A bubbly Lauren Rouse, wearing a smile and an ONU T-shirt, sat in a chair in front of a table in the Mundelein Room. Two basketballs flanked the Mustangs senior.
For one of the few times, neither she nor the basketballs within her reach were bouncing.
Truth be told, Rouse looked ready to explode with excitement Thursday as the guard signed her national letter of intent to play basketball for Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.
"The coaches are incredible and the people there are amazing," said Rouse, who will consider education or biology as her major. "It's a great education."
Study Lauren Rouse, kids.
This isn't a girl who's been a high school star, whose team has been a powerhouse in recent years or whose height translates to big potential at the next level. She stands just 5 feet 7. But about the time kids are learning to tie their shoes, she was putting on her sneakers knowing one day she wanted to play college ball.
"I just decided I didn't like soccer anymore, so I decided on basketball," Rouse said. "I realized this is what I want to do."
Now, thanks to an unrelenting work ethic -- she's worn out basketballs and requested new ones, Mustangs coach Brian Evans says -- Rouse will get to see her dream come to fruition. Olivet Nazarene coach Lauren Stamatis first saw Rouse play a couple of summers ago during an AAU tournament when she was scouting current ONU freshman Joslyn Nicholson (Cary-Grove). Rouse and Nicholson were teammates for Kessel Heat.
"I said, 'This girl's fast. We want her,' " said Stamatis, whose fast-paced-playing squad set an NAIA record the other night by scoring 91 points in the first half of a 138-118 win over Lindenwood-Belleville.
Rouse's rise has been rapid. She played varsity basketball for the first time last year. She scored a team-high 15 points in the Mustangs' season-ending loss to Lake Forest.
"This is not an exaggeration," Evans said. "She has been in the gym every morning before school (since the end of last season) shooting the ball and working on individual moves. We have a shooting machine called the gun. She'll pull it out and shoot on that every single morning."
Rouse says she started playing when she was in kindergarten or first grade. Just a couple of years later, she knew what she wanted to do after high school.
"When I was younger, I just had this idea (of playing college basketball)," Rouse said. "It was set in my mind and I wanted it so bad that I just did everything I could to get it."
Impressed with Rouse's first quick step, former Mundelein boys basketball coach Denny Kessel of Kessel Heat told Rouse this year to be aggressive and take the ball to the hoop. It's helped her game, especially since she can bury midrange jumpers.
She's come a long way for a kid who just two years ago shot the ball with two hands with a shoulder-high release, her feet barely leaving the court. Evans had seen how hard former players Sarah Miller, Toni Knar and his daughter Brooke worked for the scholarships they earned, and he compared Rouse to those three special student-athletes.
"She worked for every single penny of this scholarship," Evans said. "It's just ridiculous how much time she's put in -- Saturdays, Sundays, holidays. 'Coach, can you open the gym?' Yeah, I'll be right there.' "
Rouse doesn't take breaks, even when they're highly encouraged by her high school coach.
"I said, 'Lauren, take a week off,' " Evans said. "I come in the next day and she's in there.
"She's chasing the gym rats out."
It's been this way for a while for Rouse, who apparently subscribes to the no-pain, no-gain theory.
"All of a sudden she started getting a back injury her sophomore year," Evans said. "We actually had to threaten her that we were going to bench her if she didn't take three weeks off, because she was injured. It was just an overuse injury."
"At that time, I just felt like if I missed time, then I wouldn't be able to achieve as much," Rouse explained. "I should have listened to (Evans), but sometimes I was just stubborn."
After a two-hour and 15-minute practice Wednesday, Evans dismissed his team. He then had a coaches meeting. When he was leaving, he heard a ball bouncing in the main gym.
"She's up there working on moves or speed," Evans said. "I told her, 'Give me the ball. Go home.' She's like, 'But Coach, I had a bad practice yesterday.' I told her, 'Go home. I don't need you injured.' She's got a sore foot. She was in a boot three weeks ago for three weeks."
Thursday morning, Rouse finished up pictures with coaches, family, classmates and teammates after her letter-of-intent signing, then hustled off to class.
Always on the move.
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