USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring the 12 athletes in the running for the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year, which will be announced July 16 in Los Angeles. Today's spotlight: Mercedes Russell (girls basketball).
Mercedes Russell doesn't know the words to Tennessee’s fight song, Rocky Top, just yet.
“But, I’m sure I will real soon,” said the soon-to-be Lady Vol.
Here's guessing Tennessee fans will let her slide on this one; the 6-foot-5 post player from Springfield, Ore., was quite a score for the Volunteers.
As a member of the 2011 USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team, Russell helped the USA to a 5-0 record, a gold medal and a qualifying berth into this year’s FIBA U17 World Championship. She also set the USA U16 single-game records of 15 rebounds and five blocked shots, and tournament records for rebounding average (11.4) and blocked shots (4.0).
Russell is a two-time Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year and was named to the 2012 USA Women’s U17 World Championship Team.
But her most rewarding accomplishment, she says, has been being named the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
With a resume like that, Russell definitely had her share of schools from which to pick. Louisville, Kentucky, Notre Dame and North Carolina all showed interest in her.
So, why Tennessee?
Russell credits the school’s rich basketball tradition for half of her decision. She grew up following Tennessee basketball, emulating players such as 2008 WNBA MVP winner Candace Parker.
“And who wouldn’t want to play in front of 10,000-plus fans every home game?” Russell asked.
USA TODAY High School Sports' Suzanne Schwerer caught up with Russell to chat about her life, both on and off of the court.
You’ve maintained a 3.15 GPA in high school. How did you manage to stay on top of your studies?
Russell: My mom always reminded me that I am a student first and that basketball was a privilege.
You volunteered for Oregon Amateur Basketball, the Special Olympics, a community beautification project and an elementary education literacy-outreach program. What were those experiences like?
Russell: They were life changing. Any time I feel like I can make a positive impression on young people, I am willing to help.
How did it feel to win two gold medals with USA Basketball?
Russell: It was amazing getting to travel to places like Italy and Amsterdam and Mexico, and developing friendships with players from all over the U.S. and other countries.
Is there a story behind why No. 21 has always been your favorite number?
Russell: My grandfather passed away on Dec. 21 when I was in eighth grade – so I wear it to remember him. He was my biggest fan.
You’re ambidextrous – I’ve read that you write with your left hand but shoot with you right hand. Can you also shoot with your left? How did that come about? How does that help your game?
Russell: I have always written left-handed and done everything else right-handed – shooting, batting, eating. But my grandparents are both left-handed. I guess maybe it makes it a little easier to shoot from both sides in the post.
What is the strongest part of your game, and what part needs the most work?
Russell: I think I have really good footwork and pretty good range. I obviously need to work on getting stronger and being more explosive.
How did you develop such good ballhandling skills with your height (6-5) making you a post player?
Russell: Well, I was a guard until the summer of eighth grade. I grew from 5-10 to 6-2, then between my freshman and sophomore year I went from 6-2 to 6-5 and that is how I ended up a post player.
What has been your single favorite basketball memory so far?
Russell: Winning back-to-back state championships. It was the first time in my high school that girls basketball had ever won one.