2017-'18 Season Coverage
updated: 3/1/2018 3:19 PM

The best Montini player who won’t play

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  • Zoe MacKay Zacker

    Zoe MacKay Zacker

  • Montini will play Edwardsville in a Class 4A semifinal at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal.

      Montini will play Edwardsville in a Class 4A semifinal at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer


Jason Nichols is talking about guard Zoe MacKay Zacker, which is a little odd because MacKay Zacker has only played about three possessions all season for Montini, barely played the previous two seasons and won't play in Friday's Class 4A girls basketball semifinals no matter the score.

And Nichols, the Montini coach, isn't just mentioning MacKay Zacker in passing on the statewide media conference call. He's going on at length about the junior.

With feeling.

In a 30-minute call jam packed with information, this is the most compelling.

Nichols is telling the story of a kid who might be the best player on one of the most talented teams in the state. Yet few people have seen her play for the Broncos because she's suffered a torn ACL three times.

The most recent came in the Broncos' first game this season. The hope at first was just a torn meniscus. Nichols saw the trouble MacKay Zacker had walking out of the gym and feared otherwise.

He dreaded talking to MacKay Zacker over the telephone two days later when his bad feeling was confirmed. MacKay Zacker, a St. Charles resident, was in the car with her parents when she spoke with Nichols.

"I was nervous calling the kid on the phone because I didn't want to deal with it," Nichols said. "Not that I didn't want to deal with it, but you had to face that again. You're like, what the (heck) do I say to this kid this time? You run out of things to say the third time.

"And she was unbelievable. She goes, Coach, I'm going to be back next year. I have to play for you. I'm going to find a way to get on the floor and play for you one year. That is my goal. I'm going to play.

"And that just like broke my heart. I was on the phone and I kind of like, welshed up a little bit. My stomach dropped. And hearing that, but at the same time I said, God, this kid, she's got courage."

Nichols isn't done yet.

"And the drama that she's gone through," he added, "it's incredible the way the kid reacted on the phone. I wish I could've recorded the conversation so other people could see how positively she reacted because it was unbelievable.

"And the only people who could hear it was me, her and her mom and dad. It was tough."

It was tough for MacKay Zacker also.

"I wasn't in the best mental state, I'll say that," she said.

She let the seniors break the news to the rest of the team "just because it was so hard for me to say," she said.

"It stinks that I can't have that," she added about playing. "But I know that it's not going to stop me and my dream of playing college basketball."

Despite suffering a serious knee injury during each of her three high school seasons, despite being unable to play an AAU season, MacKay Zacker has scholarship offers from three Big Ten schools. None of them have backed away because of her injuries.

"They've been super supportive. They hate to see me not be able to play, but they're still definitely talking to me and asking me how I am," she said.

Though she can't play, MacKay Zacker has remained very much a part of the team. Only physical therapy keeps her away from practice or games.

Of course it's also been hard watching the team go 33-2 and earn another berth in the Class 4A semifinals.

"I would definitely say it's bittersweet because I love to see my team succeed and I'm so happy for them and I'm still part of the team," she said, "but not being on the court is hard."

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