George Mason senior forward Stephanie Cheneycould have starred at a larger public school or at a high-profile private school. She chose to stay put at Mason, with 701 students in grades nine through 12, immersed in the International Baccalaureate program and comfortable with her social life at the Falls Church school.
She could have floated around to any number of area AAU teams but was one of only two girls in her age group to compete for six seasons for the Fairfax Stars.
And she could have committed to a more celebrated college basketball program, among them James Madison, but she based her choice more on academics than hoops fanfare. She will play in the Ivy League at Pennsylvania.
In each of her major basketball decisions, Cheney has done things her way. She can cap that blazed personal path this weekend in Richmond by winning another championship in Virginia A Division 2, one notch above the smallest division in the state.
George Mason, state champs three of the past four years and the only Northern Virginia team of either gender still standing in the state tournaments, faces Floyd County at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the Siegel Center on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. Central-Wise and Clarke County play afterward with the winner of both contests earning a spot in Saturday’s 3 p.m. final.
“It’s not like I didn’t think about [transferring], when I was younger, especially,” Cheney said. “The ability to be a standout here was kind of something that I loved because I could be a leader at such a young age. [That] gave me experience that I know I can use at Penn and in life in general. I love George Mason and Falls Church as a community. I really couldn’t leave that.”
The 6-foot-1 Cheney, the Mustangs’ lone returning starter from last year’s state championship team, likely evokes an exasperated “She’s still there?” comment from the opposing bleachers. She has been a four-year standout, broke the school scoring record as a junior and committed early to Penn. Yet she’s still around.
Her well-rounded game has a polish not frequently seen on the Virginia A level, a notion that George Mason Coach LaBryan Thomas concedes with a grateful chuckle.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “A lot of [high schools] have been after her, but the family is based right here in Falls Church . . . so she stayed put, and I’m thankful. She’s a phenomenal player. She has great guard skills. She can shoot the ball. She’s a heckuva rebounder. She’s got a great knack for the ball around the basket. What makes her Steph is that she can finish around the basket and a lot of kids can’t do that.”
O’Connell Coach Aggie McCormick-Dix, a longtime AAU presence in the area and coach for the Fairfax Stars, has seen or coached most of the top players in Northern Virginia, and she coaches in the respected Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.
So how would she rate Cheney, the three-time Virginia A Bull Run District player of the year, against the top talent in the Virginia AAA Northern Region or WCAC?
“First-team WCAC, first-team Northern Region. No doubt about it,” McCormick-Dix said. “You look at her and watch her play and you can tell she’s working hard but she does it with some ease. She just has a gift for it.”
“I don’t think people noticed as much [that she played in the smallest classification] because of how well she played on the floor,” said W.T. Woodson senior guard Keara Finnerty, an AAU teammate of Cheney’s. “People didn’t ask. She played like she was at a AAA school.”
Craig Cheney, Stephanie’s father and a member of the Falls Church City School Board, said that playing at George Mason might have better prepared his daughter for college basketball than if she had played in a larger high school program where she might have been pigeonholed at one position.
“With Penn, they really require their players do pretty much everything,” Craig Cheney said. “It’s a multi-faceted offense. So the fact that she’s had to shoot the three and dribble and pass, there are a lot of things she might not have been able to do if she was an inside post player. It’s probably one of the things that Penn was attracted to.”
“I knew wherever I was going to be playing in high school I would be able to get where I wanted to get,” Stephanie Cheney said. “I ended up at Penn, which would have been my ideal choice no matter where I went to high school.”