TERRE HAUTE —
Many people find “the path of least resistance” as a preferable way to proceed in life. After all, less risk is involved with a sure thing.
But by not taking her “path of least resistance,” Jenni McLeish is living out her academic/athletic dreams as a junior and first-year women’s basketball player at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.
McLeish was a respectable player during her high school career at South Vermillion. As a senior, she was the Wildcats’ team leader in assists, 3-pointers, points scored and field goals. She was also named All-Western Indiana Conference.
But she was not heavily recruited, her options for a collegiate career being Lake Land College (Mattoon, Ill.) or Trine University (Angola, Ind.).
McLeish was more heavily recruited academically. A perennial 4.0 grade-point-average student, she was the recipient of a four-year Gongaware Scholarship in Indiana State University’s highly respected Insurance program.
Her dilemma? While ISU’s offer was intriguing, college basketball was not part of the equation.
Thus began her circuitous route to St. Mary-of-the-Woods.
McLeish was familiar with the SMWC basketball team, seeing it regularly at its “home” gym, the Clinton Recreation Center, in her hometown.
“I watched the St. Mary teams play in open gyms. … I was at there all the time growing up,” McLeish recalled. “I even got to play in some of their pickup games. But I didn’t have any contact from [SMWC], and I didn’t push contact either.”
“We were familiar with her, but we weren’t pursuing her out of high school,” SMWC coach Deanna Bradley explained. “We thought she just wasn’t ready for this level. So we didn’t go after her.”
Meanwhile, McLeish decided on a “path” of academics/college basketball, accepting a two-year deal to play at Lake Land.
“We had a pretty good season my freshman year, [I] played a lot,” McLeish said. “My sophomore season was cut short due to an ankle injury, so I didn’t play as much.”
McLeish continued to excel in the classroom as a 4.0 student at Lake Land, earning Distinguished Academic All-America status.
Bradley saw McLeish in action both of those seasons, her SMWC teams opposing Lake Land in preseason scrimmages.
“In her freshman year, I thought eh? [about her improvement] … but she was still not ready,” Bradley said. “She improved even more her sophomore year. Then she had the ankle injury. We were also guard-loaded, so we still weren’t pursuing her.”
The story might have ended there, if not for a phone call providing the impetus for McLeish to finally join the Pomeroys.
“I got a call from Jenni’s dad, Brian McLeish,” Bradley recalled. “She had severely injured her ankle in her sophomore year and was thinking of not playing again. But she had changed her mind, still wanted to play. We didn’t really have a spot, but I said, ‘Have her come in, we’ll talk to her.’
“She is a smart student, a 4.0 student, so no grade issue … a smart, respectful woman. I told her ‘we can’t give you dollars or anything, can’t guarantee playing time. We have a lot of good guards, so you’d have to earn playing time.’ ”
McLeish admitted her dad’s phone call was a catalyst, but once she had her foot in the door, she’s fully justified being on the team.
“I love the program … playing for them is great,” McLeish said. “A great transition, it’s seemed flawless. I get along great with everybody. We have a lot of potential. If we put it all together, we could be pretty powerful.”
While her statistics are not eye-popping, McLeish has been a big contributor in many ways, Bradley said.
McLeish has played in all 22 games, starting 16 times, averaging nearly 23 minutes a game. She is averaging 4.2 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and nearly a steal per game — despite being hampered by the same ankle injury in recent weeks, which will require surgery after the season.
McLeish scored 11 points in an 89-64 home victory over Lindenwood-Belleville on Saturday, lifting the Pomeroys to 10-12 overall.
“Coming in as a transfer, it’s always difficult fitting in with the team,” Bradley said. “But she gets along great with the kids. It’s been like having her here for three years.
“She has good court sense, pretty fundamentally sound. She just knows what to do, knows where to be. It’s hard to teach that,” the coach said. “She’s not really vocal, but leads by example. Never question her effort. She continues to make good decisions.”
McLeish is majoring in business administration at SMWC, achieving another 4.0 GPA the past semester. She is still interested in a career in insurance. But without an insurance program at SMWC, she is also considering a couple other career options.
“Throughout high school, I didn’t honestly think I could play at the college level,” McLeish concluded. “This is more than I ever expected.”