NORMAL, Ill - Jaci McCormack (Nez Perce) traveled a long way from her home in Idaho to attend college at Illinois State University but the move has been good for her and for the women's basketball program at the school. She loves it there and they love her in return.
McCormack began her basketball career on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai but moved to Lake Oswego, Ore. for her final two years. While she was there a coach at Portland State, Jenny Yopp, became aware of her and when Yopp took the women's coaching position at Illinois State, she recruited McCormack. She played as a freshman during the 2000-01 season, redshirted her sophomore year due to a severe ankle injury and then played her second year in 2002-03.
A new coach took over in the Fall of 2003, Robin Pingeton, and sometimes a change in coaching styles is difficult for players recruited under a different style. That didn't happen in this case and coach Pingeton literally bubbles over with enthusiasm when discussing McCormack, both as a player and as a person.
"I can't say enough good things about that young lady," Pingeton said. "She's awesome. She's a warrior. She has a heart that doesn't stop. She's extremely loyal and has a fantastic work ethic both on and off the court."
The women's team is enjoying a very good year and a real turn-around from the past couple of years. Coach Pingeton said that McCormack was one of the key ingredients in that turn-around. "She has made a huge impact both on and off the court. Once she commits she gives everything she has."
Basketball statistics through late January bear out the coach's contention that McCormack is one of the better players on the team and in the conference. She has been averaging 30 minutes of playing time per game and her field goal shooting percentage is over 41 percent, both from close range and also from 3-point range. Her free-throw success stands at 75 percent. At 5'10" there are several teammates who tower over her but she averages over five rebounds a game and leads the team in steals. Her scoring average for the season is 11 points per game and during conference games she's averaging over 13 per game.
Tom Lamonica serves in a media relations position for the school and he commented about McCormack, "She's a great all-around ballplayer. She's very strong, very quick, and she can jump."
Lamonica also commented on McCormack's presence on campus, saying "she's had a real impact on people. We don't see many Native Indians here as the nearest reservation is probably 500 miles away. Jaci has talked on radio and T.V. interviews about playing on the reservation and how important basketball is." Coach Pingeton had similar comments, saying "I've really enjoyed hearing Jaci talk of life on her reservation. I'd love to visit there with her."
Pingeton concluded by saying "I feel very blessed to have known her and to have the opportunity to coach her this year and next. She's a very gifted athlete. Just amazing."
McCormack said she really likes Illinois State University and the basketball program. She's been able to adjust easier to the lack of other Indians in school than she did when she moved to Oregon. She commented, "there was a lot of culture shock at Oregon. If I hadn't gone through that adjustment I don't know if I could have survived here." Her eventual goals would have her staying in basketball, probably starting as a coach at the high school level. She loves being involved with youth and wants to give other Indian athletes the hope of competing at all levels.
She's found college "really challenging" but is "doing well." She said "it's a totally different attitude in college. Time management has been a challenge." She will earn her degree in Sociology.
Her comments about basketball show her love and respect for coach Robin Pingeton and mirror Pingeton's comments about her. McCormack said, "She's an awesome person, very straightforward. She has a passion for the game that rubs off on the players. Her will to win is contagious." She added, "I really like it here and we're doing really well."
It appears to be a perfect match, a coach who can't say enough good things about a ball player and a player who feels the same way about the coach. McCormack has one more year at Illinois State University. She said they'll lose a few players but will have considerable experience returning. With the bonds that have developed, it should be a good year.