McKenzie Brown says she can't really remember a time she didn't play sports.
"I've always been a tomboy," she said. "I've spent a lot of time playing in gyms over the years."
That longtime love of athletics pays off today as the senior from Grand Island Northwest is honored as The World-Herald Nebraska high school girls athlete of the year.
Brown was a two-time first-team All-Nebraska basketball player for the two-time Class B state champion Vikings and was a second-team Class B all-state hitter on the school's 38-1 volleyball team.
Other finalists for the award were Jessica Shepard of Fremont, Kasey Hohlen of Norris, Maddie Simon of Lincoln Pius X, Toni Tupper of Lincoln Northeast and Kaylee Jensen of Lindsay Holy Family.
Brown, a finalist for the award in 2013, is the first girls winner from Northwest and the third from Grand Island since the award was introduced in 1976. She joins 2000 winner KC Cowgill of Grand Island Central Catholic and 1980 winner Kelli Benson of Grand Island High.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney basketball recruit began her senior year playing volleyball in the fall. She had lettered in the sport the previous three years and started on the 2012 Vikings squad that went 35-2 and captured state after finishing as the runner-up the previous five years.
Northwest went 36-0 in the regular season last fall but lost in the state semifinals to Norris. That was the lone blemish on the Vikings' mark, and one that drove Brown during basketball season.
"That was one match where things just didn't go our way," she said. "It was a sad way to end the volleyball season, and we were all pretty determined that we didn't want to feel that way again."
Longtime Northwest volleyball coach Diane Rouzee said Brown, a four-year starter who led the team in kills last season with 256, played a pivotal role in the team's success.
"It was no secret that her first love was basketball," Rouzee said. "But she really wanted to be a top volleyball athlete and worked extremely hard to make herself one."
She pushed herself to become better even as a senior, the coach added.
"Sometimes that's not the case when it comes to the final varsity season," Rouzee said. "Her work ethic was unbelievable, and that made everyone else work just as hard."
Vikings girls basketball coach Mike Herzberg said he saw the effect of that state tournament volleyball loss on the eight girls, who, like Brown, played both sports.
"They were all crushed by that loss," he said. "But I knew it would drive McKenzie and the rest of our basketball players even more."
An early-season setback against Norris might have been a blessing in disguise for the Vikings, who lost just once more the rest of the season. They defeated Sidney and Norris in the state tournament before facing Lincoln Pius X in the Class B final.
"If I had to pick one game that I'll always remember, it would be that one," Brown said. "There was a lot of pressure on us that game, and we were able to get the job done."
Northwest prevailed in large part because of Brown, who capped her four-year career with one of her best games. She scored a school-record 36 points to lead the Vikings to a 66-58 victory, securing the school's second consecutive championship and third overall.
"Not only is she a talented player, but she's extremely intelligent on the court," Herzberg said. "It was like having another coach on the team."
She averaged 23.1 points as a senior and finished with 1,867 for her career.
The one thing Herzberg rarely saw from her was a smile.
"She's so intense that it was really unusual to see her do that," he said. "She absolutely hates to lose, and I think all good teams need to have someone like that."
Looking ahead, Brown said she is eager to begin her career at UNK. She was recruited by larger schools, but said playing in front of her family was most important. Her father, Mick, and mother, Lori, have six children.
"It wouldn't feel right knowing they weren't there watching me," Brown said. "I wanted to stay close to home, and I loved the atmosphere on that campus."
Brown said she owes a debt to her family for making her the athlete that she became.
"I remember growing up, playing against my big brothers," she said. "They taught me to always be aggressive. And that if someone pushes you, you push back."
Brown said it will be difficult leaving her high school memories behind, but looks forward to the future.
"It's sad knowing I'll never play again for Northwest," she said. "But I'm ready for my next challenge, and I'm going to make myself the best player that I can be at Kearney."
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