While growing up in Mansfield, McKenna Dale’s favorite sport was swimming. Her best memories are practicing and competing with her older sister, Siobahn.
As she entered E.O. Smith High, however, Dale’s preference turned to basketball. She had started playing with a core group of girls in about fifth grade, and those girls — including her younger sister, Kaleigh — had become her best friends.
“It was such a great environment,” Dale said. “It helped me fall in love with the sport even more.”
Dale was a good player as a freshman, E.O. Smith head coach Mary Roickle recalled, but through hard work and dedication, she had emerged as one of the top players in the state by her junior season.
As a senior this past winter, the versatile 6-footer averaged 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists per game while playing virtually every position on the floor. She set a school scoring record with 1,792 points and earned Gatorade State Player of the Year honors.
Dale, who will play at Brown University next season, has also been named the Register’s Girls’ Basketball State Player of the Year.
“First and foremost, McKenna Dale is just a terrific young lady, a terrific human being,” said Roickle. “She is very humble, all about learning, and gives it her all. She’s committed to whatever she chooses to do. In athletics, it was swimming and basketball. Academically, she applied herself and earned her way to an Ivy League school. But beyond that, she’s just a nice, humble kid.”
Oh, and she’s still pretty good at swimming, too. Last fall, she broke a 19-year-old record in the 50-yard freestyle and also won the 100 freestyle at the State Open. Not bad, considering she’s only swam for three months of the year the past several years. The rest of the year has always been dedicated to hoops.
“She doesn’t want her face looking at the bottom of a pool in an individual sport,” Roickle noted. “That’s not what she’s about. It speaks to who she is: a kind, caring kid who wants to be a part of a team.”
Sometimes, Dale was a bit too unselfish on the basketball court, wanting to share the ball with her teammates a bit too much rather than take over a game individually, as she could. This past year, with E.O. Smith rocked by injuries (three starters, including Kaleigh until mid-January), Roickle tried to push Dale into looking for her shot more.
“I know my AAU coach told me that, my high school coach told me to be more selfish, but that’s not how I was taught to play,” Dale said. “But I’d like to say I did a better job of that this year. I don’t think I was selfish, but I think I did a better job as a scorer.”
“I would say it evolved from her freshman to senior year. She realized that, at times, she had to be the go-to person. The biggest thing I can say is that, for a kid with all her talent, she’s all about ‘we,’ not about ‘me.’ It’s almost about trying to get her to do things we want her to do, because she always wanted to involve her teammates.”
Dale emerged as what Roickle believes was the most offensively-efficient player in the state. She nearly joined Steph Curry’s ‘180 Club’ — 40 percent 3-point shooting, 50 percent field goal percentage and 90 percent from the foul line. Dale shot 48 percent from 3 and a whopping 64 percent overall, but fell short from the line, finishing at “only” 75 percent.
“And she was not a happy camper about that,” Roickle quipped.
Dale was recruited by numerous colleges, narrowing her list down to Quinnipiac, Fairfield, Sacred Heart, Delaware, Penn, Yale and Brown. She eventually narrowed it down to the Ivy League schools, and ultimately down to Yale and Brown.
Brown’s open curriculum offered a better fit academically.
“It was more flexible, easier for me to find my way,” Dale noted. “I liked the coaches at both schools, but I had a good feel with the whole team and the coaching staff at Brown.”
Dale added that she wanted to get out of Connecticut, yet still won’t be more than an hour from home while in Providence, an area she loves. She’s also in line for potential playing time right off the bat.
“(Coach Behn) told me she thinks I can help make a contribution,” said Dale. “To get that, I have to keep working hard and try to improve on the weaker aspects of my game.”
Dale said that includes improving her ball-handling skills and becoming more consistent with her pull-up jumper.
Dale actually received letters from another school during her recruiting process. That’s right: UConn, her hometown school. Roickle couldn’t believe it when Dale first told her, surprised and elated that Geno Auriemma would be recruiting her player.
“You’re pulling my leg,” Roickle said.
“No coach,” Dale said, “UConn swimming.”
Ah yes, swimming. It’s definitely all basketball from here on out for Dale. Unlike in high school, where girls’ swimming is in the fall and basketball in the winter, both sports are winter sports in college. So it would be impossible to balance both sports, anyway.
But you get the feeling that, if anybody could pull it off, it would be Dale.
“She has the potential to be a terrific swimmer in college,” said Roickle. “She’s 6-foot and has a swimmer’s body — triangle body, broad shoulders, slim to the waist, long-legged. She’s a perfect swimmer.”
Not a bad basketball player, either.