SULLIVAN — Before the season began, Sheri McCain knew just how to ignite a flame in Avery Still to help her take the kind of leap necessary for a team that sought a senior torchbearer.
Esther Miller had graduated and the Sullivan girls basketball team needed a senior player in the post to continue what has been a stretch of strong interior play. McCain knew she had that type of player in Still, now a senior. McCain has known since Still was in seventh grade that she had the size, strength, speed and shooting touch to have a standout high school career.
Still was an honorable mention all-conference play in the Central Illinois Conference last season after averaging 8.5 points and 6.5 rebounds, but McCain knew there was more there. McCain's goal for Still: Be unanimous first team in the conference. In the summer, she told Still that she could be an all-state player.
"She’s played a lot of basketball and she’s one tough girl," McCain said. "She’s down there with girls on her all game and draped all over her. She’s tough around that rim, and she’s improved leaps and bounds from last year to this year."
Still scored 21 points and had 10 rebounds in Tuesday's CIC Tournament semifinal win against Tuscola and is behind junior Emily White for second on the team with 15.8 points per game, leads the team with 8.4 rebounds, and averages 2.3 steals and 1.6 blocks. She had 29 points against Neoga earlier this month and a 16-rebound game against Shelbyville in December. She had nine steals against LSA in the third game of the year and five blocks in the season opener against Maroa-Forsyth.
Consider McCain's challenge heard and accepted.
“It meant a lot," Still said. "I know I had big shoes to fill after Esther left. I knew I had to step my game up a little bit and put in some extra work in the gym. I feel like I’m a big person for the team.
“I’m a very competitive person. When somebody challenges me, I’m trying to reach that."
On Thursday, Still hit mid-range jump shots to stretch out the Warriors' defense for a bucket on one possession and posted up for a layup on another possession. It's the same skill set that McCain saw when Still was in junior high as a guard. She can dribble the ball and gives a balanced Sullivan (20-4) team yet another offensive weapon.
Give her space to shoot? Still will take a jumper. Play her close? She's on her way to the rim.
You have free articles remaining.
“I saw her in junior high and I knew she was going to be something special back then," McCain said.
Still joined an AAU team — the Central Illinois Panthers — in the summer and dedicated her whole break to basketball. It was part of her improvement, particularly her ability to shoot the ball and the touch on her shots, she said.
When she wasn't with the AAU team, McCain had the team working. They played at the Mount Zion Shootout and attended a camp at the University of Notre Dame. Even without Miller, who challenged Still everyday in practice for three seasons, Still was still getting her fix against tough competition.
It's all paid off. She knows the scouting reports for the CIC and girls basketball landscape around the area. Not much is new for her by this point in her career.
“Usually we know who we’re about to come play and I’ve guarded these girls my whole life," Still said. "I know if I’m quicker than them to just take off, I know they can’t keep up with me."
McCain didn't challenge Still on accident or in an off-the-cuff statement. It was planned and methodical. The pair have a close coach-player bond and McCain isn't afraid to push Still to be the senior who steps up on a team that is seeking a regional championship for the third straight season.
"She loves that challenge," McCain said. "She’s somebody who will rise to the challenge. Every night she keeps stepping up and doing her thing."
Said Still: “It’s a big deal feeling like I’m a person for them to look to out there and if I’m not on the floor, something is missing."
PHOTOS: Sullivan beats Tuscola in CIC semifinals
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25