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  • Sean Savage

The Toughness of Villa Maria's Mia McCarthy



Alone and hopeless.


"I stopped eating. I had anxiety. I was not playing. I had nobody. I could not even talk to my coaches about it.”

And to top it off, Mia McCarthy went through all of this in Livingston, Alabama.

Nothing against Livingston, Alabama, but it doesn’t compare to Mia’s beloved Buffalo, New York. At least according to Mia.

A tough world calls for a tougher person.

You tough enough, Mia?

A Childhood Awakening

Mia recalled the exact moment when at age 12 she told her dad, Micheal McCarthy, she had made a decision to focus on basketball.

"He jumped up off his seat in excitement. Right away, he ordered a bunch of different workout things from Amazon.”

Not a wholly unexpected reaction from a guy who played D1 hoops for Canisius College.

Though up to this point his daughter had expressed little interest in being much more than an average kid, describing herself as a “late bloomer.”

"Halloween was big in our house," her mother, Keeley LaMonte, said. "She and I loved to watch movies, and go shopping at the mall. Melting pot was always our go to dessert."

Although she played basketball growing up, McCarthy never thought more of it than a typical leisure activity. "I do not even think I knew what a passion was as a kid," McCarthy added.

Additionally school was not her forte: "I never just got school – some people just get school, that was not me.”

That conversation with her dad changed everything. Becoming great requires toughness.

You tough enough, Mia?



A New Era


As the sun began to rise in beautiful Buffalo, bringing the start to yet another day, it also signaled another brutal 5:30 a.m. wakeup for a little 12 year-old girl.


"It was hard getting up every day," she said.


Her father, who wanted Mia to succeed, set this training schedule and filled it with copious amounts of cardio, and a drill known as Geneseo.


Geneseo?


"Ugh, you do not even want to know,” McCarthy says.


In a nutshell: You shoot from six different spots for a minute straight with an additional running and fitness component between the rounds and shots.


Sweat trickled down her face in a hot Cardinal O’Hara gym almost immediately.


Then her legs grew heavy. And her arms slowly fatigued.


"It was beyond exhausting.”


But she needed to finish. To be great, she knew she couldn’t stop.

After the six minutes, McCarthy laid on the floor wiped out gathering her breath, but successful. Go ahead and relax.


Nope. Do it again.


She can’t. She has to. She decided she wants to be great. D1 great.


Done. Now do it again. No way. And again! No way. And again! Yes way.

As shadows began to fade away, the session finally finished. Mia and her dad knew she took one step closer to becoming the star they envisioned.

No more till tomorrow. Though tomorrow was always tougher than today. Each crack of dawn session's severity level picked up rapidly.

You tough enough, Mia?

Nope.

"Sometimes I would be crabby, and I would just not want to be there."

Other times, as fatigue crept over Mia’s body, missing more shots, Michael would yell.

"When this happened, I would . . . get mad." How mad? Let's just say somewhat immaturely mad, as sweat blended with silent tears pouring down her face.


And she knew her troubles included more than just basketball.

Michael would constantly remind her that she is a student-athlete. "The student part comes first. You have to be good at school if you want to pursue your dream of playing basketball," he would say.

When McCarthy received grades that did not live up to her family's standards, Michael punished her. One time after poor performance on a test, he made Mia run down her street strapped to a resistance-based parachute.

"All the kids were watching me. I was so slow, and it was so embarrassing,” McCarthy said.

Michael’s goal with all of this ran deeper than basketball though.

“He taught me this is the real world; not everyone is going to be nice to you.”

But sometimes that lesson did not sink in.

"I hated basketball because of my dad. I thought there was no point in it. It was a lot. I cannot say he ever gave up on me, he would always keep pushing me, and I love him for that. But, there were times I hated his guts – there were times I felt like my whole childhood was wasted on basketball.”

By eighth grade McCarthy knew how to deal with her father. "I just turned it off and worked really hard."

Hours of work turned into months which turned into years – and a few years later, McCarthy's work ethic prevailed.

Three pointers consistently fell.

Free throws became automatic.

And defensive intensity, well, that never wavered.

"Eventually, I got really good, and when you are good at something, you like it.”


High School Highs & Lows

McCarthy attended West Seneca West Middle School, where she had the opportunity to shine as an eighth grader on a varsity team.


The veterans did not like that. They refused to connect with McCarthy.

"The girls were mean to me," McCarthy said.


But she wanted to be great. She wanted to play in college.

You tough enough, Mia?


Not only did she make the team, but she started.


"Eventually I won them over, I had to say a few things to them. Like, stay out of my way. But in a nice way."


In the back of her mind, McCarthy knew this was going to help her play in college – the dream.


She realized, "You can not let people bring you down. Some people just do not want you to succeed. But, at the end of the day, you are your biggest critic."

Then came her freshman year, where she transferred to O'Hara High School.

The story was the same: she was not only new, but one of the youngest – coming in and hoping to earn playing time over older players.

There was something else: their coach was also McCarthy’s dad.

She pushed it hard during tryouts to eliminate any doubt she belonged. A few of her teammates still hit her with, "Oh, you made it because of your dad."

So she pushed it even harder trying to make it clear she deserved to be on the court. She kept going the extra mile to impress.


And impress she did.

"She would get up early in the morning to shoot in the gym – she found success in putting in extra work," her mother added.

But she had an even tougher audience than her teammates: Coach Dad.


"It was hard having my dad as my coach. He has to be 10 times harder on me."

And yet she managed to impress him too.

"I was playing over seniors." McCarthy described. "Honestly, I worked my butt off for that.”

Her work ethic continued to show into her second year and led her to be a captain.

Despite originally being an outcast, she became friends for life with her teammates.


"From sophomore to senior year - that was the best time."


And she managed to thrive through her high school career, landing the 1,000-point mark as a mere junior.

Then it happened. It actually happened. She caught the eye of colleges.


College Life

McCarthy’s undisputed talent actually garnered interest from many colleges including what she many others considered the grand prize: D1. But she couldn’t possibly tour all of them. In fact, she couldn’t possibly tour any of them.

COVID-19 hit - no tours.

That led many athletes to choose a school close to home. Lucky for Mia, getting to those D1 schools required a mere short trek from Buffalo.

Except, McCarthy really wanted to go away for college. Far away.

One school not only met that requirement, but told her she could be the first player off the bench her freshman year. They also conveyed that should that not happen, as the team had a roster filled with veterans, she could red shirt.

So she hopped on a plane, traveled over 1000 miles, and landed at D2 University of West Alabama. Perfect.

As time passed, McCarthy noticed something…

She was not seeing the court.

So she asked her coach about redshirting. She claims he said he never offered that option. McCarthy heard what she adamantly believed to be a blatant lie.

14 hours from home, and she knew nobody.

She had no one to help her.

She lost an unfathomable 30 pounds.

And she collapsed.

"They did not account for my mental health. All the lies just hurt me," Mia said.

And it got worse.

"People started to make fun of me in practice," McCarthy recalled. "The coaches would even make fun of me and my weight.”

"As her freshman year unraveled into a negative scenario, I began to regret blindly trying to convince myself that this was part of her journey. I was sick with concern for our daughter who was so far away," her mother said.

Additionally, McCarthy fell out of line with her faith. "I was always like, how could you do this [God]? I just lost everything in my life, and I lost faith in a lot of stuff."

The one time leader and great player, found herself sitting in her room, isolating herself from everything she had loved.

"This was the hardest time of my life by far," McCarthy added. Everything was seemingly hopeless for the young prospect.

So quit.

No way. Yes way. No way!

Night after night, McCarthy saw nothing change. But she stayed.

She did not get anything near her expected playing time. But she stayed.

She had dull days and hard nights. But she stayed.

She managed to finish the season and the entire school year because of her toughness. (Thanks Dad.)

McCarthy then had to think of her sophomore year. Maybe she might as well stay. Clearly her talents did not appear to match her hopes. Her self-esteem dwindled. Self-doubt took over. She couldn’t possibly do better elsewhere.

So just stay.

No way. Yes way. No way!

She decided to do something tougher. At this incredibly low point, she somehow found a way to believe in herself. She thought maybe, just maybe, she could try to move on.


Moving On

Well, for “moving on” to work, Mia needed to find a place that would take her. There were multiple.

One offer came from Villa Maria College, a United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) D2 school with the undeniably great location of Buffalo - not only her hometown but the home of her Buffalo Bills and her favorite player, Josh Allen.


Mia also knew "Villa" had a great academic reputation and she really did not want to chance it elsewhere again.

It, however, came with a possible negative - Coach Dad. Yes, Michael had taken over as the head coach of the VMC Vikings.

Mia feared this could turn into a situation akin to her first year at O’Hara High. She’d have to deal with being the coach’s kid yet again.

All together now:

You tough enough, Mia?

Come on. Of course. And with a little help from Coach Dad.

Michael flat out told Mia’s new teammates, "You guys are going to feel horrible for her, I am going to be very hard on her. . . . I can go overboard on her because she is my kid, and I need to make that clear."


"It is going to be a step ladder to success in other areas," Michael added.

An opportunity to start climbing that proverbial ladder rapidly presented itself in an early season match-up with SUNY Adirondack.

The Vikings struggled in the later stages of the game. After leading through the first half, they only managed to score eight points in the third quarter.

The Timberwolves mounted a comeback quickly.

In the dying embers the ball found McCarthy…

Seconds left… A tough 3-point shot goes up and… Vikings win, 65-63!

With that, McCarthy found her groove, and did it in style.

"She is someone who just walks the walk," Keeley added.

She also found her faith. "When things get tough now, I pray. I believe in God, and it is a big part of my life. I am back to my roots now.”

Her mental health has been in good form as well: "Here at Villa they actually push students to go to counseling due to mental health," McCarthy added. "Our basketball team actually has our own counselor.”

McCarthy now has herself ready to focus on her goal - and not necessarily going D1. She's happy at Villa Maria and no longer cares as much about the level of basketball. She knows there are good players at every level. So Mia really wants to help her dad and Villa "win a chip."


She hits the weight room regularly. She hits the court early (that seems familiar) and she hits the exit late.

"The most admirable thing about her is her desire to get better," says former high school teammate, Aaliyah Parker. “She is willing to always work hard."

As for life after hoops, she’s cultivating a resume to be a lawyer. Not a bad career choice for a tough person with an abundance of passion. It’s also a great fit for someone whose favorite animal is a shark.

Who says a shark is her favorite animal?

“I watch a lot of shark videos – they just interest me.”

And when asked to name her favorite woman in history, Mia of course went equally tough. Quite possibly the toughest of all time: Joan of Arc.

Yeah, she was tough. Maybe even Mia tough.

She also hopes to be a coach just like her dad with the same style.

"I think I could be a really good coach," McCarthy added. "I have dealt with a lot of things, and could make kids tough – just like I was made out to be.”

Seems like she has a lot on her future’s plate.

You tough enough, Mia?


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