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Is there anything Meagan McNicholas can’t do?

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Is there anything Meagan McNicholas can’t do?

Illinois' Meagan McNicholas (center) cheers on her team from the sideline during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Saturday, February 25.

Illinois' Meagan McNicholas (center) cheers on her team from the sideline during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Saturday, February 25.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Meagan McNicholas (center) cheers on her team from the sideline during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Saturday, February 25.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Meagan McNicholas (center) cheers on her team from the sideline during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Saturday, February 25.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

A track star, an outgoing leader, a guard on the basketball team, a soccer player, a nuclear engineer, a prospective medical student, a gym rat and a valedictorian.

It sounds like it could be the cast of a John Hughes coming-of-age film.

But if that movie was shot at Rochester High School last year, it would have been a one-woman show, and that woman would have been Meagan McNicholas.

McNicholas, now a freshman in Engineering, was a three-sport athlete at Rochester. She received offers to play both track and basketball in college; however, McNicholas never fell behind in her academics. In fact, she excelled in them.

“(My sports) were in three different seasons,” McNicholas said. “But I actually graduated valedictorian of my class, which was a big thing for me. I knew coming into senior year that I had a shot to do that, and knowing that helped me stay on top of my school stuff.”

While she admitted that her senior year schedule — which involved sleeping from midnight until 3 a.m. after basketball games before waking up to finish her homework before school — was an unhealthy way of life, the results are hard to dispute. McNicholas found time for three sports in her busy schedule and did well enough to receive scholarship offers in her sport of choice.

Heading into her final year at Rochester, McNicholas had her heart set on running track in college. But as the year went on, she had a change of heart.

“I was set on running in college until senior year when I realized ‘I don’t really like this that much,’” McNicholas said. “I had kind of put basketball on the backburner because I knew that I could run somewhere better; I knew academics were going to be a big thing for me.”

McNicholas told her coach to find her a spot on a basketball team somewhere, fully aware of how late she was to the recruiting process.

She knew that the best she could hope for was a walk-on spot, and she almost took one at Eastern Illinois. But after conferring with her family, she decided the academic opportunity at Illinois was too good to pass up.

“I got into the engineering program (at Illinois),” McNicholas said. “And my dad was like, ‘you’re going to need to get a job someday, and you’re gonna be about as set up as you can be there.’”

And so she arrived on campus in the fall, her schedule, once chock-full of as many athletics and academics as she could handle, looked rather bare.

McNicholas began life as something she had never been before — an average student.

The freshman said she had no issues adjusting to the college workload, but despite all the extra time she had, she began reverting to her senior year sleep schedule. With all her newfound time, McNicholas gravitated toward activities many of her peers enjoyed. She went to class, joined a sorority, hit the gym regularly, but still felt like something was missing.

“I was kind of mad for a while,” McNicholas said. “I want to play sports; I don’t want to just hang out. What am I gonna do?”

Luckily for her, McNicholas had the right team behind her. Derek Leonard, Rochester’s head football coach, who coaches her younger brother, put in a good word on Meagan’s behalf with then-Illinois women’s basketball head coach Matt Bollant.

This culminated in an interesting walk home for McNicholas from chemistry class one day.

“Coach Bollant got my number and called me, and I thought it was a joke,” McNicholas said.

“When he called me, I remember I was outside chemistry and I was like, ‘Who is this?’ I was really confused.”

McNicholas tried out for a spot on the team shortly after. She was apprehensive heading into the tryout; while she had kept relatively in shape, it had been a long time since she had stepped on a court.

The tryout was, however, a success, and McNicholas joined the team as a walk-on in early December, just after the season started.

She made her debut against Fort Wayne on Dec. 2, 2016, playing one minute in front of the State Farm Center crowd.

But before she hit the floor, before she even entered the arena as a player, she had to go through something that all walk-ons go through.

Meeting her second family

“The first reaction (to a walk-on) is like, ‘we don’t know how we feel about this,’” said McNicholas’ teammate Cydnee Kinslow. “But when she came in and fit right in, right away we were like ‘she’s definitely gonna be a part of us.’”

McNicholas was nervous the first time she met her new teammates. She knew she had quite a loud, outgoing personality, and she didn’t want to scare away her team with it.

But once she began to get more comfortable with them, her teammates said they all connected.

“She’s outgoing. She’s nice, just a really enjoyable person to be around,” sophomore forward Alex Wittinger said. “So right away when she got here, people liked her.”

Wittinger, in particular, got to know McNicholas well, as the two shared a room on many road trips. The sophomore is also an engineering student. One might expect that she would have helped McNicholas adjust to managing a rigorous course load and college athletics, however, Wittinger admitted that it wasn’t necessary.

“I haven’t had to do much,” Wittinger said about helping McNicholas adjust. “She’s figured it out pretty well for herself.”

McNicholas also has found a fan in Kinslow. She described McNicholas as a long-lost sister, whose personality matches the self-professed laid-back Californian.

“She’s always at our house; she sleeps on our couch sometimes,” Kinslow said. “She’s like our little dog that is always in our apartment; she goes everywhere with us.”

The redshirting Kinslow and McNicholas spent a lot of time together on the bench this season, but their relationship really grew in the weight room, where both were members of a group that called themselves the ‘Swole Squad.’

The ‘Swole Squad’ is a group of mostly role players who, throughout the season, volunteered for extra weight training with assistant strength and conditioning coach Emily Esselman.

The group swelled in size throughout the season, but Kinslow said that McNicholas has always stood out from the crowd.

“She’s an absolute beast in the weight room,” Kinslow said. “You would never believe it, but she can out-lift anybody.”

Esselman completely agrees.

“To put it very bluntly, she’s a stallion in there,” Esselman said. “It’s very black-and-white in the weight room — you either can do it, or you get crushed by the weight. She’s what we call a highly trained athlete in the weight room. She’s done it from a young age — high school or maybe even before then.”

McNicholas said that she is more comfortable in the weight room and that it is her domain.

“I really like the weight room just because it’s not basketball skills,” McNicholas said.

Leading from the bench

Coming in as a walk-on, McNicholas knew that she would not see significant time on the floor. In fact, in the seven games she played this season, she totaled eight minutes, one assist, one steal and one foul.

However, McNicholas was not going to let that stat line define her season. She worked hard to improve herself in practice and in the gym, knowing that her game days were essentially days off. But she found a way to have an impact despite spending most of her games with a long-sleeved shirt over her jersey.

“I just think one thing that I can bring personally is that I try to be a really good teammate,” McNicholas said. “I can’t lead with minutes on the court or points, but you can always be a better teammate. It’s really important to me to let my teammates know that I want them to do well.”

McNicholas has found a voice on the team, despite not spending much time on the floor and has used her positive personality to pick up her teammates and motivate them to improve. Esselman noticed this about McNicholas and thinks that she is the perfect person for the role.

“She has the kind of personality that you just can’t hate,” Esselman said. “If something bad does happen, she’ll always see the positive side in it, and it’s contagious.”

Esselman stressed that on a team comprised of more than half freshmen, having someone with McNicholas’ personality is crucial.

She said that McNicholas is serious when she needs to be, but that having her around when things go wrong helps keep her teammates from burying their heads in their hands.

And on a team that lost its last 11 regular season games, McNicholas’ ability to keep spirits up was needed often.

Aside from the freshmen, McNicholas’ older teammates also have grown to appreciate her positivity on the bench.

“I’ve never seen her really down,” Wittinger said. “Even though she doesn’t play a ton, she’s super important because she gets people going.”

Going forward, McNicholas is looking to grow her game individually, but her motivation to improve comes from a selfless perspective.

“I want to get better, obviously, but not even to get minutes,” McNicholas said. “I want to be good enough to help the team in practice, playing good defense and offense. I want to get better so I can help my team get better.”

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