By Dylan Manfre
Makayla Firebaugh has one thing on her mind when it comes to basketball — winning.
And she will let you know it. She despises losing more than anything.
“Who doesn’t hate losing? That’s the obvious thing, but I hate it a lot,” the freshman guard said after the Broncs fell to 0-5 in December. “I just don’t lose. Like, I know that’s like cocky sounding and whatever, but I’ve never had a losing season since the time I picked up a basketball and I don’t plan to start that any time soon.”
That being said, it was not taken lightly when she began her freshman year of college ball losing seven straight games. She has experienced some rough patches previously, such as an 0-for-11 performance in 30 minutes of action against Saint Peter’s. After the loss, Firebaugh said she was “agitated” and “irritated.”
Head Coach Lynn Milligan said she likes those types of players because they “are more coachable … But when you’re determined to be good, I mean, there’s a little bit of an edge to that and an awareness.”
But that was only the second time she has been held scoreless this year. The first time was on opening day when she saw 14 minutes off the bench.
Even though she had a bad game, her confidence never wavered. Freshmen as confident as Firebaugh is what Milligan looks for when recruiting.
“I think she has a very strong confidence in herself and a deep work ethic, but she’s not afraid of hard work,” said Milligan who described her as a “basketball kid.”
So, it was not surprising that Firebaugh’s first few words when asked to describe herself were: “Strong, confident, strong work ethic.” It matches up with her play on the court.
“She loves the game, she’s got a passion for it. When you have that things tend to become a little bit easier,” Milligan said. “She’s set herself some strong goals as a freshman: she wanted to play, she wanted to start, she knew what she was working for and wanted to be a part of what we were doing. And everything she’s said she wanted to do she’s done.”
Four games into the season, she accomplished that goal. Firebaugh was inserted into the starting lineup in place of junior guard Lenaejha Evans. Although Rider dropped its first three games, she averaged four points and as many assists per game.
Firebaugh is the team’s most consistent scorer and averages a team-high 10.3 points per game. She also had the best individual scoring performance of a Bronc this season when she had 26 against Monmouth.
Though she has had some individual success, Firebaugh took it all as a learning process. After all, she is juggling virtual schooling, practice, a season schedule that can change at a moment’s notice and being the furthest away from home for the longest time in her life. It is a 247-mile drive from Rider University to her home in Winchester, Virginia. Her previous longest stay was in Cancun, Mexico with a friend for one week.
She has adapted to a lot early in her collegiate career. But she’s also learned a lot during this time too.
“Probably be more confident with myself,” Firebaugh said on Dec. 11 when asked what she has learned about herself. “Because coming in as a freshman and just getting into a Division I basketball game. It’s pretty scary. Not gonna lie. You have some nerves in you. But it’s scary. But then I’m like, ‘I deserve to be out here. I can be out here. I’m just as good as these people’ and then you just play yourself.”
Firebaugh has done a lot to help her team win. Especially in a stretch of games when the Broncs won three of four. Since that abysmal Saint Peter’s performance, Firebaugh has averaged 13.1 points per game and scored in double figures in five of those six games coupled with making 32% of her shots from the field. She was even the first player this season to be named MAAC Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week in the same week.
She has always had the winner mentality. Firebaugh said she arrived early for a 5 a.m. practice when she played for the Winchester Rising Stars in the Amature Athletic Union and left a separate practice at 1 a.m. It was not surprising when she mentioned her favorite athlete was Michael Jordan, arguably one of the greatest basketball players ever.
“That’s what I liked about him, his determination and just like his fire in whatever he did,” Firebaugh said. “Whatever he did, he did it at 100%.”
She added that she would have worn No. 23 because of Jordan if it was available, but it is occupied by junior forward Teresa Wolak. Firebaugh wears No. 24 in honor of her friend Brenna Prunty, who wore that number when the two played together at James Wood High School.
Firebaugh has handled the pandemic-riddled season exceptionally well despite the fluid situation everyone is in. But one day it will be a good story to share.
“I think it’ll be an experience that we’ll all get to tell our kids one day, or just in the future, that we did get to experience all of this and that we did play during a pandemic,” Firebaugh said.
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