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MSU’s ‘Captain Spartan’ a true warrior on the basketball court

Former BNL star Jenna Allen

leads the way for Michigan St.

BLOOMINGTON – Michigan State senior center Jenna Allen, a former standout at Bedford North Lawrence, scores from close range during Sunday’s Big Ten clash with Indiana. Allen scored 15 points.

By Justin Sokeland

BLOOMINGTON – Jenna Allen, even before she made her ultimate college choice, has always been a Spartan, a warrior on the court, valiant, a feared force. The kid played games with a cast on her left wrist, gritted her remaining teeth after getting four knocked out.

She will always be a Spartan, earning that distinction after four seasons at Michigan State. How quickly that time has rushed past. Just yesterday, she was one of the crowd darlings at Bedford North Lawrence, one of the talented triumvirate that hung two state championship banners in the Fieldhouse rafters. Tomorrow she might be cracking backs as a chiropractor, or cracking heads in the paint as a professional basketball player. That fate will soon be determined.

Today, on a balmy winter Sunday, she made her final trip home, leading the Spartans into Assembly Hall to face Indiana in a clash of Big Ten contenders. She was dressed in enemy green, but was hugged with cheers from a huge loyal contingent among the 6,380 fans who watched the Hoosiers extend their home winning streak to 19 with a tough 68-64 victory.

That wasn’t the triumphant homecoming Allen envisioned. She was carried out on her shield, scoring a team-high 15 points. Michigan State, ranked 15th nationally, slipped to 11-3. There are more battles, more scars, ahead.

Nothing would have been more satisfying than winning. Indiana had been her first choice, her intended destiny. But when former IU coach Curt Miller abruptly resigned in 2014, Allen rescinded her verbal commitment, reopened her recruitment, and Michigan State’s Suzy Merchant won that one. Teri Moren would have to wait for the next Allen at IU.

“People always told me college basketball is not really what you think it will be until you get there,” Allen said. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s been amazing, honestly. It’s been everything I could have asked for. Great teammates, great coaching staff. I couldn’t be happier with my choice.”

BLOOMINGTON – Jenna Allen launches a jumper over Indiana’s Aleksa Gulbe. Allen has been named the Big Ten’s Player of the Week twice this season.

‘Street cred’

When Allen left BNL, she had little left to prove. She scored 1,495 career points (now fourth in program history), grabbed a record 943 rebounds, and combined with forever teammates Dominque McBryde and Alexa Bailey to win 104 games (including the back-to-back state titles). She was an Indiana All-Star.

Then she left home, five hours away, to start over. High school awards mean nothing in the Big Ten. Reality sets in, followed by a sense of isolation. Jenna wanted to come home. In some ways, a sweet Hoosier kid isn’t quite ready for the harsh real world. In other ways, it was the best thing for her.

“I talked to my dad at the beginning of this season, and he was telling me how proud he was,” Allen said. “Over the past four years, I’ve grown so much. I’m such a homebody. I love to be home with my family. To go five hours away from home was a shell shock for me. It was tough.

“The first semester, I was homesick all the time, crying myself to sleep, all that stuff. But eventually you get over it. Now I feel like being away from home has challenged me and I’m glad I made the choice to go away. It helped me become the person I am, the leader I am.”

An easy transition? Oh, no. The busted mouth, suffered during a preseason game prior to her sophomore campaign, caused her to question her basketball future. Allen was still a backup center, and that required patience. The injury took a mental toll. Allen was not happy. But she’s not a quitter.

“It was my dream to play college basketball, and I didn’t want to give up on my dream,” she said. “I stuck it through, and I feel like that has helped me to help my teammates. I know what it’s like to be in a slump or be hurt. I can help them through it. I always say God doesn’t put more on you than you can handle, and I think he put that on me to help my teammates in different situations.”

Merchant watched her fight through all the adversity. Allen was earning her captain’s bars.

“She’s always, as a person, been very mature, very kind-hearted, an amazing team and program kid,” Merchant said. “It was always about the team. She knew who she was. A lot of freshmen come to college and don’t have a clue who they are. A lot of her growth happened a lot sooner in her career.

“Now her voice is a little stronger. In order to lead, you have to get a little street cred sometimes. She vocally has that street cred. She lets people know what she wants from them.”

When the captain speaks, when she summons a team huddle during a break in the action, the Spartans listen. When she flashes a signal to the sideline to run a certain set, Merchant nods in agreement. She has earned that respect.

“After being gone from home, Jenna has a level of confidence and maturity that wasn’t there in high school,” Jeff Allen said about his oldest daughter. “Linda and I feel that the distance, combined with the level of play, has molded her into a mature, confident leader. We couldn’t be more proud of her.”

BLOOMINGTON – Jenna Allen defends against IU’s Ali Patberg, a former AAU teammate and rival from Columbus North.

Family values

Growing up in a household with four children, all athletically gifted and competitive, only the strong survive. Jeff Allen played college basketball at DePaul (did you know he was also an MMA fighter? Picture that for a moment) and his two daughters followed that sports path. The boys swim. Perhaps that was best.

“Oh my gosh, I’m glad my brothers didn’t play basketball,” Jenna said, certain to hear about it once this comment becomes public. “I’m pretty sure we would have gone one-on-one, and I would have had to beat on them a little bit.”

Little sister was not shown mercy. Jorie, now a senior at BNL, challenged her just recently, during a home holiday visit. Jorie just set the BNL career scoring record, and she has signed with Indiana (although she did wear a Michigan State shirt, most undoubtedly for the final time, in Assembly Hall to cheer for her sister). Anyone who has raised kids knows it’s all fun and games until furniture gets busted and somebody cries.

“We’re super competitive,” Jenna said. “I was home over Christmas break, and we had to play. We had to set some rules because we didn’t want to get too rowdy and hurt each other. I’m glad I have siblings that push me, bring that competitive fire, and have my back.

“I’m super proud of her. The record is an amazing accomplishment. She did it the game before I was home, and I had told her to wait until I was there. I wanted to see it. She got it on the last basket of the game before, and we giggled about that.”

Jenna has played for four outstanding coaches: Kurt Godlevske (now at Butler), Damon Bailey, Jeff Allen and Merchant. The toughest? No question: the former MMA fighter.

“My dad, definitely,” Jenna said with a laugh “Just because he’s my dad and he wanted to push me, to be the best I could be, in all aspects of life.”

BLOOMINGTON – Jenna Allen listens to Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant during a break in the action at Assembly Hall.

Doctor or dreamer

Allen is majoring in kinesiology (the study of mechanics of body movements) and intends to become a chiropractor. One problem – basketball.

Allen, named MSU’s most improved last season, has taken another huge step toward stardom. She’s averaging 15.9 points and 8.3 rebounds. She’s twice been named Big Ten Player of the Week after huge performances against Oregon (career-high 27 points, including a game-clinching 3-pointer) and Iowa (20 points, a career-high 17 rebounds).

Professional scouts, both with the WNBA and European leagues, have noticed. If Allen, who lost 15 pounds during the summer to prepare for this kind of improvement, can win significant postseason honors, she might hear her name called on draft night.

“Hard work pays off,” Allen said. She’s too busy now to worry about that possibility. The second half of the regular season, and the postseason tournaments, have her immediate attention.

“She’s been inspired to make this her best year,” Merchant said. “I’m playing this kid longer than I’ve played a 5 man in a long time (30 minutes against Indiana). I feel comfortable doing that.

“I think she can be a pro, no question, a big man that can score on the block, shoot it and pass it. She’s a very European-style American player. Her 3-point shot is beautiful, she’s one of the best passers on the team, she has a high IQ. I think she’s worthy of a lot of attention.”

Who wouldn’t want to travel Europe? Or compete in the WNBA? That’s a long way from home, for the girl who was homesick. The young woman now has a tremendous future. But she will never forget her past, her shining moments in BNL Fieldhouse, hugging her father in tears after winning a state title and after losing the last game of her BNL career.

“Of course the two state championships, and just playing with my friends,” Allen said of the BNL glory days. “You miss them when you go away, and those bonds will never go away. Those memories will never fade. Every time I go in BNL Fieldhouse, things pop in my head from the semistate games we won.

“I’m most proud of my perseverance through it all, the injuries, the ups and downs. I’m proud of myself for not giving up. I’ve made relationships I will cherish for a lifetime.”

BLOOMINGTON – Jenna Allen is a senior team captain for the Spartans.

For more on Allen, check out the video interview on the website and on YouTube.