Friday, November 16, 2001

UC's Merrill center of attention

6-3 freshman, team's star recruit, shuns spotlight

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Debbie Merrill doesn't want all this attention.

        She doesn't want to be labeled as the highest-rated recruit in the history of Conference USA (which she is). She doesn't want to be known as potentially one of the best players in the history of the University of Cincinnati's women's program (which she might end up being).

        At one point last year, she pleaded with a newspaper reporter covering her high school team to mention the other players and not focus so many stories on her.

        “I don't want to be treated differently,” Merrill said. “I don't like being built up. I've got enough pressure on myself. The first exhibition (at UC), I was so nervous. It was funny; you couldn't even tell I knew how to play basketball.”

        When the Bearcats open their season tonight at Dayton, Merrill will be in the starting lineup.

        The 6-foot-3 freshman is adjusting not only to DivisionI basketball but also to life in a big city.

        Merrill's mailing address is Cumberland City, Tenn., but she is from tiny Sailor's Rest, a one-traffic light community of maybe 100 people. Everybody knows everybody. She grew up on a farm with horses, cows, chickens and goats.

        The first time she drove in Cincinnati, she didn't know anything about yielding to pedestrians.

        “I graduated with 92 people,” Merrill said. “I have classes (at UC) with 92 people in it sometimes.”

        Merrill averaged 16 points and nine rebounds last season at Montgomery High School and was rated the 25th-best player — and fifth-best center — in the country by All-Star Girls Report, a scouting newsletter.

        She made official recruiting visits to Cincinnati, Memphis and Tennessee. Yes, Tennessee, the premier women's program in the country.

        So, how in the name of Pat Head Summitt did Merrill end up at UC?

        “This is where I fit in,” she said.

        In truth, she didn't know much about the Bearcats at first. Her fiance, Robert Whitehead, to whom she became engaged in December, was on the football team at Thomas More College, and he suggested Merrill look into UC.

        She called the UC office, which immediately tracked down assistant coach Mike Bradbury, who was on the road.

        “She was on our mailing list,” Bradbury said. “We had attempted to call her, but the number we had wasn't correct.”

        When he finally spoke to Merrill, all he wanted to know was this: Are you serious about Cincinnati?

        She was.

        Merrill kept an open mind on her visit to Tennessee and was never in awe. She said she had a “miscommunication” on the phone with Summitt and all but eliminated the Volunteers after that.

        The recruiting process was a nightmare for her. Friends and strangers alike would tell her she had to go to Tennessee. A lot of people from her high school were headed to Memphis. One coach, trying to get a commitment, was so cruel during a home visit that Merrill ended up in tears.

        Enter UC coach Laurie Pirtle.

        “Laurie talked basketball for five minutes,” Merrill said. “The rest was academics.”

        That was all it took for a country girl who never dreamed of going to college, figuring she'd end up living on the farm and helping her mother.

        Now, of course, comes the challenge of developing a great talent.

        The UC coaches are already pushing Merrill to be more aggressive and play better defense.

        “She's very coachable, very hardworking,” Pirtle said. “She's learning to be tougher. She listens well and learns quickly. The great player is one who works on her weaknesses versus a good player who works on her strengths. We're going to keep Debbie really focused on working on her weaknesses.”


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