A small, slightly hidden trophy rests in a glass case near the main entrance of Mount Carmel High School, one that provides a prelude to Tyra Buss' athletic career.
The prize, from a girls track meet, is covered with pink ribbons and is dated April 25, 1996.
Kelly Buss, the team's coach, missed that meet while giving birth to her only daughter.
Members of the team that won the trophy wore pink ribbons on their jerseys and in their hair that day to commemorate the arrival of a girl who would become the school's most decorated student-athlete.
"The girls were very excited about Kelly having a girl in the morning," said Karin Kelsey, who acted as an assistant coach that day and is now an administrative assistant at the school. "The girls were joking that Kelly had a girl just to have another runner on the team. They dedicated that meet to Kelly and Tyra."
This school year, Tyra Buss dedicated herself to being at her best — in the classroom, where she sports a perfect 5.0 grade-point average, and on athletic teams. Along the way she added another trophy to her collection — Ms. Basketball of Illinois, which is sponsored by the Tribune in conjunction with the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
Buss, a 5-foot-7 junior guard who averaged 38.9 points, 6.1 steals, 3.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game for the 32-1 Aces, finished with 255 points in a statewide vote of media and schools. Young senior Linnae Harper, a McDonald's All-American and Kentucky recruit, was second with 194 points, followed by Quincy Notre Dame's Jordan Frericks (92), Freeport Aquin's Sophie Brunner (87) and Edwardsville's Emmonnie Henderson (70).
Thriving in a small town
There's no street sign declaring Mount Carmel "The home of Tyra Buss" upon entry off of Route 15. The town of just more than 7,000 is located along the banks of the Wabash River. The state of Indiana is within sight of the high school's football field. And that's where Buss has orally committed to play her college ball, across the state line for Indiana.
The Mount Carmel gymnasium, where Tyra Buss hones one of her many crafts, is a throwback of sorts. Built in 1928, the year after the school won its only boys state championship, it seats just more than 1,700 fans and has two rows of bucket seats for season-ticket holders on each side of the gym.
Buss' father, Tim Buss, knew the difficulties of trying to establish a reputation in a small town. So, with the help of family friend Kevin Williams, Buss created a website, http://www.tyrabuss.com, before Tyra's freshman year. He wanted his daughter's accomplishments to be documented. He wanted to help raise her profile. He also had another motive.
"It was done more for fun and to show Tyra's stats on there," said Buss, the superintendent of Wabash Community Unit School District 348, which includes Mount Carmel. "Tyra doesn't even look at it. It's kind of neat now to see her accomplishments."
The site is filled with photos, videos and links to articles. A nearly four-minute video of her school-record 54-point game against Goreville is one of the highlights. Buss has two Twitter accounts, one of which retweets any mention of her on the social media site.
Buss, though, said she has better things to do than pay attention to that.
"I never see the site and I never worry about records," Buss said. "I just play the game. I'm very competitive and just want to help my team win."
Fields of dreams
When Buss says help her team, she means "teams."
Buss has earned all-state honors in basketball, tennis, cross-country and track.
She broke the state's single-season scoring record this season with 1,285 points and is 601 points shy of Illinois' all-time record of 4,031, held by 2007 Ms. Basketball Brittany Johnson of Olney East Richland. Buss reached 2,000 and 3,000 career points faster than anyone in state history.
"Tyra's competitive nature sets her apart from others," Mount Carmel girls basketball coach Tim Willis said. "I don't care what she's playing, she's playing to win. She has that mind-set. She's not afraid to fail, and that makes her succeed. She never stops working hard. People don't realize how much work she puts in, and she plays so many other sports."
She's already considered the best girls basketball, tennis, cross-country and track and field athlete to come out of Mount Carmel High School. And she still has a year to go.
A three-time state-qualifier who owns a 75-3 career record, Buss plays tennis "just for the fun of it," but will take a 52-match regular-season winning streak into her senior season. She runs cross-country "to stay in shape and get my endurance up for basketball." She placed 40th in Class 1A during her sophomore season and 43rd as a freshman. She didn't compete in the state meet this season because state tennis fell on the same day.
Buss earned a medal in the 300 low hurdles in each of the last two seasons at the state track meet, placing in Class 1A (fifth) in 2011 and sixth in 2A last season. In 2009, she won the 12-13-year-old girls division of the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick St. Louis Rams team state championship.
"I just love competing and playing any kind of sporting event," Buss said. "I like to keep busy and like running."
Mount Carmel competes in the Big Eight, a conference consisting of teams from Indiana.
Still, Buss' basketball career is thriving despite the location of her school and doubts about the legitimacy of her numbers.
She scored more points last season than any Mount Carmel girls basketball player had in their entire career. She has one more individual goal within her sights. Buss has scored 3,431 points in her three-year varsity career, putting her on pace to surpass Johnson as the state's all-time leading scorer in late December.
"Most of the teams in our conference would be in Class 3A in Illinois," Willis said. "Averaging nearly 40 points a game is amazing. She doesn't even get enough credit for her defense."
Buss fights the small-school stigma, and it bothers her that she has not yet showcased her game in Normal, Ill., at the girls state tournament. The Aces won their first 32 games this season before falling to Teutopolis in a 2A sectional final.
"I want to keep getting better for my senior year and, of course, make state," Buss said. "I don't pay attention to what people say and don't let that bring me down. It does bother me a little. I want to show people on the state level what I can do. We worked really hard this year as a team. We had a great season."
Buss turned down more established schools in favor of Indiana. She said she's received interest from more than 100 schools and has approximately 25 scholarship offers. Notre Dame and Tennessee have increased their interest in recent months.
There's no telling where Buss' future will take her. But the girl who is on pace to be valedictorian of her class isn't looking too far ahead.
"She's always going be a part of Mount Carmel, wherever she goes," Willis said. "Our community is so proud of her and how she carries herself. There's always going to be a connection. She's such a good kid. She's a great ambassador for girls basketball. She's still got another year left. We're going to get her ready and better for her senior year and for Indiana."
Buss, who's averaging 35.4 points per game in her career, heaped praise on her family and the community for supporting her through her many athletic endeavors.
"Mount Carmel means a lot to me," Buss said. "I love the town. They've been really supportive of me through everything. They come from all over to see our games. It's pretty exciting."