A chance to join Illini basketball rounds out college experience for NPRE freshman
Meagan McNicholas was a star athlete from a school full of star athletes. The Rochester, Ill., native placed third in the 1600 meters while also a member of the third-place 4x800-meter relay team in the IHSA Class 2A state track meet as a freshman. In basketball, she scored 1,000 points, including 14 in the state Class 3A state semifinal game, helping her team to 2nd place at State. She also played soccer and ran cross country.
“At Rochester, sports are what people do,” McNicholas said. “No matter the season, we expect to win.”
In high school, McNicholas also had a passion for chemistry and physics, so although she had offers to continue her athletic career at a major university, McNicholas says none of the schools she considered for that pursuit matched the level of academics the aspiring pre-med major was looking for. So upon being accepted into the highly competitive Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering (NPRE) program at the University of Illinois, she gave up hopes of playing sports at the next level.
McNicholas thoroughly enjoyed her first semester at Illinois, feeling at home in the community of the 40 or so freshmen NPRE students while also pledging to the Gamma Phi Beta sorority.
“I love everything about Illinois,” McNicholas said. “Everything I could have wanted out of college has happened.”
Except for competing in athletics.
But pieces were moving behind the scenes to make that happen. Rochester football coach Derek Leonard, whose team has won state championships in six of the last seven years, and good friend John Wright, a loyal women’s basketball supporter and former Illini football player, collectively contacted Illini women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant about the possibility of allowing McNicholas to join the team as a walk-on.
“Coach Leonard had indicated that of all the girls he thought could have excelled in football, Meagan would be the one,” Bollant said. “He talked about her toughness and work ethic.”
So Bollant reached out to McNicholas to see if she had an interest in joining the Illini and invited her for a weeklong tryout.
“It was clear in about 2 to 3 days that this was going to work,” Bollant said. “Her attitude was awesome. She was a strong kid and was going to give great effort.”
“I remember watching practice and thinking the speed of the game is unreal,” McNicholas said of her first week on the team. “I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries right off the bat, but I clicked fast with all the players and have loved playing the game again.”
Her commitment to basketball has also meant missing some lectures while on the road.
“That’s hard because this semester it’s all new material for me,” McNicholas said of her rigorous studies. “But here they want to you to succeed, so everyone has been willing to help and answer questions. I do think the juggling act will prepare me for a career and life because you really have to manage your time to get it all done.”
McNicholas chose the radiological track of the major because it satisfies the pre-requisites for medical school. She will likely also graduate with a minor in bioengineering. Having an undergraduate degree in engineering also provides more options should she decide she wants to stay in the medical field, but that ultimately eight years of med school isn’t in the cards for her.
Either way McNicholas is glad she has had the opportunity to stay involved in basketball and the coaching staff has been happy to have her.
“Coaching is really enjoyable when you have players like Meagan,” Bollant said. “There are days when she will come in and battles with the posts and plays defense for half hour straight, but doesn’t always get to play offense. Meagan is happy to do whatever the team needs, which is awesome.”
The opportunity to play basketball has rounded out McNicholas’ freshman experience. “I guess everything happens for a reason,” she said. “This was the perfect storm.”
For more information on this story or for additional College of Engineering media inquiries, contact Mike Koon, marketing and communications coordinator, 217/2441-256