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November 09, 2018 - Image 10

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily

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Friday, November 9, 2018

TIP OFF 2018
Friday, November 9, 2018

TIP OFF 2018

Long before former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam

Hinkie asked his devout fan base and the inquisitive media to “trust
the process,” Nicole Munger had already been applying that mantra to
her basketball career.

Just an hour north of the Wells Fargo Center, Munger was entering

her freshman year at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown,
Penn. Despite having a local reputation for being athletic, she was
merely 5-feet tall. But what might have been a disadvantage in most
people’s eyes was a source of motivation.

“She was about 4-foot nothing,” said her dad, Rick. “Most kids, when

they’re playing sports, develop a skill-set once they’re comfortable with
their body. Nicole didn’t have that opportunity. She had to develop a
skill-set and let her body grow into that skill.”

Added her high school coach, Terry Rakowsky: “You could tell

from the very beginning that she was special … and just how hard she
worked and how serious she took what she was trying to accomplish.
And again, she was just tiny. But her energy and just her commitment
— she just played one way, which was 100 percent all the time.”

During her time as a Lady Buck, Munger worked tirelessly to

improve her game. She blossomed into one of the state’s best all-around
players, quickly enhancing that local reputation into something much
more. Her height was finally catching up to her skill and effort, and
colleges around the country began taking notice.

As Munger would soon find out, the eventual transition to the

college game posed even more challenges. Thanks to her Philadelphia-
bred mentality, though, she would be up to the task.

Rick Munger had always been an avid Philadelphia sports fan. But

becoming a father for the first time to newly-born Nicole meant that
his fandom would have to take a backseat. Or did it?

“When Nicole was born,” Rick said, “I used to watch the Flyers,

the NHL hockey team, and my wife made a comment to me like, ‘You
know, once this baby comes, you’re not going to be able to watch this
all the time.’ And to my wife’s dislike, Nicole would actually lay on my
chest and watch the hockey games with me and would just love it.”

It turns out Rick didn’t have to sacrifice any of his fandom for Nicole.

She was as big a sports fan as he was.

Nicole’s love for watching sports quickly turned into a love of

playing them. Her and her younger brother Ryan would take to the
streets of their cul-du-sac to join in on games of pick-up basketball,
baseball, football and even hockey with their neighbors.

Though these games were played for fun, they also served as an

incubator for Nicole’s competitive nature.

No sport seemed off limits to her growing up. Munger participated

recreationally in everything from softball to football, and she was good
at them all.

When her football and soccer schedules conflicted one year, in

order to keep her on the team, the soccer coach told the Mungers that
Nicole could forgo practices and just play in the games.

Despite excelling in multiple sports, she really began focusing on

basketball in sixth grade.

“Basketball kinda just weeded itself out,” Munger said. “I mean, it

was the sport I was best at. I knew I couldn’t keep playing football with
the guys and baseball with the guys. Basketball just won out and that’s
how it became my favorite sport.”

From that moment on, Munger devoted all her time outside of

school to getting better. It was at this time that she started developing
her skill-set.

She joined a top-notch AAU program, the Philadelphia Belles,

during middle school, but was told she’d have to play on the “B-team”
that season due to her height.

Munger wasn’t satisfied with that. “She said, ‘No, I want to play on

this team,’ ” Rick said. “ ‘If you don’t want to play me, that’s okay, but
I’m going to practice with these kids who are better, because I want to
get better.’ ”

The Wolverines offered Munger during her sophomore year of high


Michigan’s reputation preceded itself, but going into her official

visit, Munger and her parents were somewhat wary of how far Ann
Arbor was from southeast Pennsylvania.

She had never been away from home for an extended period of

time, and the 10-hour drive from Doylestown meant her family wasn’t
exactly accessible.

If it’s meant to be, though, it’s meant to be.
Munger loved everything about Michigan — the campus, the

academics and the athletics as a whole.

“I remember that Friday we were just walking around on campus,”

Nicole said. “I hit my brother on one side, my dad on the other side
and said ‘This is it.’ Walking on campus there was just a feel. It was
a football game weekend … it was just different. You could feel
the tradition. Every building was just beautiful, obviously highly-
renowned academics were something I was looking for … and that’s
not even talking about basketball.”

Of course, basketball had to be a consideration too. Her tour of

campus culminated in her visit to Crisler Center, where she sat down

with Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. The two hit
it off.

“I mean besides how gorgeous this place is, I was

sitting in coach’s office, and she was the only coach
talking about getting back to Final Fours,” Munger
said. “It wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s make the tournament,’
it was like ‘Let’s get to Final Fours.’ ”

The admiration was mutual. In Munger, Barnes

Arico — who was just beginning her coaching career at
Michigan — saw a hard-working and talented prospect.
To Barnes Arico, Munger was a player who could only
be an asset to whichever program was lucky enough to
get her.

“You need players like Nicole Munger in your program

to be successful,” Barnes Arico said. “And I have valued
and appreciated that from day one. She’s a special kid.”

The love affair had commenced. After a tremendous

senior season, in which Munger earned All-State first
team honors and led the Lady Bucks to a 32-2 record and
a runner-up finish in the state championship, the four-star
recruit packed her bags for Ann Arbor.

Her freshman year, Munger struggled to adjust.

Academically, assignments were coming fast and furious.
On the basketball court, she was no longer the best player in
practice. And on top of it all, her support system was 580 miles
away. Doubt over whether she belonged at Michigan swirled
around her head.

“Because it’s Michigan,” Munger said. “I never — I just had

the thought coming in that, ‘What if I don’t make it?’ I don’t
think I had the confidence that I could play here until partway
through my freshman year, when I realized, ‘I can do this. These
kids are better than me, but I’ll get there.’ ”

Munger, having learned from previous experiences, embraced

the process all over again.

Her mindset switched to making the team better in whatever

way she could. In practice, she frequently played on the scout team,
where her main job was pestering star sophomore point guard
Katelynn Flaherty. Just like before, Munger worked her way up the
depth chart with grit and commitment. As a top-100 recruit coming
out of high school, the talent was clearly there, but without her
unwavering devotion to improvement, her freshman season would
not have gone as well as it did.

She appeared in 34 games that year, primarily coming in to play

pressure defense and hit the occasional
outside shot on offense. She may have
averaged just 4.7 points and 2.3 rebounds
per game, but her contribution went far
beyond the numbers.

“She’s a fan favorite,” Barnes Arico

said. “From the first time she’s ever
stepped onto the court, people have
grabbed me immediately after the
game, ‘Oh my gosh that No. 10, oh my
gosh, she will just do anything to help
your team win. She will dive for the
ball. She will take the charge. She’ll
be bloodied and try and get up to get
a stop.’ ”

Fast forward to present day,

and the 5-foot-10 Nicole Munger
is one of Michigan’s go-to players
heading into season.

Having lost Flaherty and

Jillian Dunston from last year’s team —
which made it to the second round of the
NCAA tournament — Munger and senior
forward Hallie Thome have assumed
leadership roles, both on the court and off it.

“Hallie and I have really been working

with the team just on the culture,” Munger
said. “And making sure everyone is on
board. It’s going to be a really big year. It’s
a really important year for the growth of
this program and I think we have the pieces
in place to do something special, which is
really cool.”

If anybody is suited for a leadership role,

it’s Munger. Her unbridled effort coupled
with the fact that she’s earned Academic
All-Big Ten honors her past two seasons has
made her a model example for her younger

On the court this season, her role will be

to complement Thome’s interior dominance

with a threat from the outside. Munger shot
40.4 percent from three last season and will
be looked to even more to provide that threat
beyond the arc.

“She can shoot the basketball better than

I believe anybody in the country,” according
to Barnes Arico. “I have to continually
remind her of that, because she doesn’t shoot
the ball enough for my liking, but she is an
incredible, incredible shooter.”

If she and Thome can successfully mesh

this season, while also bringing along
some of the younger stars on the team,
the Wolverines will be a major factor in a
relatively unknown Big Ten Conference.

“Going towards the end of the year, one

of our big things is Michigan (women’s)
basketball has never won a Big Ten
Championship so I think that’s one of our
biggest goals,” Munger said. “It would be
great to raise a banner.”

Munger’s story is not one of an underdog.

She had been blessed by unusual athletic
ability at the outset. Instead, her story is
one of hard work and trust. Without those
qualities, she wouldn’t be in her current
position — a valuable player on a Big Ten

There is something about Nicole Munger

and Philadelphia that go so well together.
As Rick explains, Philadelphia is a unique
sports market: one where the only thing the
fans care about is effort.

“Whether you make a mistake or not is

fine, as long as you’re giving it your all,” Rick
said. “And I think Nic has sort of picked up
on that — that’s the way she plays.”

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