Every school year, a new class passes through the halls of Centre County’s high schools, and among them are young freshmen looking to spread their wings and make a name for themselves.
Within every class there is always a group with athletic ability, people who can run, jump, throw and shoot better than most. And within that group the circle is even smaller of those who absolutely stand out.
By the time those young freshmen grow up to be seniors, they change, evolve, become bigger, faster, stronger.
Centre County has close to a thousand high school students playing sports, and annually about 50-60 of them are good enough to be headed to some level of college sports.
The circle gets really tiny when it reaches the elite level, the top-10 program, the best in the country. To be destined for the best women’s basketball team in the nation, arguably the best and most successful women’s college program of any sport? That’s a really, really small circle.
Kyla Irwin stands there.
She holds plenty of records, has accolades and trophies on her shelves and her resume, and has helped her teams to successful seasons, but getting to play for the University of Connecticut’s basketball program is beyond any number, any award, any trophy.
The State College senior was selected last weekend as the Centre Daily Times’ female Inspiring Athlete of the Year, for the second time, as much for the numbers and accolades as for what she has in her future.
She may have great stats, but she stands out for being, at least for Centre County, a once-in-a-generation basketball talent.
“Thinking back to my freshman year, I was just kind of dreaming of doing this stuff and leaving my mark on my school,” Irwin said after picking up the award. “Looking back, as a senior now, it’s just kind of crazy that with hard work and dedication, the help of your teammates and pushing you to get better, your coaches and parents and family, it really can happen. I’m really happy with how things happened, the achievements that I had, it’s just been really awesome.”
She may not be the fastest, strongest or most athletic even in her school’s graduating class. There are a number of others who also have the potential to achieve greatness beyond high school or even college. But combining the head with the heart, the strength and skill, the work ethic and the tenacity, and the combination is much more rare. It is what drew UConn coach Geno Auriema to the 6-foot-2 forward who possesses both the ability to nail a 3-pointer and make a strong drop-step in the post.
The daughter of a successful coach and player — Bethany Irwin had better than 1,000 points and rebounds at Penn State — Kyla Irwin knows the game inside and out. She has studied the game for years, even when she didn’t know she was studying.
She had dreamed of playing for the Huskies since she hung a team poster on her wall in the fourth grade, but rarely does shooting for the stars happen, especially when they are such a difficult target to hit.
Heading to UConn, a program that has won 11 national championships in the past quarter century and the past four in a row, Irwin has put herself into position to join a very, very select group to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
Among State College graduates in the past 15 years, Jordan Norwood just won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos, Kelsey Ream and Maggie Harding each won a couple of NCAA titles with the Penn State volleyball team, and Megan Ritchey and Taylor Campbell-Phipps helped the Nittany Lion soccer team win the national championship last fall.
For each of them, they were experiences not given but earned.
Still, Irwin’s numbers are nonetheless impressive.
She scored 2,032 career points, becoming just the second basketball player, male or female, to reach the 2,000 mark in Centre County. Dana McDonald netted 2,269 for Penns Valley, graduating in 1989 and going on to play at Duke.
“Even at the beginning of this year, I didn’t think (2,000 points) would be feasible,” Irwin said. “My mom and I would think, kind of a side note, how many points away am I from 2,000? I had to average, like, 27 points a game. I had only been averaging 19.5. How am I supposed to get 10 more points a game? My teammates really just found me and did what they had to do to get me the ball. … This whole year I wasn’t even expecting to surpass those goals.”
Irwin also grabbed 1,188 rebounds, and posted a double-double in 79 of 96 of her career games. During her senior season, she indeed averaged 27 points, plus 12 rebounds, per game.
Those numbers go into the record books, along with the three all-state honors and the many, many other awards along the way.
But now the reset button has been pressed. Everything is back to zero. Anything she did in high school or for her club team means nothing. It’s all up to her to work hard and earn time.
It starts this weekend. She attended her last State College classes on Friday, then climbed into the family car Saturday morning to move to Storrs. This weekend she meets up with her teammates, hits the weight room, starts running and shooting, and on Tuesday takes her first classes. Aside from a weekend home in two weeks to graduate, and a few other days here and there, her life is now devoted to Connecticut basketball.
She worked hard to get there, and it’s something so very, very few get to do.
“My level of excitement and nervousness are almost equal, just because I don’t know what to expect,” Irwin said. “It’s hard to prepare yourself for the hardest thing you’re ever going to go through. You just don’t know what it’s going to be like. But I’m really excited and I can’t wait to be part of the team. … I can’t wait to be all-in and be a part of the legacy.”