When informed by her coach that she had been selected Ms. Basketball of Illinois 1992, the first words out of Tammy Van Oppen`s mouth were, ``No way, man!``
It is unclear whether the Limestone High School senior used her own voice or imitated that of
, the TV cartoon character.
``The kids all call her Bart,`` said Limestone coach John Gross, shaking his head. ``She talks like him sometimes. For a long time, we thought that was her normal voice.``
``I used to talk like that,`` Van Oppen corrects her coach, shooting a Bart-like stare at him. ``You know, just to be crazy.``
Crazy, Tammy Van Oppen is not. Ms. Basketball of Illinois, she is.
The sixth winner of the award, presented by
in conjunction with the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, Van Oppen received 573 votes to 255 for runner-up guard
of Marshall. Guard Michele Ratay of Buffalo Grove was third with 252 points.
Varsity coaches and media throughout Illinois participated in the voting in which 310 ballots were counted. Her award will be presented at the IBCA Hall of Fame banquet April 25 at
In her senior season, Van Oppen, a forward, averaged 20.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game for a team that advanced to the Class AA state finals for the third consecutive season. The Rockets, who hadn`t gotten past quarterfinal play until this year, were edged in the title game by Marshall, 62-60, on a last-second layup.
Van Oppen shot 40 percent from three-point range for the season and established state finals` records for most three-pointers in a single game (seven in a semifinal over Lyons Township) and most in a title game (four).
Her 1,814 career points, a 14.7 average, are second to former Rockets standout Jodi Rathbun (2,547) in school history. Van Oppen`s 1,045 rebounds and 278 blocks are team career records. She also holds team single-season records for most rebounds (323) and blocks (102).
The 6-foot-1-inch Van Oppen also does an excellent Bart Simpson impression.
``Don`t have a cow, man!`` she says in Bart`s voice before reverting to form, that of a shy, essentially quiet teenager.
``She really is basically a quiet girl,`` said Cheryl Van Oppen, Tammy`s mother. ``She doesn`t do her Bart Simpson for everybody.
``Yes, she`s quiet. Quiet until she gets to know you. Then, look out!``
``Tammy`s sure not shy around us,`` adds Jenny Koeppel, who may know more about her teammate than most.
``Jenny told Tammy she was going to get Ms. Basketball a year ago,`` said Gross. ``Tammy didn`t believe it.``
``No way,`` said Van Oppen.
- - -
Tammy Van Oppen`s love for basketball began on the driveway of her parents` home. She was in 3rd or 4th grade. No one seems to know for sure.
Her competition was her dad, Jerry Van Oppen, and some of her uncles. Jerry dabbled in the game, but he never played it on an organized level. Neither did his wife. But both liked the game enough that when Tammy decided to trade in her soccer ball for something else, they were open to the change. ``We encouraged her,`` said Jerry Van Oppen. ``Once she started with basketball, she kept dragging me out to the driveway to play. Her uncles and I made her earn her shots. That`s for sure. She learned the game.``
So has Van Oppen`s 14-year old brother, Chad, an 8th-grader at Monroe School who plays football and basketball. Younger sister Trisha, 10, is starting to show an interest in basketball as a 5th-grader.
Van Oppen`s experience, gained by playing on the Monroe team from 5th through 8th grades and in four years as a varsity starter at Limestone, landed her a full scholarship to South Florida. She chose the school over Iowa, Illinois State and Bradley.
``I liked it a lot,`` said Van Oppen, who`ll turn 18 in September. ``When I got there, I thought, `This is the place I want to be.` It seems like a great program. And, of course, the weather is fantastic.``
``Tammy is going to be a great Division I player,`` said South Florida coach Trudi Lacey. ``She`s agile, and she has great hands. She shoots well inside or out. I see her starting as either the two guard or small forward for us right away. She`s that good. I think she`ll have a tremendous impact on our program.``
Van Oppen made quite an impact at Limestone. She had all the skills, said Gross, to enable her to become an outstanding player.
``A lot of it is natural talent,`` he said. ``We can`t have gym rats at Limestone. There`s only one gym, and we share that with the boys. There are two hours of practice each day. It`s not like (the movie) `Hoosiers,` or anything like that. But Tammy gets in time on her driveway, and her dad has been known to take her to the grade-school gym to shoot around.
``The only thing I saw wrong with Tammy after four years was her free-throw shooting, but she hit those when she had to. If she improves her game year after year in college the way she did here, she`ll be an All-American. She`ll make an impact, all right.``
Basketball has always had a tremendous impact on Van Oppen. Despite being an all-conference selection in volleyball (outside-striker) and softball (center-fielder, .385 hitter) last year, Van Oppen said she had no problem picking the sport she would concentrate on in college.
``The other two are kind of boring,`` she said. ``I just played them to keep in shape. Basketball is just so fast-paced. It keeps moving.``
Sounds a lot like Van Oppen who, despite the quiet facade, is fun to be around. She`s an intelligent girl (3.0 on a 4.0-grade scale), likes all sports, rap music and dancing. ``If you can call it (the dancing) that,`` she said.
She`s come a long way from the first time Gross saw her play as a 6th-grader.
``She was a very tall, skinny, kind of awkward kid,`` Gross said. ``I knew the first time I saw her play she`d be good when she got to Limestone. Heck, I put her at the point as a freshman. She was that good.``
Van Oppen grew-her father says she shot up about four inches between her freshman and sophomore years-into not only an excellent player, but into Ms. Basketball as well. Skinny and awkward no more.
Her progression through uniform numbers during her high school years marked that growth, both in height and as a player.
``I had jersey No. 14 my first two years in high school,`` she said. ``I outgrew that and I switched to No. 23 last year. You know,
, my favorite. I have pictures of him in my room.``
OK, so then why the switch to No. 33 for her final season?
``No. 23 got too small,`` said Van Oppen. ``I had to change.``
Change into the best female high school player in Illinois this season, into a player whose shooting will likely make her a starter as a college freshman, into someone for whom No. 23 doesn`t quite fit any more.
Bigger than M.J.? Not really, but big enough.