How Utes’ Kennady ‘Lightning’ McQueen went from small-town Utah to a big-time season in the Pac-12
Former Deseret News Ms. Basketball emerged as a starter this season, and has helped the Utes to a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12 and a probable NCAA Tournament berth
Because of her name alone and where she was raised, Kennady “Lightning” McQueen was born to be either a race car driver, a Hollywood actor, a politician or a rodeo star.
No. 6 Utah (17-10)
vs. No. 11 California (12-12)
Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. MST
At Mandalay Bay Events Center
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN AM 700
Instead, she’s an outstanding college basketball player — which makes even more sense when you learn about the University of Utah sophomore guard’s basketball heritage. Keep reading for that.
McQueen, freshman standouts Jenna Johnson and Gianna Kneepkens, departing senior Dru Gylten and junior sharpshooter Brynna Maxwell, among others, will lead the Utes into the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament on Wednesday at Mandalay Events Center in Las Vegas. Utah (17-10, 8-7)) earned the No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 seed Cal (11-12, 2-10) at 9:30 p.m. MST in a first-round game.
“As soon as I found out my mom played college basketball, I just knew that would be so cool to do, and follow in her footsteps. My dad didn’t play college, but he loves the game so much. Even now, he’s up at 5 a.m. every morning to go play ball up at the church. He still loves it. We’re just a big basketball family.” — Utah sophomore guard Kennady McQueen
With a NET ranking of No. 27 and tie for fifth-place finish (in the loss column) in one of the top women’s basketball conferences in the country, the Utes are a virtual lock for the Big Dance, for the first time since 2011. Defending national champion and top seed Stanford, No. 3 in the NET, No. 2 in the AP Top 25, is on the opposite side of the bracket from the Utes, so their path to the championship game is not impossible.
If they beat Cal on Wednesday, they will meet No. 3 seed Washington State on Thursday in another late-night special.
Basketball in her blood
McQueen’s journey to this point starts long before she was ever born and raised in the tiny Summit County town of Henefer (population: 766), whose claim to fame is that it is located on the historic Mormon Pioneer Trail and about 33 miles from Park City. Utes coach Lynne Roberts said when she made the trip to Henefer to visit the North Summit High star and her family they rode ATVs through a town with no stop lights and only three stop signs.
“It’s out there a ways,” Roberts says.
Kennady’s parents — Melanee Brooks McQueen and Cory McQueen — married when Melanee played on one of legendary Utah coach Elaine Elliott’s teams and Cory was a student team manager. The couple met in middle school — Melanee was from Henefer, Cory from Wanship — and became high school sweethearts.
Cory first attended Weber State, then joined Melanee at the U. and “ended up being the manager, the water guy,” Kennedy said. “He has lots of fun stories about that.”
Keegan (who played collegiately at Montana-Western) and Haylee came first, then Kennady was born five years after Haylee and immediately gravitated to basketball. Melanee Brooks-McQueen made the all-tournament team in 1991 when the Utes won the WAC tournament in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1991.
“As soon as I found out my mom played college basketball, I just knew that would be so cool to do, and follow in her footsteps,” Kennady said. “My dad didn’t play college, but he loves the game so much. Even now, he’s up at 5 a.m. every morning to go play ball up at the church. He still loves it. We’re just a big basketball family.”
Small-town upbringing, big-time talent
Kennady says she was “definitely part of the country life” growing up in rural Utah, wearing Wranglers and boots, riding horses and ATVs and showing sheep at county and state fairs.
“I did all that small-town stuff, but as I grew up, I grew out of that,” she said. “I prefer the Salt Lake life now; Once I hit middle school, I grew out of that life.”
Playing for legendary basketball and football coach Jerre Holmes at North Summit High in Coalville — a 12-minute drive from Henefer — Kennady dominated the 2A ranks of Utah prep girls basketball, becoming a three-time all-state pick, the Utah Gatorade Player of the Year and the Deseret News’ Ms. Basketball in 2020. She averaged 20.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 4.5 steals her senior season.
Naturally, doubts arose about whether she could play at the next level because of the level of competition in high school. Was Kennady a big fish in a small pond? Even Roberts, who started tracking the legacy Ute when she was a sophomore in high school, had concerns.
“I wasn’t sure how quickly it would translate, to be completely candid,” Roberts said last week. “I mean, she knows that. I have told her that.
“But she’s also the type of player that I didn’t want to coach against. I just don’t want to have to deal with her playing for Colorado, or all the other teams recruiting her,” Roberts continued.
Shining on the summer circuit, getting noticed
Kennady played for the prestigious Salt Lake Metro club program for a few years, then got invited to a Rising Stars camp in Georgia “and I guess I played pretty well there.” A scout from the Nike Girls Elite Youth Basketball (EYBL) program noticed her and told former Ute and NBA star Keith Van Horn about her.
Van Horn runs the closest EYBL program to Utah, which happens to be in Colorado. The McQueens had lunch with Van Horn, who asked if Kennady would be interested in playing for Colorado Premier. She accepted, and through that AAU club team and elite training she was able to show she could play with anyone in the country.
Kennady’s advice to young girls, from small towns to big cities: You have to be all in.
“It is hard for anyone to play college basketball at any level, regardless of where they are from,” she said. “You gotta really love it. That’s what I learned. Growing up I learned there were so many sacrifices I had to make to get here. But this is my dream. This is what I wanted.”
She skipped parties, hanging out with friends, “just things that normal middle school and high school girls would choose over everything, every single time, just the social aspects,” she said. “But to me it was 100% worth it, to end up where I am at.”
Becoming a Ute
A safe assumption would be that once Utah offered, Kennady would commit on the spot. But it wasn’t that simple. After her sophomore season at North Summit, Utah coaches informed her they were moving in a different direction. Five months later — after seeing her shine in the summer circuit — they had a change of heart.
By then, though, other schools were making inroads, and offers.
“It came down to my final two, which were Utah and Gonzaga. I loved Gonzaga. That ended up being a super hard choice. I struggled with that choice for awhile,” she said. “But yup, I had to go with my gut and what I always dreamed of, which was playing in my mom’s footsteps and going to Utah.”
Another factor: playing close to home was ultra-important.
“I am a big family person, so just knowing I would have the best of both worlds was big for me,” she said. “Being an hour away from my house in Henefer, I got to do my own thing here, but if I wanted to go home I can go home and stay the night whenever I want. So it makes it nice, kinda getting the best of both worlds.”
When Kennady says she is a big family person, she’s not joking. At every home game this year, between 20-30 family members — parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents — have shown up to cheer her on. Last year, no crowds were allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It gives me chills every night I see them, because they always sit in the same spot every game — my little family section, across from the bench, a little from the middle, and it just fills up that section,” she said. “It is all my family, and I love it.”
One of those aunts even came up with her first name, after her parents had a hard time deciding on one.
“Like the president (John F. Kennedy), but with one letter switched,” Kennady said. “Just to be a little different.”
‘Lightning’ becomes a starter
As a freshman last year, Kennady played in all 21 games as the Utes struggled through a COVID-19-altered season, finishing 5-16. She never started, but averaged 5.1 points in 16.7 minutes per game.
Over the summer, she set the goal of becoming a starter. Mission accomplished.
Having started in every game this season, she’s averaging 9.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and just over one assist per game. Just as importantly, she’s emerged as a defensive specialist.
“She just plays so dang hard,” Roberts said. “She’s incredibly scrappy and coachable, and her progression has been fun to watch. … She loves doing the stuff that doesn’t show up necessarily in the stats, the energy plays. She takes pride in that.”
Roberts said Kennady’s speed, quickness and tenacity has earned her six or seven nicknames, including “lightning,” which is from the race car in the Pixar film “Cars” with the same last name, McQueen.
Although North Summit’s rivals would “have some fun with it, get creative with it” when they were playing the Braves, Kennady loves it.
“I think it is pretty fun,” she said.
Just like growing up in a small town, and then shining in the big city.