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Allie Kennedy signs with Southern Miss

When a high school athlete contemplates that decision of where to pursue college ball opportunities, building connection with the prospective head coach is crucial. For Red Bay High School’s Allie Kennedy, her relationship with Southern Miss Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis began when Kennedy was moved up to varsity in seventh grade during a Christmas tourney. That was the first time Lee-McNelis saw Kennedy play. Last week, the Lady Tiger signed to continue her athletic career at Southern Miss.

Her road to signing day was, however, a little rocky.

Kennedy was in the process of signing with Belmont University, but with miscommunication about a few deadlines, her scholarship fell through. Dad Mike Kennedy said August 2016 began a scramble during which it was like the recruitment process had to start all over, because word had gotten out, of course, that the Lady Tiger was committed to Belmont and “off the market.”

Southern Miss had shown interest previously, and with Kennedy once again in the recruitment pool, Lee-McNelis made her an offer.

For RBHS Head Coach Donnie Roberts, Kennedy is his first ever Division 1 signee. He praised her as a “very talented player.”

“Allie has always had a tremendous work ethic,” Roberts said. “She never lets me down in practice. I’ve never had to discipline her for lack of hustle or effort. She’s always given it her very best.” He particularly praised her ball-handling skills. “She’s got the sweetest jump shot I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

As Roberts shared his pride in Kennedy’s skill and accomplishments during her signing ceremony, she teared up.

“Coach Roberts and I have been through a lot together – the good times and definitely the bad times,” she said. “Hearing those words got me a little emotional.” Their relationship on the court began when he moved her up to varsity. “I knew than that he and I were going to have a connection no one else would understand.”

Parents Mike and Beverly Kennedy said their daughter attracted to balls and exhibited strong hand-eye coordination from a very young age. Her father had the opportunity to coach her in youth ball.

“From a very early age she wanted to play basketball in college,” Mike said. “Once we saw she had that kind of interest, we built her a basketball court, and she has spent countless hours – alone, a lot – just working on her dribbling and shooting. When a lot of kids might have been playing video games or this or that, she was out working on her game.”

Kennedy is thinking of majoring in computer science – but mostly she’s thinking of basketball.

“I chose Southern Miss because I believe in the program and I believe good things are going to happen there,” she said.

Lee-McNelis has been associated with the Lady Eagles’ program for more than 20 years. First as a standout player, then a successful assistant coach, and for more than ten seasons as head coach of her alma mater, her presence has formed a complete, well-rounded women’s basketball program that is putting Southern Miss back on the map. Building a successful program takes time and commitment and does not come without its ups and downs. When McNelis took over the Southern Miss women’s basketball program in 2004, she wanted to return the program to the winning tradition of old. With her appointment, the Lady Eagles have made steady strides in that direction.

Mom Beverly said she thinks the school will be a good fit for her daughter.

“I’m happy to see her happy,” she said. “It’s been full all these years, following her … it’s just a different chapter.”

“The challenge will be being mentally-prepared for those grueling workouts,” Mike added. “It is a challenge, to go from high school ball to college ball.”

But Kennedy, Roberts said, is no stranger to a challenge. “She has worked hard and earned this scholarship. It didn’t come easy.”