MADISON – You wouldn't know it by looking at her, but A.K. McDaniel is tough. Really tough. Always has been.
"I can remember when she was five, it was an Easter Sunday, she broke her arm jumping out of the swing in our yard," recalled McDaniel's mom, Kathryn. "I looked at her arm, it was all distorted looking. It was scary. We had to take her to the hospital, the whole deal. And she never cried, not once."
At first glance, McDaniel, MRA's senior point guard, doesn't look all that tenacious. She stands only five feet, 3 inches tall - on a good day. And she's itty-bitty, like a jockey. Don't let the diminutive stature fool you, though. Looks, as they say, can be deceiving. When she steps onto a basketball court or soccer field, she plays like a Doberman in a Chihuahua's body.
"A.K. is without a doubt one of the toughest kids I've ever coached," MRA girls basketball coach Stephen Force said. "She is willing to do anything to win."
Even if it means playing with a broken nose, mask and all, as she did a year ago. Or stepping in and taking a charge, as she has a propensity to do. Often. In fact, she drew a team-high 43 of them a year ago as a junior, earning her spot on the "Guts" plaque hanging just outside the Lady Patriots' locker room.
Not only is McDaniel tough, she plays with relentless energy throughout the game. She goes hard for all 32 minutes. She doesn't have a Napolean complex per say, but she does play with a chip on her shoulder, always striving to prove she belongs on the court despite being half as tall as the rim. She torments and annoys opponents with her ferocious perimeter defense, often leaving them angry and frustrated.
That grit-and-grind approach, that fiery demeanor, that energy, and that intensity carry over to her teammates, who absolutely love her. She's the quintessential point guard, as well as teammate. At the same time, she's also the player that opposing players love to hate. You know the one, the player you want on your team, but if she's not on your team, you feel absolutely different.
"I've got some friends on some of the other teams, and they can't stand A.K.," said MRA forward Madeleine Blaylock, with a chuckle. "I think it's funny because they all think she's so mean. But she's really not. She's just like that when she plays. She's actually really cool to hang out with."
While rising sophomore Rivers Futral is the best player on the team, No. 22 is unequivalently the heart and soul of the team.
"A.K. is our floor general," Force said. "We would not be the team we are without her."
McDaniel will lead her team onto the floor tonight as MRA opens the season against perennial power Leake Academy in the Canton Academy Tournament. Tip-off is slated for 7:30. She is one of four starters returning from last year's team, which finished 26-14 and advanced all the way to the Overall semifinals. She is also one of four seniors who would like nothing better than to go out on top come late February.
All four of those seniors – Mary Grace Morris, Anna Cate Barlow, Blaylock and McDaniel – were teammates on the MRA junior high team that won a North half championship. McDaniel ranks that moment, along with last year's thrilling 58-56 overtime victory over East Rankin at Overall, as her two favorite basketball memories.
"I think following our 9th grade year, and with us winning it, our expectations since then have been to win it our senior year," McDaniel said. "We want to beat all the teams on our schedule . . . Leake, Jackson Prep, Jackson Academy during the regular season . . . but our ultimate goal is to win Overall."
That quest begins in earnest tonight. While Force, who is entering his 17th season, expects big things from McDaniel in her second year as a full-time starter, he knows it will take solid contributions from all the girls on the roster to make MRA a highly-competitive squad once again.
"Improvement each day is key," said Force, who has 574 career wins and has led MRA to two Overall championships, two AAAA state titles and five Division I state titles. "Just because you have several players back from last year doesn't mean you are going to be any better. This team can definitely be much better, but they are going to have to grind it out each day and work because no one is going to give them anything."
The Lady Patriots lost only one starter from last year's team, All-Star Kathleene Pace, who averaged nearly 10 points per game and shot 32 percent from 3-point range. On the eve of tonight's season-opener, Force is still not 100 percent sure who is going to take Pace's spot in the starting lineup, or who the starters will be for that matter.
"I would say that Rivers and AK are shoe-ins with Madeleine, Mary Grace, Holly (Hendry), Anna Cate, Corrie (Kendall) and a few others all fighting it out each day in practice to earn a spot in the lineup. Practices have been more competitive this year because we have more players working for playing time. Last year this team lost at least five games that they should not have lost, and I am just hoping that we work hard each game and not let that happen again. Hopefully we will have improved enough as the season progresses to be there in the end.
More times than not, MRA has been there at the end. The Lady Patriots have won 179 games over the past six seasons, and average of 29.8 wins per season. Their calling card has been defense – a year ago they allowed just 35.3 points per game.
McDaniel spearheads that defense, and epitomizes the all-out hustle the program is built on. She's the ultimate team player. Blessed with a high basketball IQ, she also runs the offense efficiently. Although her jump shot has improved, she's still a reluctant shooter.
"It's just not my thing," she says.
McDaniel rather get her teammates the ball and let them score while she does the dirty work – she averaged only 2.1 points per game a year ago. However, she puts her stamp and imprint on the game in so many other intangible ways to go along with her four assists, two steals and two rebounds per game.
She has a big fan in Winston Academy coach Moe Bell, who used to coach a younger McDaniel at MRA.
"AK is one of the toughest kids I know, mentally and physically," Bell said. "She has always had a terrific work ethic, day in and day out. She is someone I would think rarely comes off the floor because she is the glue that holds everyone together. You're not going to steal the ball from her, either. She is not always the most talented, but she sticks to her strengths, she's very smart, and she's extremely unselfish. Another thing I like so much about A.K. is her attitude. She's always positive, and she leads others so well by her example."
Futral concurs. "A.K. is a leader," she said. "She's a great influence on and off the court."
McDaniel hopes that is one of her lasting legacy's once she leaves MRA.
"That's something I've always wanted to be, someone the other girls could come to, especially the younger ones," she said. "I want to be someone they can look at and say, hey, that's who I want to be like when I get older. Someone they can call not only a friend, but someone they can look up to. That's something I want to always follow me."
It likely will. So, too, will other A.K. things, such as her love for fruit punch flavored Spark. "I tried it last year and became obsessed with it," she says. And the multi-colored fuzzy socks she wears to practice each day to help keep her and her teammates loose and happy. And the joy she gets in talking selfies of herself on other people's phones, unbeknownst to them at the time, of course. Ask MRA junior high girls coach Jennie Vandevere about that one.
She also added the title of homecoming queen to her resume a few weeks ago. "I texted her after homecoming, and told her that there wasn't another homecoming queen who had been run over nearly as many times as her," joked Bell. "With her being small, she gets knocked around pretty good most games, but she's not afraid of physical contact at all. She's always sacrificed her body."
McDaniel traces her ability to get hit and bounce back up back to her youth soccer days. "I didn't play in my age division, I played up. I was already smaller than everybody else, and I played in the middle where a lot of the bigger girls play. I used to get knocked down a lot. I had to learn to get back up, and I've been doing it ever since."
McDaniel has matured exponentially over the course of the past five years. She's not nearly as high-strung as she used to be, and she doesn't feel the need to apologize to her coaches when she makes a mistake like she used to. Now she just carries on. Part of that is experience, and part of it is her having more confidence in herself.
"It has gotten better on and off the court," she says. "I give Coach (Pat) Lovitt a lot of the credit for that. That's something he has really helped me with."
Her confidence was so low three years ago, in fact, that she came very close to quitting basketball. She's glad now she didn't, and so is Coach Force. As it turns out, she's been AOK for MRA, even if some of the girls from other teams don't like her very much.
"I get it, I really do," she said. "I know some of them don't like me on the court. That's fine. It doesn't bother me because I'm not mean in real life. I learned long time ago once you step inside those lines it's different."
Things will be different without Pace in the lineup this year. However, Force feels good about who he has returning, led by Futral, who has emerged as one of the top players in the MAIS. She averaged a team-high 16 points a year ago while also contributing four rebounds, three steals and two assists per game. She shot 50 percent from the field, 34 percent from 3-point territory and 72 percent at the free throw line.
"She will be very key to our success," Force said. "But she has got to work even harder in practice and continue to improve each day. She took a big step between her freshman and sophomore year, and she must work even harder now if she wants to take that next step."
Juniors Mary Rogers Coon, Sarah Turnipseed and Holly Hendry along with sophomores Laurel Fulcher, Everett Heard and Peyton Young and freshman Hunter Thompson will be called upon to add depth in the backcourt. Meanwhile, junior Corri Kendall and freshman Sarah Margaret Seabrook are expected to add depth along the frontline.
Hendry is the lone true newcomer. She moved in from Chattanooga this summer.
"There have been several girls do some good things this fall, but I believe that Mary Grace and Corrie have done the most work since last year to improve their individual games," Force said. "I am expecting more from each of them this year. And I think Holly has a lot of potential. She figures to be a key to our success, too."