June 30, 2016

Mostly clear

Girls basketball: Move has paid off for Grizzlies’ McKenzie O’Brien

Whether it’s going from defense to offense on the basketball court or from a Division IV parochial school to a D-I public one, McKenzie O’Brien knows how to transition.

A star player for two years at Mansfield St. Peter’s before coming off the bench for Wadsworth last season, O’Brien is once again a main cog as the Grizzlies (25-2) prepare to take on Toledo Notre Dame Academy (24-3) in the Norwalk Regional championship Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

McKenzie O’Brien has been a driving force for the Wadsworth basketball team the last two seasons after spending the first two years of her high school career starting for Division IV Mansfield St. Peter’s. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

“It was a hard transition at first, going from D-IV where you’re lucky to have enough players for a full team to one of the best D-I teams in the state,” the 5-foot-6 shooting guard said Thursday. “But I made a lot of friends and it worked out perfectly. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

O’Brien, who is averaging 12.0 points for the season and 15.8 in the tournament, during which she has shot .556 from the field (25-for-45) and .885 at the line (23-for-26), started for St. Peter’s as a freshman and averaged about 14 points as the school reached the district finals.

As a sophomore, she upped that to 18 points a game and earned third-team All-Ohio honors for St. Peter’s, which lost in the regional finals to eventual state champion Harvest Prep.

Then her father Mark, who played on St. Peter’s 1978 Class A state championship team — “I hear about that a lot,” O’Brien said — got a job transfer. Suddenly, attending Wadsworth made too much sense to pass up.

One, Grizzlies coach Andrew Booth not only knew O’Brien and her father, but in the early 2000s he had coached her first cousins, Liz and Ashley, at Mansfield Madison.

Two, O’Brien and Peyton Booth, the coach’s daughter who now also starts for Wadsworth, had been very close friends since serving as Madison ballgirls and later played on the same AAU team.

Three, O’Brien already knew current Wadsworth players Taylore Robinson, Haley Hassinger and Sabrina Parsons through summer AAU play.

“I knew a lot of the kids and Peyton and I go way back,” said O’Brien, a second-team All-Northeast Inland District choice. “My family thought it would be a comfortable place for my sister (Rylee, now in eighth grade) and me.

“I was upset about leaving my teammates because I had made some really close bonds, but all in all we thought it would be a good move for us.”

It has been. O’Brien, who is still undecided about whether to accept a full scholarship offer to play soccer for D-II Ursuline College, came off the bench for the Grizzlies last year, when they lost to Notre Dame in the regional final, but did so without a peep of complaint.

“When I was at St. Pete’s, we depended on me and another girl a lot,” the 18-year-old said. “Going from a big-time contributor to a role player was hard, but it was what needed to be done.”

It is that kind of selfless attitude that Andrew Booth loves. Better still, it is accompanied by tenacity and toughness.

“I didn’t have any concerns because I knew her personality,” Booth said. “She’s a team-first kid. It t could have been an issue, but it wasn’t.

“What she brings more than anything is a competitive fire. She hates to lose at anything. It doesn’t matter if we’re doing a drill or playing a game or having a scrimmage, she likes to compete. She’s not a 6-foot kid, but she’s as tough a kid as we have. Her competitiveness and her toughness set a tone when we come into a game.”

O’Brien, who plans to major in nursing when she picks a college, gets that competitiveness not only from her father, but her mother, Joline.

It is what drives her as the Grizzlies look to avenge their regional final loss to Notre Dame last year and reach the state tournament in Columbus, where O’Brien’s former teammates at St. Peter’s played without her in 2012.

“There were some mixed feelings,” she said of watching her old school play in the state tournament. “That is the team that kind of made me into the player I am today. They were like family, also. We all connected. To see them there was a little emotional, thinking that could be me.

“But at the same time, I realized I’m doing my thing and this is going to help me become a better player.”

Best of all for O’Brien, the Grizzlies now have a chance to make that trip and atone for last year’s disappointing loss to Notre Dame.

“We just want to show everybody what we are capable of and the team we have become,” O’Brien said. “It would be such a big thing.

“All of us have dreamed about being at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus our whole life. We’re all big basketball gurus. It would be big for us and the Wadsworth community.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.