an undefeated season (35-0) and its first Class AA title.
En route to the state championship, Kennelly averaged 14 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals a game, and her outstanding season has earned her the third Ms. Basketball of Illinois award, presented by The Tribune in conjunction with the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
In voting by girls' basketball coaches and members of the media, Kennelly beat out Carver senior center Yolanda Griffith, the state's second-leading scorer. Kennelly is the first recipient of the award from a Class AA school. She follows two players who led their teams to Class A championships: Doris Carie of Teutopolis in 1986 and Seneca's Cindy Kaufmann last year.
Kennelly's high school career has been a pleasant surprise to those who know her. She wasn't exactly reared to become a basketball star.
Neither of her parents had played the game much, and of her five older siblings, only Nancy's older sister, Noreen, played the sport in high school. Though Noreen's career preceded Nancy's at Maine West, she ultimately quit the team in a disagreement with Kipp over playing time.
Even Nancy admitted during last month's state tournament that the only reason she got involved with basketball while in the 5th grade at St. Stephen's elementary school in Des Plaines was because "everyone else was going out for the team."
Under the guidance of her grade school coach and principal, Tom Phelan, Kennelly's shooting and ballhandling skills improved immensely. With the help of future Maine West teammates Heather Ertel, Kristen Lund and Mary Spielman, St. Stephen's went unbeaten when those four were in the 7th and 8th grades. According to Phelan, the school won approximately 98 percent of its games from the time Kennelly & Co. reached the 5th grade until their graduation in 1984.
"Nancy was our starting point guard from Day 1," says Phelan, who currently teaches at St. Hilary grade school on Chicago's Northwest Side. "You could tell at the time she'd be great because she controlled the entire game. She was a great team player then and perfected that role each year she has played."
By the time Kennelly got to high school, she had honed her talents enough to make Maine West's JV team. After getting the opportunity to play for the varsity Downstate that year, she became a starter her sophomore year, and started every game for Maine West afterward.
Next season, the 5-7 Kennelly will join Ertel and fellow All-Stater Michelle Savage from Immaculate Heart of Mary at Northwestern. The Blue Star Index, an East Coast scouting service, called Northwestern's incoming freshman class the nation's fourth best in women's college basketball.
Northwestern coach Don Perrelli saw his Wildcats (13-14, 8-10) finish in fifth place in the Big 10 this season after they won 8 of their final 12 games. With only two seniors graduating from that team, Perrelli says he expects some fierce competition between his returning starters and his top-notch freshman recruits.
"No one is guaranteed anything," says Perrelli, "But the work ethic of the recruits is excellent, and we feel it'll be a very competitive year within the team. Nancy is a quality player and an excellent guard. Assuming that the adjustments to college all go well, we look at her as being an impact player that will be helping us right away.
"Sometimes people overlook the adjustments that a high school player has to make in college, but Nancy has a definite feel for the game. She knows what's going on over the entire floor, her passing skills are excellent, and she comes from a winning program that has that winning attitude. All Nancy's hard work has ultimately paid off for her."
Besides the Ms. Basketball award and a first-team All-State selection by The Tribune, Kennelly was also recently named the Gatorade Circle of Champions Illinois girls Player of the Year. East St. Louis Lincoln's LaPhonso Ellis was the boys winner.
Kennelly says she "can hardly wait" for her senior year to end and her college career to begin, showing how much her confidence level has grown in the past four years.
"It wasn't really a goal of mine to play in the Big 10," says Kennelly. "When I started out, my goal was just to get a scholarship anywhere. I didn't even know if I was good enough to get one. But it finally came down to a choice between Northwestern and Illinois."
Kennelly says that in choosing Northwestern, the school's proximity to her family's Des Plaines home and her interest in pursuing a law degree were the major influences in making the decision.
Kennelly hails from from a tight-knit Irish family of 10, and she didn't want to be too far away to follow the career of younger sister Moira, a sophomore at Maine West who also played a key role in the Warriors' championship season.
"Distance was a big factor," says Nancy. "I think that just being in a family with eight kids, it's tough to be separated from each other. And also my little brother Sean is only 9 years old. He's really gonna be a really good player some day."
Although Kennelly is recognized as a fine shooter, she is more often noted for her unselfish style of play.
"A lot of times I really have to nudge her to shoot the ball more," says Kipp. "She seems to take much more pleasure in making a good pass to an open player rather than taking the shot herself."
Among Kennelly's sporting heroes are Larry Bird, Jim McMahon and Duke's Danny Ferry. Basketball is her only hobby, but she says she doesn't regret the fact that there is no place for women basketball players to turn to after their college career have ended.
"I love basketball, and it's not as if I've ever been forced to play against my will," she says. "But I think that once college is over, I will have had enough of it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun