Monona Grove senior McKenna Warnock soars to new heights for Silver Eagles’ girls basketball team
MONONA — Down double digits with 10 minutes remaining against Milwaukee Academy of Science earlier this month, Monona Grove senior McKenna Warnock was determined: Losing wasn’t a possibility.
The 6-foot-2 Warnock led a comeback that produced an 80-78 victory, scoring 39 points and grabbing a program-record 29 rebounds in a non-conference girls basketball game that featured another of the state’s top players, Milwaukee Academy of Science senior Shemera Williams.
“She wasn’t going to let us lose,” Monona Grove coach Tyler Kuehl said about Warnock. “She went after every ball with tenacity and because of her size and skill, she got all of them.”
When Warnock signed her National Letter of Intent with the University of Iowa in mid-November, she expressed feelings of excitement and relief.
With a decision in hand, the heavily recruited Warnock — who narrowed a lengthy list of offers to Iowa, Arizona, Stanford, Marquette and the University of Wisconsin — didn’t have to worry about the college coaches in the stands and could relax entering this season.
“That is very true, actually,” Warnock said after a recent practice. “It honestly feels great to play for fun — to play the game I love and do it with the girls I love, who are my best friends and who I won’t be able to play with after this season.”
“I’m sure that’s a huge thing,” Kuehl said abut making a college choice. “I’ve never been in that situation, so I can’t say how it feels. I can imagine it is an incredibly difficult decision that you think about. Even the amount of communication she had to deal with can be draining — talking to people all the time.”
The initial results this season have been outstanding for Monona Grove, ranked seventh in Division 2 in the WisSports.net poll, and Warnock, who during her junior season became the school’s all-time leader in scoring and rebounding for the girls and boys programs.
The Silver Eagles, after finishing 12-11 last season, are 10-1 overall and 5-1 in the Badger South Conference, tied for first with Stoughton and Watertown. They have won nine consecutive games since losing to Stoughton.
Warnock is second in the state in scoring (30.5 points per game) and tied for second in rebounding (15.2 per game), according to WisSports.net statistics. She also is leading her team in assists (3.4), blocked shots (2.4) and steals (1.5) per game.
“In the four years she’s played high school basketball, she’s improved every single year,” said Kuehl, who in 2016 took over for Eric Nelson, Warnock’s coach as a freshman. “I think she added some skills to her game, but what I’ve seen more of is her mentality.
“She is willing to say, ‘I’m willing to take over this game.’ Last year, she did that but it was less so. I think it really started for her in practice this year. The past couple years, I think she felt bad about playing as hard as she does in practice because she can do whatever she wants sometimes.
“But this year we have encouraged her and she has done a nice job. Sometimes, she takes over practice and dominates. … I’ve been really happy to see her really get after it in that regard.”
Warnock’s shot also has changed over the past year, starting in her junior high school season. This season, she’s shooting 49.8 percent from the field, including 36.1 percent from 3-point range.
“I’ve learned to shoot a little quicker, because defenses, obviously, have been a lot closer to me, at times,” said Warnock, a second-team selection on The Associated Press All-State team and a first-team pick on the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association’s Division 2 All-State team last season.
“Also, I’m holding it higher, especially when I’m down low in the post. I did have it lower and people would swipe at it. Being taller, you want to have it higher, so guards can’t grab it.”
Kuehl said Warnock’s footwork when shooting also has improved.
“She gets her feet set so much more quickly this year,” he said.
The Silver Eagles played a five-out offense last year, meaning the players were all on the perimeter. But they have shifted from that, using a high-post presence and more screening. The versatile Warnock might play point guard, high post or either wing.
“I go inside-out,” Warnock said. “We try to set a lot of screens for me to drive. It brings in defenses and I can kick out.”
After Warnock scored 31 points in Monona Grove’s 54-40 victory at Watertown last week, Watertown coach Matt Stollberg said Warnock is a difficult matchup because she can drive to the basket if the defense overextends on her and she can hit 3-point shots if the defense backs off.
She is a good offensive rebounder (4.0 per game) and her ability to draw fouls while driving to the basket makes life difficult for opponents. She averages about 10 free throws per game.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of limiting her looks, but every time she had one, it went in, and that’s the hard thing,” Stollberg said. “The flip side of that is they have six girls shooting over 30 percent from 3, so you have to pick your poison about what you are going to take away.”
Standing 6-2 also helps Warnock see over most guards and aids her passing ability. At Iowa, she figures to play wing.
“If you are a guard and the tallest player on the court, that’s a good thing,” Stollberg said.
On defense, Warnock is often asked to guard the foes’ top athletes, and, at times, that has meant defending Williams, a high-scoring guard and Marquette commit; Monroe senior guard Sydney Hilliard, a UW commit; and Watertown 6-0 sophomore forward Teya Maas.
Warnock said she believes the Silver Eagles’ improved defense drives the offense.
“This year, I am focusing on rebounding, getting my other teammates involved, having a good atmosphere and working on our chemistry,” said Warnock, in her third season as a captain.
Warnock came off a successful summer AAU season; the U17 Wisconsin Flight Elite team she played for won the adidas Gauntlet national title. She then earned honorable-mention recognition on the Wisconsin Volleyball Coaches Association All-State girls volleyball team in the fall.
She has found a comfort level in basketball as a senior, Kuehl said. The Silver Eagles have seven seniors — including top of the rotation players Peyton Blang, Julia Bruns, Kaylee Kellogg and Daryan Johnson — who gained perspective after last season.
“We are not shy about talking about it — we underachieved last year,” Kuehl said. “We talk a lot about the causes of that. The seniors came in this year with a great perspective about being together and trying to work together all the time so that everyone has a successful, meaningful and enjoyable season. I think that renewed perspective from McKenna and all of our seniors has been a huge part of our success.”