Laura Cottrell won four state championships in high school basketball and now stars at Clemson - yet she says she's not much of an athlete.
"I'm a blue-collar worker," said the 6-1 senior forward from Hayesville, N.C. "I've got to fight for everything. Some people are blessed with that natural ability to jump over everybody and hang in the air. I can barely get off the ground."
False modesty? Not exactly. "She's not overly talented," Clemson coach Jim Davis said. But headed into a tough NCAA regional this weekend, Davis said he'd rather take a team full of Cottrells than players with more natural ability.
"What Laura has is heart," Davis said. "She's had three knee surgeries and both eyes blackened and last week she got her tooth knocked out. But she always bounces back and finds a way to get the job done. ... She shows that you can never underestimate the power of the heart."
Clemson will play Marquette today at 7:06 p.m., in the first round of the NCAA tournament - in a bracket that includes four top-10 teams, more than any other region.
The Tigers are lucky to be there. They had a flat season, finishing 19-10 overall and 8-8 in the ACC. But the team - thanks largely to Cottrell's scrappy play - surprised everybody in last week's ACC tournament, knocking off higher-ranked N.C. State and Virginia, then losing the championship to No. 1-ranked North Carolina.
"It's been a frustrating year for me - I had such high expectations," said Cottrell, 22. "I wanted to lead our team in scoring and rebounding, take us to an ACC championship, win the ACC tournament, then go to the Final Four. That last one can still happen, but we'll have to be on."
Though her statistics are down from last year, Cottrell is first in rebounding and second in scoring this year. She broke into Clemson's all-time elite this season - surpassing 1,000 career points and 700 rebounds.
Even without a giant vertical leap, her 797 rebounds make her Clemson's fifth best rebounder ever. Her 50 three-pointers also rank fifth.
About the only thing that came naturally for Cottrell in basketball is her love for the game, she said.
Her father, Steve Cottrell, coached men's college basketball for 22 years and hauled Laura and her two older brothers to games, camps and practices.
"They became gym rats," said Steve Cottrell, a former Western Carolina coach who now coaches Hayesville High's boys. "... I favored Laura a little, she's my baby. But we never pressured her to play."
Following dad, Laura's two brothers - Todd and Michael - never strayed from the court. Both now coach high school basketball.
Laura remembers putting on "puppy-dog eyes and pouty lips" as she watched her brothers' neighborhood games.
"We finally had to let her play - she just looked so pitiful," Todd said.
A deeply religious and close-knit family, the Cottrells' dinner table often became a basketball strategy session, giving Laura a deep knowledge of the game.
Cottrell, who wants to coach high school girls, also learned the importance of pure shooting and rebounding as a kid. Before Hayesville, the family lived on a hill in Cullowhee - and a missed rebound meant a 200-yard sprint to stop the ball before it rolled into a culvert, under a highway and into a cow pasture across the road.
Cottrell heads to Saturday's game in Baton Rouge with a heavy heart. Her dad won't be there because his team plays its regional this weekend in Hickory.
Between father and daughter, the Cottrells have many of Clay County's 7,500 people talking.
"People like her because she's not a smell-me (arrogant) kind of person," says Clay County Progress sports writer Deby Jo Ferguson. "... She's worked for everything she's got."