Mercedes Russell knocking on stardom's door
This knock-knock was no joke.
This knock-knock was the sound of a 15-year-old girl with big basketball dreams, visiting houses in her Springfield, Ore., neighborhood to ask strangers to chip in for a fund that would allow her to make unofficial college visits and figure out how she could make the most out of her killer crossover and silky-smooth jumper.
One year later, Mercedes Russell was able to repay all of the community's generosity. As a sophomore, Russell led Springfield to its first girls' basketball state championship, treating the school and community to an experience often sought after but rarely accomplished in small-town America.
"There were 7,000 people at the state championship game and it was almost all Springfield," coach Bill Wagner said. "It was such a big deal, and Mercedes became someone who the community could really rally around."
If that game was the fire-starter to Russell's college recruiting process, her junior year was the conflagration. After being named the Class 5A Player of the Year her sophomore year, Russell repeated the feat her junior year, leading Springfield to an unprecedented second consecutive state title while averaging 26 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 blocks per game.
By now, it was her door that was getting knocked on. And the knocking was more of a pounding -- by dozens of colleges around the country begging Russell, the No. 1 prospect in the 2013 class, for her services.
Luckily, despite her family's limited resources, Russell had been able to visit different colleges through her fundraising efforts, and she had a clearer sense of what she wanted in a school.
"It was between Louisville and Tennessee for me because I had a great relationship with the coaches at those places and I loved the facilities," Russell said.
At the time, Tennessee had something that Louisville didn't: Russell's heroine, Candace Parker.
Parker dominated college basketball while playing for the Lady Vols, once prompting former Ole Miss coach Carol Ross to say, "She's the toughest matchup in the game. On many nights, she's the best guard on the floor, the best post on the floor, the best rebounder on the floor, the best passer on the floor, and, let's not forget, the best scorer on the floor."
These comments sound eerily similar to ones you'll hear from basketball experts when describing Russell's game, which is certainly a big part of why the versatile hoopster feels that connection with Parker.
"Ever since I was little, Tennessee had been my dream school," Russell said. "Candace Parker has always been my favorite player. I like her style of play and her competitiveness."
An unexpected blip in her selection process came when Tennessee's legendary coach, Pat Summitt, resigned after last season after her much-publicized diagnosis of early-onset dementia. But according to both Russell and Wagner, Tennessee held Russell's attention by staying in-house and promoting Summitt's former assistant, Holly Warlick, to the head role.
"Dean [Lockwood] and Holly had done most of the legwork, and she felt really comfortable with them," Wagner said. "If Holly hadn't gotten the job, I think things might have been different."
But things stayed the same, including Russell's dream school. And last week, in an all-school assembly (with members of the Springfield community also invited), Russell made her college decision official and chose the University of Tennessee.
"I was real happy for her going to Tennessee because I feel like through the process they did the best job recruiting her," Wagner said. "They concentrated on what they could do for her. There was no negative recruiting. It was all about them and how they could utilize her and get her ready to do whatever she wanted to do in life."
No prospect is ever a sure thing, but Wagner emphasizes that Russell has the character traits to make her outlook incredibly promising. He notes that part of what makes her so successful on the high school level is her ability to stay level-headed even while her stock skyrocketed.
"They're going to get a kid who's going to come in humble and be willing to work hard," Wagner said. "She's going to come in and earn everything she gets from the University of Tennessee. The Lady Vols and their fans are going to have a lot of fun with her over the next four years."