SOUTHBURY—Some Southern stereotypes are true, others are not.
Pomperaug senior Maggie Lee, a native of Louisiana, would be an expert on this subject. The 18 year old has had quite the life’s journey so far, one that’s landed her a Panthers stand out for the past three years.
“We like sweet tea and we like saying y’all a lot,” Lee joked. “A lot people make fun of me about that. When I say y’all at practice, coach (Joe Fortier) says: ‘What’s going on, you should head back to the south.’”
Her performance on the court spans any culture gap, though. Lee is 16 points away from 1,000 after a stellar season when she was the go-to option. The Wesleyan-bound Lee is averaging 18.2 points and seven rebounds this season.
Her father works in the paper industry, one that requires a lot of relocation from mill to mill. Lee was born in Alabama, where she lived for just a month. Spells in Maine and Oregon followed before “settling” in two different parts of Louisiana – first in DeRidder, a place about half the population of Southbury before moving to the much larger West Monroe – for almost eight years.
“It’s a lot busier here,” Lee said. “Everyone in the South is relaxed and laid back, while everybody here is like: ‘Let’s go, we got somewhere to be.’ I like both lifestyles; they’re a lot different but I feel like I’m good at adapting to changing and getting used to my climate.”
The youngest of three girls, Lee has two older siblings with Division I experience. Abby is wrapping up her career at Columbia while oldest Jenna played at University of Louisiana-Monroe. Being the “runt of the litter,” as she put it, toughened her up real quick.
“I was three when I started playing, I’ve been playing my entire life,” Lee said. “I’d have games of 21 with my sisters going one-on-one-on-one and would get elbowed in the face or knocked down. They’re competitive and bigger than me and so I’m grateful for them, I wouldn’t be this far without them.”
Lee was relegated to a secondary scoring option for most of her time despite having the talent to be the focal point. Lee scored about 270 points in each of her first two seasons behind another 1,000-point scorer in Roger Williams freshman Karli Opalka.
“I think it means I was lucky first of all,” said Fortier. “I got a lot of talent there, but I think it’s a testament to Maggie. Karli was the go to person for basically four years. Needing (about 450 points) is a lot and people are going to be focused on her For her to have a season like this and to stay within herself and win games is an amazing accomplishment.”
That changed this year, though. Thrust into the primary role as the only returning starter and lone senior on the team, Lee shouldered a heavy load. A 17-6 record against a difficult schedule ensured the Panthers would have several home games in the state tournament.
It was a responsibility she embraced immediately following her junior season. She arranged offseason workouts with the team and made sure they were playing as often as possible.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Lee said. “My teammates have upped their game so much from last year; I give all the credit to them. If I didn’t have them behind me then there’s no way I’d be where I’m at. Basketball is a game of confidence; if you don’t have it you’re not going to do very well.”
It’s a transition that has worked out for the Panthers, who have legitimate hopes of reaching the Class L final. No. 6 Pomperaug welcomes No. 19 Daniel Hand on Monday in the quarterfinals. A junior-heavy rotation surrounding Lee ensures the Panthers will be loaded in 2019, but they are on the cusp of a championship with its senior star.
“I think this is the most fun I’ve had coaching basketball in a long time,” Fortier said. “Just the chemistry with this group; I think a lot of people thought we were down this year but we proved to people we can still play.”
Lee has played travel basketball the past two years for NEX Elite in Boston; multiple cumulative trips of five hours were nothing for someone who was used to driving long distances from Louisiana to Texas to play in competitive tournaments.
It eventually got Lee on the radar of Wesleyan, which saw her during a 300-student camp at Brown University. NESCAC coaches ran the weekend and as usual, Lee stood out. Lee said the school displayed their loyalty in attending her team’s postseason games.
A spot at Mohegan Sun won’t be on the line until Thursday’s semifinals, but it’s a place Lee would enjoy playing in. Any time she laces up her shoes for the Panthers, they have a chance of winning.
“Her biggest step this year is her maturity,” Fortier said. “In 18 years of coaching I’ve never had a kid who is as mature as her. I think it has to do with the fact that she’s moved around a lot. There’s a lot of pressure on her, we need her to score to win and she’s closing on 1,000 points. Knowing you need to score but you don’t want to focus on 1,000 is hard. I don’t know if anyone can handle it better than her.”