Sports Feature: Ahead of the curve

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February 23, 2009

11:18 PM

Make it around the next bend. Take a breather. Vomit.

That’s how Quinn McDowell climbed the steep, rocky path to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. At just 14 years old, Quinn fought altitude sickness on the slopes of the African peak, struggling to finish the ascent to 19,340 feet, all the while knowing he could turn back at any moment and start his descent.

Eventually he did turn back, but only after puking out his guts and battling the elements at an elevation over three miles.

“That was definitely something I won’t soon forget,” Quinn said. “I missed the summit by about 100 feet maybe. I was feeling really weak … You’re zig-zagging up the mountain. I would do a switchback and throw
up. Hit the next one and have to stop.”

His determination, sown in him by parents Dave and Jenn, appears each time Quinn, a 6’5” freshman forward who averages 9.5 points per game and a team-high 4.7 rebounds for the College of William and Mary, walks onto the hardwood. His leadership, honed by years on the basketball court and soccer pitch and sharpened by his continued responsibilities as the oldest child in a family of seven, shows even though he’s a just freshman playing Division-I basketball.

“Nothing about the college game has overwhelmed Quinn in any way,” Head Coach Tony Shaver said. “When we recruited Quinn, we thought he was special. I did not feel he would make this level of impact this quickly. I didn’t think he’d have to, which is a good thing and a bad thing. He’s had to be an impact player for us.”

Quinn, who attended Archbishop Moeller, an all-boys Catholic high school in Cincinnati, Ohio, came to the College with some distinct advantages in terms of preparedness for the college game.

“Their program is about as close as you can get to a college program on the high school level,” Quinn said. “The demands on your time — lifting, watching film and all the stuff you do in college — I was kind of used to. A lot of what I’m hearing at this level I’ve already heard, so I’ve had a head start in that sense.”

Quinn uses that head start to overcome some of his athletic shortcomings on the court.

“I worried a little bit in the recruiting process about his ability to play against great athletes,” Shaver said after Quinn’s 16-point and 6-rebound performance against Towson University Jan. 28. “It doesn’t bother me now. He’s got a tremendous feel for the game. That’s something you don’t teach.”

Experience helps. Quinn, who has played basketball and soccer since he was five years old, quickly learned how to move without the ball and pick his spots on the floor in order to overcome his athletic deficiencies.

“I’m not the highest jumper or the fastest guy on the floor,” McDowell said. “Learning how to beat your guy and compete against him … is a tough lesson to learn, but once you learn it, it doesn’t really go away.”

He also heard a lot about competition from his father, who played wide receiver for the Tribe from 1982-1984 and worked for the Christian sports ministry Athletes in Action.

“He would always say: ‘No wimpy Christian kids.’ It was like his motto,” Quinn said. “One of the reasons you play sports is that fire you’re able to play with and that competitive nature: ‘I’m going against this person. Who’s going to come out on top?’

“That’s one of the most fun things about sports.”

Quinn, who is active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group on campus and attends Williamsburg Community Chapel, draws inspiration from his dad’s mantra.

“If you apply it to a faith aspect, you’re saying, ‘Christ was never really a soft guy,’” Quinn said. “Just apply
that to your life.”

Quinn rarely plays soft. Shaver called him the team’s best finisher around the basket midway through the season, even though Quinn regularly takes on taller, stronger opponents. His competitive drive shows up each and everyday.

“Every drill we do, he wants to win it,” Shaver said. “Quinn wasn’t a great high school shooter, and shooting is very important in this system. He shoots the ball more outside of practice than anybody we have.”

With two regular season CAA games remaining, Quinn is shooting 51.1 percent from the floor, 39.3 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the foul line, ranking within the conference’s top 10 for each statistical category.

“I really didn’t have any expectations personally coming into the season,” Quinn said. “I came in with the mindset: ‘I’m going to work as hard as I can and give Coach Shaver a reason to play me.’”

Just nine games into the season, Quinn started his first collegiate game, playing 24 minutes and scoring 1 point against Virginia Commonwealth University Dec. 6. He didn’t earn another start until Jan. 17 at the University of Delaware when he scored a then career-high 15 points. He hasn’t relinquished his starting role since.

“It’s been a pretty good year for me personally, but I would have liked to win a few more games,” Quinn said. “Obviously we all expected the team to do better, which has been tough. It’s been a growing experience.”

His climb into the starting lineup, like his experience on Mount Kilimanjaro, has been equal parts imperfect and a tremendous case study in resilience. But for the coach of this struggling basketball team, McDowell has delivered more than enough.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Shaver said.

And he’s only a freshman.

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