KENT She wasn’t supposed to be here.
Yet fate - and health - had different ideas and so here former Lake High School standout McKenna Stephens is, a centerpiece of the Mid-American Conference East Division champion Kent State Golden Flashes.
As Kent seeks a MAC title and NCAA tournament berth this weekend at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Stephens is playing out a college career drastically different than the one she expected when she graduated from Lake in 2013.
Back then, Stephens was a prized softball recruit bound for Michigan State. As it turned out, an injury she suffered while at Lake derailed those plans.
“I was supposed to be playing softball at Michigan State, but I was only there one semester,” Stephens said. “I tore my labrum (in her right shoulder) my senior year of high school and did all of the rehab but never got full range of motion back.”
While at Michigan State, she met with an orthopedic surgeon multiple times to find out what could be done for her ailing arm and shoulder. She received several shots aimed at loosening up the shoulder, but when she met with the surgeon, she asked some pointed questions about his plans for her to go back under the knife.
“He wanted to go and do surgery and I asked him, ‘What are you going to do? Could it get worse?’ and he said it could and I might not be able to lift things,” Stephens said. “I realized I might not be able to carry a car seat some day.”
After thinking about her future and life after college, Stephens decided against surgery. At that point, she had other tough choices to make. She spoke with the Michigan State coaching staff and asked for her release so she could pursue a basketball career at another school.
Basketball was an option because it didn’t put the same strain on her shoulder as throwing a softball, but there were other hurdles to clear. For starters, Stephens hadn’t played basketball since walking off the court following a dramatic loss to Hoover in the 2013 North Canton Division I district final.
Now more than a year removed from basketball, she would now try to go back.
In high school, Stephens didn’t do the same things many top basketball players do to seek college scholarships because she was busy focusing on softball. Instead of playing AAU basketball, she spent her springs and summers on softball and said she “played basketball for fun” at Lake. That fun included plenty of team success, but when she walked off the court at Alumni Arena on the Walsh campus back on March 2, 2013, Stephens was convinced she had played her last competitive basketball game.
When she searched for a school willing to take her, Kent and then-head coach Danielle O’Bannon had an opening.
“Transitioning back to Kent State, I love having my family be able to come and watch me almost every game,” Stephens said. “It was super nerve-racking my first game. I’ll never forget it, it was Dec. 17 (2014 against Arkansas State) and I was sitting by one of our assistant coaches who said, ‘Now is the time to put her in,’ so I went in, took my first shot and went from there.”
Her game now is much different than it was at Lake. Stephens says she’s learned a lot about the game of basketball and in the process, she’s gone from a post player for the Blue Streaks to one who is extremely comfortable on the perimeter at Kent. During the regular season, she averaged 9.0 points per game and was second on the team in 3-pointers made with 24.
In a rivalry win at Akron on Feb. 11, she made four of her six shots from beyond the arc for a career-high 20 points. It was a big win in a rebound season for the Flashes, who struggled to an 11-48 record in Stephens’ first two seasons on campus. Last April, the school hired former Indiana assistant Todd Starkey to replace O’Bannon, who was dismissed after four seasons.
“I think we needed a bit of change … he (Starkey) came in and changed up the mindset of a lot of people,” Stephens said. “That’s really what we needed.”
Ironically, one of Stephens’ former Lake teammates, Baylen Dyrlund, has walked a similar path. Dyrlund played her freshman season at West Liberty State (W.Va.), but transferred closer to home last summer and helped Malone win its first Great Midwest Athletic Conference title last weekend. Stephens heard about Dyrlund’s plans to transfer before the move took place and is happy to see a former teammate enjoying similar success at the college level. Having two Lake alumni winning titles at local colleges is a rare occurrence, but one that likely doesn't surprise those who saw the duo play together for two seasons for the Blue Streaks.
As her third year at Kent winds down, Stephens is unsure what’s next for her. She’s a public health major with a specialization in clinical trials, but with the Kent State coaching staff interested in having her return for her final season of eligibility, she once again has a tough decision to make.
At least this time, it’s a decision based on opportunity and success instead of one brought on by a lingering injury that forced her hand. Kent may not be where Stephens initially saw herself, but now it’s tough to picture her anywhere else.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB