Jersey Strong: Katelynn Flaherty up for the challenge

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 5:50pm

Katelynn Flaherty will play a bigger role as a sophomore while opponents focus more attention on her.

Katelynn Flaherty will play a bigger role as a sophomore while opponents focus more attention on her. Buy this photo
Allison Farrand/Daily

 

An icy chill filled the ocean air as shredded wooden boards lay broken on the streets of Point Pleasant, N.J. Winds ripped houses from their roots, and sand and water covered the ruined beach town. Hurricane Sandy’s victims tucked into a nearby school gym.

The evacuees inside stayed warm, avoiding the cold, treacherous weather. Those who lived in sight of the coast were forced out of their homes, leaving belongings behind, engulfed by the storm. 

One girl, who lived just outside the flood’s reach, always used to run outside, but her usual route on the shore’s boardwalk was destroyed, flipped and swallowed in the deluge. She ran wherever she could, away from the scattered debris and past the empty remains of one former house followed by another. Or when she wasn’t outside, she was down in the basement, dribbling in the dark for hours in a house without electricity. The now-splintered, desolate borough had taken the punch.

The girl had to be tough. She needed to run because she had to stay fit. Basketball season was coming, and soon, everybody was going to be impressed with Katelynn Flaherty.

***

Katelynn Christine Flaherty played her first organized basketball game as a kindergartner in a first-grade league, began playing against the best high-schoolers when she was 13 and, at that age, drew attention from then-St. John’s and current Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. A younger Flaherty used to watch the best guards in the NBA on television — she’s a big Kobe Bryant fan — and dream of the opportunity to be like Connecticut’s Maya Moore on the national championship stage.

With two parents who played college basketball, her father at Seton Hall and mother at The College of New Jersey, sports were always Flaherty’s first love. She and her father would go out in the backyard and hit softballs or shoot around during the summers. Flaherty’s father Tom, a guard in his time, taught her from the beginning, and he was her AAU coach for all four of her high school years.

“You’re gonna be great at something,” Flaherty’s dad used to tell her.

Whether she succeeded in academics, with basketball or both, making a name for herself was just a matter of time.

If anyone was equipped for a career in basketball, it was Flaherty, with all the resources and knowledge about the sport at her fingertips. But even that couldn’t differentiate her from the abundant talent base where she grew up. To stand out from the crowd, Flaherty had to do it all from within. 

She had a “refuse-to-lose” attitude, as Barnes Arico put it. She was occasionally caught up in the finesse of scoring, but at a young age, Flaherty pushed to be a pinch tougher than the opponent.

Since Flaherty was an eighth grader, Barnes Arico watched her keep her game above the curve. She’d see Flaherty playing basketball on the playground, playing against boys, diving out on the concrete after loose balls.

“You’re from Jersey!” Barnes Arico still reminds Flaherty in practice, edging her star player to bring out the old-school, East Coast work engine that powers her.

She is one of those spot-up, lights-out, ‘get-her-the-ball-as-soon-as-she’s-open’ kind of shooters. Opponents prepare for her so much that she was on their radar before she even showed up for classes her freshman year.

Michigan’s now-sophomore guard is now readying for another five-month-long grind after reeling in hype, highlights and accolades throughout her freshman campaign.

En route to being named the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, Flaherty appeared in every game of her debut season, knocking down 37.5 percent of her 3-pointers. She set a new freshman record with 78 3s to contribute to her 499 points, a team high that landed her in the top 20 for scoring in the Big Ten, one of just three freshmen on that list.

Her numbers attest to the praise, though while her teammates note she’s “a little shy” and “very humble,” it’s not just her pinpoint splash and Tim Duncan-esque modesty that make her such a great competitor.

This season, Flaherty won’t be able to rely on simply spotting up. She will be the focal point of a team that boasts just four scholarship upperclassmen, compared to nine underclassmen. Flaherty returns as the team’s leading scorer from 2014-15, and she wasn’t even a regular starter.

“People will be all over me,” Flaherty said of the upcoming season.

Last year, the team’s ‘big three’ was comprised of former seniors Nicole Elmblad, Cyesha Goree and Shannon Smith, a trio that made up for over 50 percent of the team’s total scoring, rebounding and assists. After the Wolverines fell in the 2015 WNIT semifinal, the main focus for Barnes Arico became finding a way to refuel a program that was losing its core. If the Wolverines were going to be successful when the 2015-16 Big Ten season began, they would have to find new talent.

Flaherty knows Michigan needs someone to step up, and that now is her chance. She’s the face of the program as a sophomore, and every opponent knows who she is. They’ll put two defenders on her, trap her wherever she goes and force her to give up the ball. But Flaherty has never been one to take adversity lying down.

It all boils back down to her roots, growing up and playing in northern New Jersey, a populous hotbed of athletic talent.

To put it into perspective, according to ESPN’s HoopGurlz, which ranks the top 100 women’s college basketball prospects, 10 players in Flaherty’s recruiting class came out of New Jersey — the vast majority from northern New Jersey — the third-highest among all states, trailing just California and Ohio.

“People love to compete up there,” Flaherty said. “I don’t know what it is, but everyone’s tough. You look at the people going places, and it’s all New York/New Jersey. It’s a pride thing. You want to represent where you’re from and show that you’re the best. Every time you step out on that floor, it’s a battle.”

Flaherty rose out of this bunch after throwing down uncanny numbers her junior year of high school, averaging over 30 points per game to lead her team to the top of New Jersey’s state rankings.

She worked day in and day out on her ball-handling skills, endless dribbling, perfecting the art that her father instilled in her since birth.

Point Pleasant is a small town on the coast that fills with tourists and beachgoers during the summer months. Around the Ocean County borough, a younger Flaherty could be found jogging on the boardwalk, playing ball out on the blacktops or riding her bike to the shore, and since the local high school enrolled just a couple hundred kids, it was easy for some to get trapped in the “bubble of Point Pleasant Beach,” as she described it.

But nestled away on the Eastern tip of the country, Flaherty always had aspirations to make her way out in whatever way she could. 

So Flaherty spent endless hours on the court, and even when she was off it, basketball was always on her mind.

***

The first wind came in October.

It was 2012, and President Barack Obama had declared a state of emergency as Hurricane Sandy began flexing its muscle all across the Eastern seaboard. Eyeing coastal New Jersey, Sandy’s hostile power was heading straight for Flaherty’s hometown.

Flaherty, luckily, lived about two miles in from the shore, but nearly everything in between was ruined.

Point Pleasant was hit hard, and the super storm that caused over $70 billion in damages across the United States left homes filled with sand, demolished the boardwalks and yanked apart countless buildings.

“(Hurricane) Irene was a year before, and no one thought it was gonna be that bad,” Flaherty said. “People didn’t listen and stayed in their homes, and they had to be rescued. Even after it happened, the National Guard was there, and you couldn’t get past a certain point without ID because people were stealing from homes.”

One of Flaherty’s teammates completely lost her house as water reached the second floor. For the residents who did evacuate in time, Manasquan High School was the emergency destination. The school Flaherty attended her freshman and sophomore years was able to provide a few cots and drinkable water, but evacuees still had to bring everything they could.

“People were displaced,” Flaherty remembered. “Everything a mile in was gone.”

Without electricity or power for the following few weeks, Flaherty’s home remained intact, but still not in ideal shape. Somehow, Flaherty didn’t miss a day of practice.

Gyms were filled with stranded townspeople, and the basketball courts near the beach were lost under blankets of sand, but Flaherty couldn’t wait. If she wanted to be the best — and she so badly did — not even Sandy would bring her down.

The grounds outside were covered with litter, but she ran anyway. Her basement was dark and cold, but she dribbled anyway.

Flaherty just kept running, avoiding the wreckage and refusing to give up the basketball touch she had perfected since day one. When the weather was too much, Flaherty withdrew to the rug of her basement, ball in hand, and she’d sit and dribble for hours.

Many residents of Point Pleasant had to sleep and shower at the school for months afterward, and even now, three years removed, Flaherty still knows of people who haven’t been able to go back to their homes. 

Looting and crime were abundant, and the setbacks of Sandy, both direct and indirect, were evident. Still, there was Flaherty running outside, routinely dodging everything beneath her feet, sidestepping the storm to earn every ounce of respect she could muster up.

She takes pride in her hard-nosed, view-from-below mentality. It’s where she comes from, and how she envisions success. She wants that challenge, to build a team from the ground up, to be an underdog who nobody expects to come out on top.

In the world of women’s basketball, it’s all about the Tennessees and the Connecticuts, but Flaherty wanted to create something new. She craved what Michigan had: the sense that it was almost there. It was, and is, a time when just a few right moves could push the program over the edge.

When Barnes Arico came to Michigan, the same year that Sandy hit, she told Flaherty that she would turn the program around, which enticed the then-junior point guard. She wanted to lift the unproven team higher, something she had always done.

Back at Manasquan, Flaherty remembers when her sophomore year team didn’t just set a goal, but they made a claim: They were going to win the Tournament of Champions, a tournnament between the winners of each high school division in New Jersey. It’s the highest competition that a high school team can reach, and they were going to do it.

No one really believed in them, and after a loss for the Shore Conference title, the preseason statement seemed distant. Dejected and angered by the loss, the team turned it around.

The Manasquan Warriors made it all the way to the TOC finals, and in a game that strung close all through the fourth quarter, Flaherty rallied for over 20 points, and the team broke away for the championship. Flaherty was named the final’s MVP.

It was the highlight of her high school career, an inconsistent four-year era.

Things didn’t work out for Flaherty at Manasquan, so she left for the nearby Point Pleasant Beach High School, just a short drive down the highway from her previous stomping grounds.

Midway through her senior year, after just two games at Point Pleasant, Flaherty had to switch high schools again, this time moving an hour north to Metuchen. Further away from her hometown, Flaherty lived with her grandparents for the second half of her senior year. But soon, her basketball devotion was tested again, just three quarters into her first game at her new school.

Flaherty leaped for a rebound and fell down awkwardly, crushing her foot.

“I strained all the ligaments in my foot,” Flaherty said. “I was out for the whole season. In my first game there, I jumped for a rebound and that was it.”

Flaherty had played fewer than three games in her senior year. With a few months remaining before she left for Ann Arbor, Flaherty rehabbed as she finished out school, but she couldn’t play the game she loved.

She was committed to Michigan, but grounded on the bench.

Few minds are as tough as Flaherty’s, though. If a hurricane couldn’t stop her, the injury couldn’t either. On a broken foot, she went back down to the basement. She took a seat on her chair, with a basketball on her side and four years at Michigan straight ahead, and she started to dribble.