took what was already a great high school career and turned it into legend with a spectacular senior season. It's a story of progressing physically and athletically over the years, and then having it all come together for a blowout senior campaign.
Stewart is the 2011-12 MaxPreps Girls Basketball Player of the Year. The journey to that title, though, started when the 6-foot-3 phenom was in middle school.
"I've always been tall," Stewart said. "But I was never the tallest girl."
That is, until she started eighth grade. She said she grew 3-4 inches that year, and all the sudden a girl who had played all kinds of sports then found her passion in basketball.
Eric Smith, her coach at Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.)
, noticed the growth spurt as well, and Stewart wound up playing varsity basketball as an eighth grader.
"I was kind of shy, and it was an adjustment," Stewart said of that first year. After all, she didn't even go to the same school as her teammates, and she had just committed to basketball as her primary sport.
But it didn't take long for Stewart to feel comfortable, or for Smith to insert her into the starting lineup, where she stayed for the next four-and-a-half years. And though the run up to her senior season was impressive, her final year for the Northstars was simply spectacular.
The numbers are pretty dazzling with averages per game of 26.4 points, 14.2 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, 3.2 steals and 3.1 assists – but they don't come close to telling the whole story. Cicero-North finished the season No. 10 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Girls Basketball Rankings presented by the Army National Guard
, and defeated two teams loaded with future Division I players (Nazareth and Bolingbrook) despite a roster that was composed of Stewart and a group of pretty good high school players.
And though Brittany Paul hit the 3-pointer in overtime to knock off Bolingbrook (which finished No. 7 in the nation), every opponent focused on Stewart.
"Obviously, people are going to try to be physical with me," said Stewart.
But just as obviously, it didn't work that well. One reason is that Stewart realized very early that she needed to get stronger.
"I wanted to get in the weight room. It doesn't always show," laughed Stewart, who is still slender. "But I like being in the weight room. When you see yourself lifting heavier weights, it gives you confidence."
But don't confuse confidence with arrogance, or assume that Stewart puts herself above her teammates – none of whom were recruited as she was (she's going to UConn), and none of whom have been playing for USA Basketball on a regular basis as she does.
"She's such a humble kid, it was never an issue," Smith said. "She understands her game and knows when to take over – but she defers quite a bit, though."
In her first year in USA Basketball, she deferred so much that she was sixth in shots taken, despite starting every game and shooting 52.8 percent. But her last two summers, playing for the Under-18 and Under-19 teams, she led the gold medal winners in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.
One reason she's such an effective player is that she's much more versatile than most 6-4 players. She's comfortable bringing the ball upcourt as well as shooting 3's.
"I like playing forward," she said. "I like being able to play in the post but there's also times I like to bring the ball up and shoot outside shots. My dad always told me not to be one-dimensional."
She definitely wasn't one-dimensional with Cicero-North this past season, as she did whatever was needed whenever it was needed. The Northstars were an unknown quantity on the national scene when they arrived in Phoenix before Christmas for the Nike TOC, but wins over Bolingbrook and Dr. Phillips vaulted them into national prominence – and made it clear that Stewart was capable of taking Cicero-North a long way.
As it turned out, the distance traveled was all the way to the New York Federation championship, capped with two decisive victories over New York City teams, Nazareth and Murry Bergtraum, and Stewart may have played her best game in the semifinals against Nazareth and its horde of D-1 talent. Her jaw-dropping box score line in that game included 42 points, 23 rebounds and six blocked shots on 15 of 20 shooting – capped by a half-court shot to end the first quarter. The final score was 80-55, which was sweet revenge for a playoff defeat in 2011.
Despite Stewart "only" scoring 22 points and getting 15 rebounds, the Northstars then thumped Murry Bergtraum 60-28 in the finals.
"We were really motivated" in the playoffs, Stewart said. "I realized that if we lost, it would be my last game."
"The way we finished was like a story," said Smith. "You couldn't write anything better than that."