Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — Like most children, Leah McDonell once dreamed of greatness.
On the courts and fields of the Riverside Boys and Girls club, before she moved to the Town of Tonawanda in 2007, the Cardinal O’Hara basketball star cultivated her athletic ability, playing every game the club had to offer. Hockey, lacrosse, soccer or basketball — she just loved to compete.
She always wanted to play against the best players too; especially the boys. Her hunger for competition has only grown since then.
“A lot of people say that I’m so nice outside of basketball, but when I get in the game they’re scared to even talk to me,” she said. “I think I’m just really competitive. Even in school, we played a little Jeopardy game last period and I just have to win. I think it’s just that my motivation to win is so great.”
One day before the games began at camp, McDonell noticed her mentor and camp director, former Cleve-Hill basketball star and Erie Community College Hall of Famer Bob Nowak, paging through a scrap book his daughter had made for him, filled with all the newspaper articles from his playing career.
“I looked up to him and he was showing me these things he’d done,” McDonell said. “I thought how much I want to be able to show someone something like that someday.”
Two Catholic school state championships later, O’Hara’s all-time leading scorer has done it all at the high school level, and is this year’s Tonawanda News girls basketball player of the year. She finished out her career with 1,617 total points, placing her at No. 2 on the Monsignor Martin all-time scoring list.
Her basketball career reads like a laundry list of accomplishments, and just for kicks she became the first O’Hara girls soccer player in history to score 100 goals last November.
McDonell has committed to play basketball at Daemen College next season, which means the scrap book she has been filling these past four years is going to need more pages.
O’Hara coach Dan McDermott knew just how special McDonell was long before she became the best player in Western New York.
“I saw her play when she was in fourth grade,” McDermott said. “I said, ‘Wow, this kid is going to be good.’ You could even tell back then because of how hard she played. She is different than most kids.”
McDonell’s numbers are staggering. She finished the season averaging 14 points and three assists per game, led the Lady Hawks with 40 3-pointers, shot 43 percent from the field and was a terror in passing lanes. Her quick hands and reaction time led to 5.3 steals per game, a number that McDermott called “ridiculous.”
Over the course of her career, McDonell has consistently adapted and fit into the role her team needed her to play. In her freshman and sophomore seasons she was a scoring machine, but as the talent around her got better she became even more well-rounded and focused more on other areas.
McDermott said that her dedication to her team may be the reason she doesn’t get the respect he feels she is due.
“One of the greatest things about Leah is the way she’s adapted throughout the four years,” he said. “Every year she’s been here she probably scored a little less because we had better kids around her. She has accepted and adapted, where as some other kids that are scorers might pout and frown, but that’s never been the case.”
McDonell’s attitude rubbed off on her teammates. This season the Lady Hawks defeated Sacred Heart for the first time in 22 years in a thrilling 57-55 slugfest at Villa Maria College on Feb. 5.
The buildup to the game made the victory even more impressive. All the pressure was on the Lady Hawks, and specifically on McDonell. It’s the situation she’d been preparing for ever since her days at the Boys and Girls club.
“I was really scared. … (but) I wasn’t nervous,” she said. “We just wanted to play hard and smart. Emotions were high and we just wanted them. It’s what everyone was talking about all season long. I was ready and I wanted that game the whole season.”
McDonell’s athletic career has been milestone after milestone, and that was always the plan — even before she ever put on an O’Hara uniform.
“I remember writing a note in eighth grade to my dad, and one of the parts was about going to O’Hara and beating Mellisa Kanalley’s scoring record,” she said. “I like to be remembered when I go places, and I hope I’m remembered at O’Hara.”
As the records fell McDonell continued to push forward. It’s part of her make up. On the court she fears nothing, but in life she’s always been afraid of doing less than expected. She’s always aiming to go above and beyond.
Now at the end of her journey at O’Hara, she leaves a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten, McDermott said.
“It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been four years,” he said. “From day one when she walked into the school it’s been a very exciting time here. … It’s tough to rank, but I’d say she’s up there at the top of the list, maybe top 10 (in Western New York history). Kids I’ve been watching for 20 years, there’s not too many I’d rather have on my team than her.”
Contact sports editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.