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State High Alum Kyla Irwin Finds Her Niche as a UConn Huskie

by on December 06, 2019 12:03 PM

It would have been easy for Kyla Irwin to enter a good women’s collegiate basketball program in the fall of 2016. She had offers from solid schools like St. Joseph’s, Pitt, DePaul, Michigan and, of course, the university just up the road from her home. 

Given her first team All-State status while playing for State College Area High School, Irwin could have envisioned starting—and perhaps starring—for any of those programs. 

But Irwin, holder of State High’s career records for points (2,032) and rebounds (1,188), didn’t make the safe choice. She wanted to pursue her dream. And that meant saying “yes” to a scholarship offer from Geno Auriemma, the University of Connecticut’s legendary coach.  

Irwin realized she might struggle for playing time at UConn. But how could she pass up a chance to join the nation’s top program? No other university could match the Huskies’ 11 NCAA championships. No other program could offer a coaching genius like Auriemma (he’s been honored nine times as Associated Press Coach of the Year). No other team could list alumni superstars like Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart and Katie Lou Samuelson.

“If you ask anybody,” Irwin says, “UConn is like every little girl’s dream school. Who doesn’t want to go to UConn if you play basketball?  How could I not take that opportunity?” 

Now in her senior year at UConn, the 6-foot-2 forward has shown all kinds of grit and guts in climbing the ladder toward success. But—at least until recently—she had achieved limited visible results.     

“It’s been a long journey for her,” says Bethany Irwin, Kyla’s mom and her coach throughout her career at State High. “She’s worked really, really hard. She’s just tried to maintain her work ethic and get better every day.”

So guess what? All good things come to those who wait—and work hard while waiting. Although Irwin averaged only 9.2 minutes of action per game during her first three years at UConn, this year she’s averaging 20.8 minutes per game. Although she managed just 2.1 points a game during her first three years, this season she’s putting an average of 5.2 points on the board.  Meanwhile, she continues to rebound, set screens, pass effectively and serve as a stabilizing force for younger players.  

Hartford Courant sportswriter Alexa Philippou offered this ringing endorsement after UConn’s first six games. Irwin has been exquisite from the field, going 11-for-12 overall and 6-for-7 from deep (she actually leads the nation with a 116.7 effective field goal percentage, according to Her Hoop Stats). But more importantly for the Huskies is that she has found other ways to contribute: She’s emerged as a dependable piece in their offensive flow, leading the team with a 4-to-1 assist/turnover ratio...and has helped out on the boards as well.”

Kyla Irwin embraces the relentless defense that is part of UConn’s style of play. (Photo by Steve Slade/UConn Athletics)

As for me, I can’t help but be impressed with this lion-hearted alum from State High who wouldn’t give in to discouragement.  Her mom echoes my sentiment but from an insider’s perspective. “This has always been her dream,” says Bethany, a former Penn State star who coached at State High for 23 years.  “And it’s been pretty cool to watch her accomplish that dream. Because we knew it was going to be really difficult.”  

A recent 30-minute phone conversation with Kyla gave me insight into the struggles, stresses and successes of her life within the elite UConn program.  Here are key portions of our discussion: 

Until this year, your playing time at UConn was quite limited. How did you handle spending so much time on the bench?

Irwin:  It hasn't been easy. But I’ve played with some of the greatest basketball players, you know, like Napheesa Collier. There’s no way I was ever going to take her position—she was rookie of the year in the WNBA last season. Coming from high school and going to UConn, I had to figure out my new role. In high school I was that go-to player, I was scoring 20-something points every game, 12 rebounds. And then I’m sitting on the bench (at UConn). So I think during my freshman year it was like, “All right, how can I fit into this program and contribute while I'm not on the court?” So that’s when I thought I could be the best teammate possible and get excited on the bench.

Were you ever tempted to think about transferring to another school?

Irwin:  There were times when I was like, “Man, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Sometimes I was really frustrated, you know. I worked my butt off every single day, and I tried my hardest, and sometimes I’d get in during the first quarter and then the next time I’d get for the last two minutes. So it was difficult to stay motivated and consistent. But ultimately, I knew this program was going to open doors for me that nothing else could possibly do. And I love how being here has made me work so much harder in all aspects of my life.

How have you grown as a person?

Irwin: I think I’m 10 times better as a friend, as a sister, as a student, as a basketball player. I’ve just come out better overall than I possibly could have anywhere else. And we’ve been to three Final Fours already, even though we haven’t won one. Not many other schools can say that.

Your mom told me about the intensity of this program. How would you describe it?

Irwin: Coach (Auriemma) talks about how when other teams are running, we have to be sprinting. There’s never a time that we just jog down the court. We always have to be going faster. The type of condition that we’re in is beyond amazing. Every single drill, we’re sprinting. And everything has to be perfect or we restart. As tedious as that is, you know, that’s what sets us apart. Everything is pushed to the extreme so that whenever it comes to crunch time, we can perform under pressure and do the right thing and make the right play.

Thirty years from now, what do you think you’ll remember learning from Coach Auriemma?

Irwin: He does a great job of making sure we understand the bigger picture of things. And I think the one thing that I’ve learned from this program is how to push myself beyond my limits. There’s been plenty of days when I was like, “Oh my gosh, I'm exhausted. I can't do it.” But I've found a way to do it. I found a way to get through it and it’s changed my mindset into getting better. I think that's something that if it weren't for him, I would not have been able to do that.

All of a sudden on this year’s team, your playing time has increased significantly, your stats are up, it seems like everything is up. How would you define your role? 

Irwin: I'm a senior now, so I understand the concepts that we're running and what we're trying to look for and how hard we have to go. And I think if I can just stay consistent and my teammates know what they're going to get from me, that's going to be my role. I'm not trying to go out there and score 30 points and overdo my role. I just got to go out and do what I know I can do. I've got to stay to who I am and keep working hard, making sure I'm helping my team anyway I can.

You aren’t known as a scorer, but after the first six games, you were shooting at a .917 percentage including six-for-seven from the three-point line. How does that feel?

Irwin:  It’s super exciting. I'm glad things are going the way they are right now. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing—making sure I’m shooting shots whenever I’m open, setting good screens and crashing the boards, trying to do whatever I can. 

You have a big game this weekend against Notre Dame, a payback opportunity for the loss in last year’s Final Four semifinal. How about that? 

Irwin:  It's always great to have them come here. We have two home courts—one in Hartford and one on campus—so this one's actually on campus. I think it's already sold out. It will be a great atmosphere. We’ll prepare ourselves as best as possible and hopefully coming out on top.

The former State High athlete is comfortable as a rebounder. (Photo by Steve Slade/UConn Athletics)

I saw your statement on Twitter where you said, “I love the person God is creating me to be.” And you also quoted Jeremiah 29:11, a famous Bible verse that talks about God’s plans for His people. Have you always been a person of faith or is that a new thing in your life?

Irwin:  I was brought up going to church, I went to Sunday school, I had my first communion, I was confirmed and all that stuff. But those were things that I had to do. And then as I got to school here and was away from family, I really had to find some ground for me to know I'm OK. As much as I love my family and my friends and how much they’ve helped me, I think knowing that I have this faith has allowed me to stay calm and confident. I've been through way more ups and downs the last four years than in my entire life. College has definitely been a struggle both on and off the court, and I've been tested in multiple ways. So when I tweeted that, it was coming straight from my heart. I love who He is creating me to be…because I think I'm becoming stronger, I'm working harder, I have a bigger heart. 

Maybe you could tell me a little bit about your future plans—your future options in basketball or after basketball.

Irwin:  I think before September of this past year, I was kinda thinking my next chapter in life was going to be (grad) school. But once September hit, it was my senior year and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is my last six months of basketball. Am I ready to handle that? And I wasn't. I wasn't ready to just hang up my jersey for the last time. So I got the idea of possibly playing overseas. Whatever's supposed to happen is gonna happen, but that would be an awesome opportunity. I’m probably gonna take a year off from school no matter what—even if I don't go overseas to play. School's always gonna be there, too. Hopefully, I’ll eventually go back to grad school for occupational therapy. That is something I love, working with people. I love that the job is rewarding in itself, seeing improvement and figuring out new ways to help people.

If you had a chance to say something to your family, friends and fans back in Happy Valley, what would it be?

Irwin:  I would say “Thank you.” Their support has been unbelievable. Their love is so unconditional. It honestly means more than I could possibly ever say. My friends back home and my family back home, they'll text me, they’ll call me, they'll FaceTime me, they'll come to visit me and they'll surprise me and all that stuff. It really goes way beyond words to possibly ever thank them enough. They've had so much confidence in me and knowing that I can make it through. And I would not have been able to make it without them. There's not a strong enough thank-you that I could give to them. 

We played Temple (in Philadelphia) a couple weeks ago. So that was my home game and I had over 80 family and friends come to watch me play, which was really awesome. People like my childhood neighbors, my mom's old (State High) basketball players, my best friends and our family—everyone was there.  Even people that came to watch me play basketball in high school who I didn’t even know. So that was really awesome.

Kyla Irwin and the undefeated UConn Huskies will play host to Notre Dame on Sunday, Dec. 8 in the Jimmy V Women’s Classic. The game, scheduled for 4 p.m., will be televised by ESPN. 

Kyla Irwin (dark blue jacket) is surrounded by family members and friends who attended her November game against Temple.  (Photo provided by Rob & Bethany Irwin)

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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