As nation cheers, Southwest Missouri State's Jackie Stiles goes from small-town hero to Final Four.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001
ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- In a perfect world -- the kind you read about in those happily-ever-after books -- this is exactly how it would be.
The small-town coach's daughter who becomes famous for taking 1,000 shots a day in practice, grows up to become a high school basketball legend in Kansas.
She shuns the big-time women's college programs in favor of little-recognized Southwest Missouri State but pays for it by missing out on the national spotlight that big-time schools offer. Then, in her final season at Southwest Missouri State, she gets her chance at the big time.
She doesn't miss the opportunity to shine.
Welcome to the world of Jackie Stiles.
For the past four seasons, the Southwest Missouri State guard has been living a fairy tale on the court. This season she decided to let the nation watch her story unfold.
Stiles forced her way into the national spotlight March 1 when she scored 30 points to become the career scoring leader in Division I women's basketball with 3,133 points.
On Friday, the 5-foot-8 phenom from Claflin, Kan., will lead Southwest Missouri State into its first Final Four appearance since 1992. The Bears will play Purdue in the semifinals at the Savvis Center in St. Louis, 3 1/2 hours from the school's campus in Springfield.
"When you're a little kid, you dream, and now you're living it," Stiles said after the Bears defeated Washington 104-87 to advance to the Final Four. "For it to be in St. Louis, you can't script it better than that."
Stiles' season has been perfectly scripted.
Although she led the nation in scoring last season (27.8), she entered this season with little national fanfare. Southwest Missouri State competes in the Missouri Valley Conference. And the power conferences get most of the attention -- and the television coverage.
With wins over No. 1 seeded Duke (ACC) and Washington (Pac-10), even those in the big-time programs have to acknowledge Stiles, who finished atop the national scoring list again with 30.6 points. She has 3,371 points in her career.
"Jackie, in my opinion, is the best player out there this year," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "She can do it all. Anybody that thinks she is not good has not seen her play."
Added Washington guard Loree Payne: "Jackie Stiles is all that."
The oldest of four children (she has two brothers and a sister), Stiles became familiar with a gym at age 3. Her father, Pat, was a coach who would take her to practice with him.
"He would take me through the drills and everything," Stiles said. "He didn't have to force it on me. He'd show me something, and I'd go spend hours trying to perfect it."
And therein lies the essence of Jackie Stiles, her coaches and teammates say: practice to the point of exhaustion, in search of perfection.
Opposing coaches tell stories of seeing her on the floor, alone, shooting jump shots 90 minutes before a game. The descriptions of her are the same: hard worker, determined, dedicated.
"She's a kid who is much harder on herself than anybody else could be because her expectations are so high," Southwest Missouri State coach Cheryl Burnett said. "She's the hardest worker I've ever seen."
Burnett first saw Stiles as a middle-schooler in Claflin and began following her.
"We've always known from the time she was a sixth-grader that she was a very special player and a very special person," Burnett said.
"When I was 12 years old, someone from Southwest Missouri State saw me play and said that if I continued to play that hard, I could play Division I basketball some day," Stiles said. "That was when I realized I really wanted to get there."
By her senior season in high school, Stiles was among the top 10 players in the nation on many recruiting lists. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma made a trip to Caflin to see Stiles.
"She's one of those kids who had to come from a small town with no lights," Auriemma said. "When you drive up there, you say, "Now I know why this kid shoots 1,000 jump shots a day.' It's part of their culture."
Auriemma couldn't close the deal on Stiles and knows what he missed out on.
"She's a once-in-a generation type of player," Auriemma said. "She is the kind of kid that's relentless. Every time she touches the ball, you can't wait to see what she's going to do with it."
Yet, Stiles isn't the player she was when UConn was sending out its calling card. In high school she was primarily a scorer. She once scored 53 points in a game, getting mentioned in Sports Illustrated and USA Today.
But Burnett knew she could be much more.
"She has always been incredible with the ball in her hands," Burnett said. "But we had to convince her to move without the ball, to convince her that the defensive part is as important as the offensive part. She's so much more well-rounded as a player because now she understands that."
"To see her up close, you have to really appreciate how quick she is, how strong she is," Washington coach June Daugherty said.
Though most of the nation has been introduced to Stiles and the Bears this month, the people in Springfield, Mo., and Claflin, Kan., have known about Stiles so long, she's like a member of the family.
Southwest Missouri State averages more than 8,000 per game, mostly because of Stiles. A crowd of 9,155 watched Stiles break the NCAA scoring record. For the West Region in Spokane, Wash., a contingent of loyal followers took a 30-hour bus ride to attend.
"We wanted to win for (the fans) probably more than we did for ourselves," Stiles said. "We have great support."
At Claflin High, crowds of 1,500 often packed the gym -- which had a capacity of 1,300 -- to see Jackie. That's how she is known in those parts -- just Jackie.
Through it all, Stiles has remained humble, her coach and teammates say.
"A lot of times I get more credit than I deserve," said Stiles, who despite a stellar career never won a state championship in high school. "Basketball is a team game. It takes everybody to win."
Stiles has a great future. Before the season, she became engaged to Matt Barrett, a Springfield middle school coach. Stiles, a physical education major, plans to be certified to teach high school.
But with her performance this season, particularly during the past month, all that most likely will have to wait. The WNBA most assuredly will beckon for Stiles, who also has said she wants to play at least two seasons in Europe because playing year-round could help her chances of making the 2004 Olympic team.
"I definitely know what I want to do in my future," she said. "I have big goals, with little stepping-stones along the way. Making the Final Four is my ultimate goal, that and making the Olympics. Those would mean the most to me in my career."
But first, there's that issue of winning a national championship for herself and the loyal people of Springfield, Mo.
"I'm just trying to get the most out of my God-given talents and my abilities every day," Stiles said. "I don't want to look back on my career and say "What if?' I just want to go for it with everything I have."
And she has.
- Information from other news sources was used in this report.