Berea College women’s basketball coach Bunky Harkleroad was talking about Trimble County’s Stephanie Corry, the senior who is trying to lead the Lady Mountaineers, Kentucky’s most explosive women’s basketball team, to a third consecutive NAIA-2 national tournament appearance. “Stephanie’s road has not been an easy one, and she’s gone through a lot of ups and downs. She’s experienced a bit of everything.” That may be understating the case of an athlete who is setting an inspiring example of perseverance and the will to win.
A two-sport star at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Kansas, Corry moved to Kentucky in 2002, just before her senior year. Her first love was swimming, and basketball was the game she played while waiting for the swimming season to begin. Corry started at guard for Coach Kerrie Stewart at Trimble County High School in 2002-03, but her season did not end happily. She blew out an ACL in her last game for the Lady Raiders, an injury that also ended her career as a competitive swimmer.
“While I was rehabbing that spring,” Corry recalls, “I had mixed feelings about college. I had a couple of offers for swimming, but I’d been swimming my whole life and felt burnt out by it. I decided I wanted to concentrate on basketball. But I made up my mind that if I didn’t play basketball, I didn’t want to go to college.”
Unfortunately, a low-profile player with a limp didn’t attract much attention. Coach Stewart sent out tapes to schools where she thought Corry could play in Kentucky, but the response was underwhelming. “Then she came into my study hall one day and told me Berea called and wanted me to play there, but the application was due in a couple of hours. I got online and applied immediately, and they accepted me.”
In Corry’s freshman year Harkleroad introduced a new style of basketball at Berea, a vigorous, attacking style of basketball based on relentless pressure defense, a fast breaking, three-point shooting offense, and fearless offensive rebounding. He needed a deep roster to make this system go, and he made it clear that there would be no such thing as practice players at Berea. He expected every player good enough to make his team to contribute to a winning effort in game situations. Corry, like everyone else, would play significant minutes.
At 5-7 Corry was a good shooter and an adequate ballhandler, but she needed to boost her aggressiveness if she were to flourish at Berea. “My confidence needed improvement,” she admits. “I was the new kid when I played at Trimble County, and I felt it wasn’t right for me to do a lot of driving and shooting.” She brought that reticence to Berea, along with the self-doubt every athlete has to combat after ACL surgery.
Corry offset these disadvantages with some solid positives. She embraced Berea’s new system, unorthodox as it was, and she brought the intelligence to grasp its principles and the willingness to execute them. “I wanted to play a fast game,” she says. “It looked like fun.” In her freshman season Berea led the NAIA in scoring and won more than 20 games for the first time in the history of the program.
Corry remembers the occasion when she committed herself totally to the Berea system. “We were playing Wheeling Jesuit, a strong NCAA-2 school, and we were down 30 at halftime. We told ourselves we had a choice: we could lay down or try to fight back. 30 points is a lot, but we had to believe that if we played our system right and forced a fast pace, we could wear them out, hit some threes, and get ourselves back in it. We almost caught them although we ended up losing the game 91-86. We don’t like to get behind, but we don’t stop believing we can win when we get behind, and often we do.”
A physical player who throws herself vigorously into the game, Corry got knocked to the deck a lot in her first two seasons. She suffered from shin splints and a propensity to turn ankles. But she provided valuable offensive firepower (averaging 25 points per 40 minutes), and the Lady Mountaineers won 43 of the 57 games they played.
Students admitted to Berea pay no tuition, but all of them must work at college jobs to help defray the costs of their education. No exceptions are made for athletes, who play sports in whatever time is left after they’ve fulfilled their academic and labor obligations. Although every athlete at Berea is a walk-on, its teams hold their own by attracting competitors who are uniquely committed. After her sophomore year Corry felt a need to re-examine her commitment to her education. She left school for a semester to work at a day program for mentally disabled adults.
Corry loved the work, and, newly determined to complete a degree that would enable her to pursue it as a career, she re-enrolled at Berea for the second semester. Although eligible to play basketball again in February, she decided to accept redshirt status. While she sat on the sidelines, the 2005-06 Lady Mountaineers won the KIAC tournament to earn the school’s first-ever bid to the national NAIA-2 tourney in Sioux City, Iowa.
“Even when I was working I tried to be at every game and every practice that I could, because I didn’t want to be one of those players who distances herself from the team. When I came back to school I practiced with the team, and during the games I sat on the bench. Sitting out was very difficult, but I was out of shape and it wouldn’t have made any sense to try to play for just a month. I tried to watch and learn.”
Too busy to exercise during the semester she missed, Corry acquired extra pounds that had to come off before she could contribute again. While she worked hard to get back into game shape, her scoring eye was not as sharp in 2006-07 as it once had been. Her per-40-minute average of 18 points was the lowest of her career, and she missed three weeks of the season with an ankle sprain. Near the end of the season she tore cartilage in both knees. But once again the Lady Mountaineers earned a trip to the national tournament, and this time Corry played in Sioux City.
“I had the option to have the knees repaired last spring, but rather than face surgery and rehab, I stayed off my knees all summer, didn’t run at all. I swam to keep in shape. It helped a lot. They haven’t started to aggravate me too much, although they hurt every now and then. I chose not to have the surgery, so I have to fight through the pain. I’m used to it. I’ve never been the quickest player on the floor. I could use the injuries as an excuse for why I can’t keep up or run, but I try to ignore them and go as hard as everybody else.”
Fifth-year senior Corry is the sole survivor of Berea’s first “System” team, and as banged up as she is, she’s having her best year. With the season half over, she has played every game and is averaging 20 minutes per game, as many as any player for a Berea team that substitutes fresh bodies constantly to keep the pace hot. Her per-40-minute scoring average is 24 points, and she’s already set a personal high for rebounds in a season. Playing in Transylvania University’s tournament in November, she burned the host school for 31 points, including nine made threes, plus six rebounds in 22 minutes to lead the Lady Mountaineers to a 102-92 victory. The Pioneers still don’t know what hit them.
Harkleroad says, “It’s been good to watch Stephanie try to lead this team. She wants her experiences to be meaningful. Her game has improved. She’s always been a good spot-up shooter, and she can put it on the floor better than she used to. She’s more mobile now than she’s ever been because she’s worked hard and learned to play with nagging injuries. She realized that if she was going to play, she had to play with some pain, and it would not be easy. She decided to stick with it.”
“I want to finish what I started,” Corry says. “Less than one percent of all high school athletes play four years of anything in college. That’s a tiny number, and I’d like to be among them. That’s a key motivator for me. I can’t say I’m a great shooter, a great ballhandler, or a great defender. I go as hard as I possibly can when I’m on the floor because our system demands it. All of our players are here to play, not sit, and I try very hard to be a team player, to keep everyone involved. That’s so important for us, and that’s one of the biggest contributions I can make.”
Corry’s major is Child and Family Studies, with a concentration in Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS). She’ll earn a teaching certificate for grades 5-12, and after graduation she’ll pursue a master’s degree in Special Education. Her goal is to work with functionally and mentally disabled children. “At Berea we have a small student to teacher ratio, and our teachers show real interest in our progress and our success as a student. In my major we get a lot of field experience. That’s a good way to learn.” She works in the Facilities Management Department, delivering supplies to campus buildings.
As the Lady Mountaineers shoot for their fifth consecutive NAIA scoring title and 20-win season, Corry’s foremost desire is to lead the team to the national tournament. Berea hasn’t won a game in Sioux City, and she wants to help change that. “If we can get there and play like we know how to play, we can win, and people will remember us.”
Corry is the daughter of Steve Corry of Las Vegas, Nevada, and Shelley Ellegood of Bedford, Kentucky.