Marisa Makenna plays basketball like a guy because the Peters Township senior learned from two of the best men to play the game.
Her grandfather, Rudy, was a 6-foot-4 sophomore when Penn State University reached its only Final Four, placing third in the NCAA in 1954. He averaged 7.1 points per game as a junior and 13.6 as a senior before earning his degree in physical education and embarking on his illustrious coaching career.
Rudy guided Waynesburg University to 565 wins, seven NAIA tournament berths and a Final Four appearance in 1988. He earned five NAIA District 18 Coach of the Year honors, has a field house named after him and has been inducted into several Hall of Fames, included the Pittsburgh Basketball Club.
“My grandfather has been very influential in my career. From the stories he has told me, I have learned to be on time, to be a better person than an athlete, when to take the jump shot. I have learned about respect and how it doesn’t matter whether you have the right type of shoes or equipment, you still can do the job you were told to do.
“Plus, my grandfather as well as my mother,” continued the daughter of Dona and Kameron Marisa, “are my biggest critics. They are really positive in telling me the good and the bad. They always tell me the truth. You don’t always want someone telling you that you did well all of the time.”
When Marisa went to her grandfather’s protege for help on her jump shot, Tim McConnell never sugar-coated anything either. He had learned well from Rudy, for whom he played and led the Yellow Jackets to the NAIA tournament, setting several game and season records for assists along the way. For 25 seasons, McConnell guided the Chartiers Valley boys’ basketball team to 552 victories, six WPIAL titles, 20 PIAA playoff appearances and two state runner-up titles before coaching the Lady Colts to a state championship this spring.
On the side, McConnell operates youth camps and trains aspiring athletes who wish to improve their skills. Marisa turned to McConnell to fix her jump shot.
“My left hand was getting involved so I had to correct that,” Marisa said. “I worked with Coach McConnell and my grandfather. Shot after shot. Repetition after repetition.”
With chairs set up strategically, Marisa would simulate drives to the hoop. When she encountered the obstacles, she would be forced to stop on a dime and “pop” the jumper.
“We worked and worked until it came natural to me,” Marisa said then recalled, “I would come out of those workouts dripping in sweat.”
Marisa also exited those training sessions oozing even more exceptional skills that would make her a nemesis to her rivals, a huge attraction to college recruiters, a tremendous asset to her team and a legend at her school.
Marisa finished her career with 1,720 points. In leading Peters Township to a perfect 30-0 season, the 5-11 senior averaged 20.8 points a game and dished up 4.3 assists. She connected on 42 percent of her shots from beyond the arc and 58 percent from 2-point range. Defensively, she averaged 6.1 rebounds and averaged 2.6 steals a game, tops on the squad.
The bigger the game, the bigger she performed. For example, Marisa exploded for 29 points during the PIAA Class 6A final. In the 62-49 win against Garnet Valley, she connected on 11 of 19 shots from the field, including 3 of 6 from behind the arc, and 4 for 4 from the charity stripe. She also dished up seven assists, pulled down seven rebounds and added two steals.
That performance sparked praise from Jaguars’ skipper Joseph Woods.
“She is the real deal. All-world,” he said. “To me, the best basketball players are the players that have all the skill but make others around them better and (Marisa) makes that team excellent. She is the engine. She can score and dish. She is the best player that we’ve seen all year.”
Marisa has been the best player that Bethel Park has seen and she typically played her best against that section rival. In her last 10 games against the Lady Hawks, she has scored more than 20 points seven times and the Indians won all seven games. She averaged 22.1 points against the Lady Hawks, whom PT beat in back-to-back WPIAL semifinal games.
“I can’t say enough about her other than I can’t wait until she graduates,” said BP floor boss Jonna Burke said. “You hope to contain her but you can’t stop her. She has been in our way for four years.”
Bert Kendall has relished the time Marisa has spent in the PT starting line-up.
“Makenna is a one-of-a-kind kid. A fabulous basketball player,” said the Indians’ head coach. “She is such an unselfish player, a complete player. Her ability to set up other players on the team, and make the assist was incredible to watch.”
According to Kendall, Marisa is the most decorated female basketball player in school history. An annual all-section selection, she is a two-time WPIAL finalist and a PIAA champion, likely to be named to the all-state team. Most recently, she has been named The Almanac’s Athlete of the Year and The Observer-Reporter Player of the Year.
Accolades asides, she maintains a level head. In fact, Kendall says, Marisa’s humility is one of her strong suits.
“Nothing ever went to her head,” he said. “Makenna simply kept focused on the team mission. She worked everyday to improve her game and did whatever our team needed.”
Work defines her
Work comes second nature to Marisa. During the off season, she lifts three to four times a week and works with two personal trainers. During the playing season, if she’s not in the gym, she’s practicing in her basement.
“To put the extra work in,” she explained. “Each night I do ball handling drills or I might stay after practice to shoot. Practicing my shot and dribbling every day has given me confidence on the court and experience. That has led to success.”
Marisa adds that the friendships she developed with her teammates also played a crucial role in Peters Township’s success.
“Our closeness as a team was the key. We all hung out together outside of basketball and on the court, we trusted each other and were unselfish with the ball. If someone was having an off night, then someone else stepped up.”
While the season was a progression of games and victories, Marisa still cannot believe the success Peters Township experienced.
“It’s unreal. Amazing,” she said. “Our first goal was just the section. We just took it one game at a time. We stayed focused. We pulled together. We didn’t want to lose and I don’t think we experienced any low points.
“Maybe I’ll wake up in a bit and realize how really special this is. But, I know just doing this with my teammates and the close bond we shared was so meaningful. All the memories,” she added. “If I could do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat.”
After graduation, Marisa will be making new memories at Penn State. She leaves for Happy Valley in mid-June as she transitions into college life and NCAA Division I basketball.
The next chapter
Family factored into Marisa’s decision to accept PSU’s scholarship offer. In addition to her grandfather, both of her brothers have ties to the university. Kason is a recent graduated while Kelson plays on the Nittany Lions’ practice squad.
“Kelson is the basketball mind. He’s trained me a little bit,” Marisa said. “He’s good at analyzing the game. He sends me texts and helps me out a lot. So it’s going to be good to work with him because I have a lot of improving to do.”
Strength is one area Marisa must develop in order to make the jump to Division I because she will be going up against stronger girls.
“I need to get some muscle on me,” she said with a laugh.
Marisa also hopes to add some more range to her game as well as more dimension by adding spin moves.
“I’m going to have to be more jerky with my body and changing direction and speed,” she said. “But my brother will be there to help me work on those things. He’s really good.”
At 6-foot-5, Kelson is definitely taller than Makenna and her mother, Donna, was a standout at Kiski before playing at PSU-Behrend. Plus, her twin, Morgan, played on the Peters Township team. Yet, it is uncertain which family member is the best player.
“My brother and I play one-on-one a lot and he would claim he is better,” Marisa said. “My mom claimed she was pretty good but I never saw film on her and my dad did play in high school. My grandpa? No, not at all. I don’t know if I’m as good as him. He was a complete athlete.”
Marisa knows that without her family’s complete backing and influence she would not be the player she is today. Her parents signed her up for a multitude of other activities, including soccer, at age 5, but something changed in Marisa. By age 9, she was enjoying basketball more because of her grandfather.
“Basketball was in my blood and my grandfather has been really awesome. He and my grandmother (Jackie) have come to all of my games. That’s been so special.
“Of course, I try to make him proud of me but it has been a huge bonus having him around. He knows that I have bigger goals.”
Marisa hopes to contribute to Penn State the way she did at Peters Township. She will accept whatever follows.
“My hope is that the group of girls coming in with me at Penn State can help change the program. I want to contribute and make Penn State more of a threat in the Big 10. After that, I’ll go with the flow. The Olympics would be amazing and the WNBA would be really cool. If I can make it there, that would be a dream come true. There are so many talented players out there though that I am going to have to work my tail off and see where it gets me.”
To date, hard work has certainly taken Marisa far. So there is no doubt it will continue to reward her.
“Makenna will be a big contributor at the next level,” Kendall predicted. “Penn State fans are certainly in for a treat,” he added with enthusiasm.