There are few, if any, athletes from this area that had more success winning games in high school than Grace Waggoner. In addition to being Knox County's all-time leading scorer with 1,843 points, the two-time Sun-Commercial Player of the Year helped guide Rivet's girls basketball team to two Class A state runner-up finishes while accumulating a 103-12 record as a four-year letter winner.
Being a member of the Indiana University women's basketball team the past two season has been a whirlwind for Waggoner, experiencing some great highs, and the ultimate low of having the 2020 NCAA tournament cancelled due to COVID-19.
Waggoner's minutes for the Hoosiers have been sporadic, but she's still finding ways to contribute. One thing that certainly hasn't changed for Waggoner is the winning, as the last two years at IU have arguably been the best in the program's history.
“It was definitely a big adjustment, even from my freshman year to now,” Waggoner said. “Everyone on the team has had phenomenal accolades. That's how it is a bigger university. Everyone can score, and everyone can pretty much do anything. It's a different mentality and different mental strength. You have to have the courage to say, maybe this teammate is better than me at this, so I have to find some other way on the court, whether it's defense, rebounding or whatever. Coach (Teri) Moren always says there's no hierarchy on our team, and she kind of emphasizes that. That's how I found my niche.
“What I did in high school, it doesn't matter here. No one cares. But what can I contribute to this team now to help us win games?”
What Waggoner did to contribute her freshman season came on the defensive end. She averaged just 5.5 minutes per game while appearing in 15 games, but much of her playing time came near the end of the year. She averaged 10 minutes over IU's final four games, including two Big Ten Tournament games.
“I came in nervous, especially as a walk-on. I didn't expect a lot of playing time, or a role, but I had a chip on my shoulder and did everything I could to compete with any and everyone on the team,” Waggoner said. “I put my head down, and I put in the extra work. I didn't play a lot of AAU like the other girls did, and I kind of fell behind. But I took time on my own, working with our grad assistant, getting up extra shots, and figuring out ways to get playing time.
“Everyone can score, so how can I get out there? It was focusing on the little things, playing defense, keeping the ball moving, and not turning it over. I ended up getting rewarded at the end of the year.”
Waggoner seemed primed to see a rotational spot in the NCAA tournament, but COVID-19 shut down the sports world on March 12, 2020. The women's conference tournaments had just concluded, while the men were just getting theirs started.
“We had just come back from the Big Ten tournament in Indy, and we were about to have practice,” Waggoner said. “We'd heard rumors (about COVID), and I remember watching the (IU) men's game against Nebraska and their coach (Tim Miles) being sick. It was kind of scary because we didn't know what was happening.
“Our coaches sat us down, said it's out of their control, and that the season was cancelled and we had to go home and stay in quarantine. It was heartbreaking, especially for Brenna Wise, a senior at the time who's still a friend of mine. It was a tough time. We had a good ranking, the draw was coming up, and it was the best time of the season, what you work all year for.”
The season concluded with the Hoosiers at 24-8 overall, 13-5 in the Big Ten, and projected to be a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I was kind of a utility player freshman year, that's how I got those minutes. So coming into sophomore year, the big question was, what am I going to do? The same as last year?” Waggoner said.
Waggoner snagged nine rebounds with two assists in 11 minutes in IU's season opener last November. Her minutes dipped from that point on, but she did appear in 25 of the team's 27 games, and she found extended minutes in a handful of games by expanding her repertoire.
“I'm a natural guard, I'd say, but one game, (associate head) coach (Glenn) Box says, 'Waggs, go get so-and-so,' and it was early in the game,” Waggoner said. “Aleksa Gulba (a 6-3 senior power forward) didn't have anyone to come in for her, and she was playing heavy minutes, so when she got in foul trouble, that gave us some issues. So they switched me to the four spot to be a reserve for her.”
The position change was quite an adjustment for the 6-0 Waggoner, but ultimately it just added more versatility to her skill set.
“In high school you can play all five spots and get away with it, but in college, it's a big change learning a new position,” she said. “I was learning the same plays from a new spot, but at the same time, I'm still a guard so I have to be ready to play any position, 2-through-4.”
The Hoosiers made a splash in the tournament this season, earning a No. 4 seed and cruising by Virginia Commonwealth and Belmont on their way to challenge North Carolina State, the No. 1 seed in their region. The Hoosiers surprised the Wolfpack, 73-70, but they were eliminated in the Elite Eight by No. 3 Arizona and Aari McDonald, who's own tournament showcase helped her become the third overall pick in this year's WNBA Draft.
IU finished the 2020-21 season 21-6 overall and 16-2 in the Big Ten.
“It was a blast,” Waggoner said of her first tournament experience. “It was unique and unlike any other because of the COVID protocols, and it was crazy with the testing. But the girls on the team are super close. It was fun to experience that and it was fun to win.
“Once we played Belmont and conquered that game, we kind of thought, 'Wow, we could go for the whole thing.' It's kind of surreal growing up watching it, and now, holy cow, I'm here competing for a title! It was awesome, and I have no doubt we'll make it this year. I'm looking forward to the non-COVID experience. Maybe we'll get to host. That'd be neat.”
Waggoner is still uncertain just exactly what her role might be next season, other than the Swiss-Army-knife spot she's been filling, but she noted that with a plethora of guards on the roster, her best bet may be at power forward, which is an area she's focused on improving.
Despite that uncertainty, Waggoner has loved being an Indiana Hoosier.
“It's been a great experience, but a challenging one to say the least, not just in transitioning from high school to college in athletics, but also in education,” she said. “I've grown a lot, and the experience has been nothing short of amazing. I've enjoyed the challenge, and it's helped me grow as a player for sure.”
One thing that does seem certain for Waggoner and IU is the winning. With the exception of several reserves transferring, the Hoosiers bring back nearly all of their roster from a season ago. Winning a Big Ten crown is certainly a reasonable goal. IU last won the league in 1983, but claimed the tournament more recently in 2002.
“One of the biggest things is that we want to win the Big Ten Conference,” Waggoner said. “We were so close last year, and that's one of our big goals, whether it's outright or the (conference) tournament. It's a pretty challenging regular season, and we've broken a lot of school records. But coach Moren will always say those numbers don't matter until we get into the tournament.”
And what are the team's NCAA tournament expectations?
“We want to get as far as we can, and I think we can get as far as we want to go.”