The year was 2004, and Countryside Montessori was trailing Gaston Day by one point in the closing seconds of what was sure to be another loss on the basketball court.
Countryside was the "laughingstock" of the league, according to head coach Nick Nichols, and teams were requesting the Mustangs be on their schedule three to four times a year.
Fifth-graders played varsity so the school could field a team.
Nichols turned to his bench and put into the game a short, skinny girl whose uniform nearly enveloped her. Her jersey was so long it nearly covered her socks and shoes, he said.
The Gaston Day bench erupted in laughter. Nobody guarded her, and the ball was thrown inbounds in her direction. She picked up the ball, drew a foul and calmly stepped to the free-throw line, sinking two free throws to win the game for Countryside.
"That is when I knew Mary Jo Rigney was special," Nichols said. "I don't know how she even got the ball to the rim, but she made both shots and has been leading this team and school ever since then. She just never backs down from anything."
A lot has changed at Countryside since. Rigney, who has attended Countryside since preschool, is part of the first class of seniors graduating this year, and earlier this year she became the first Mustang in school history to score 1,000 points.
"It meant so much to me to do it once I started to realize that it was possible," Rigney said. "It was for me, my school, my parents, my teammates and everyone involved, including coach. I couldn't have done it alone and am thankful to everyone who helped."
Rigney led the Mustangs in nearly every category on offense, averaging 15.8 points, 8.6 assists, 6.1 steals and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Rigney recorded a triple-double against Comenius High School of Pineville and just missed three more triple-doubles in consecutive games in November and December. Her best overall stat line was Feb. 4 against North Hills Christian, when she just missed a quadruple-double with 14 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and eight steals.
To say Rigney was the all-around team leader for the Stallions would be an understatement. If she had a fault, according to Nichols, it was that she sometimes wasn't aggressive enough on the court.
"Mary Jo could have scored her 1,000th point in her junior season. I had to make her get it because she is so unselfish," Nichols said. "I had to tell her it was important for her and her school."
Nichols says it is not just on the court that Rigney shines.
"She never quits, and she never gives up on anything," said Nichols. "Everything that she touches turns to gold, and she becomes a star at. She doesn't just do it well; she absolutely becomes the star at anything she does.
"From her grades to her personality, she can do anything in the world that she wants to do."
Rigney says she is happy to do what she can to help the only school she has ever known. She loves the fact that seniors walk the halls with preschoolers and everyone knows everything about people in their classes.
"I really like the student-based learning system of the Montessori schools and how we get to help the younger kids and show them the way," Rigney said. "I love the personal relationships I have with teachers and the close interactions with students. Even though we have a really small high school, it is a great school and a great experience."
Rigney said she has developed a great relationship with teachers, friends and Nichols.
"He has been my coach since the first grade. He has been a huge help to me in basketball and just a great friend, too," Rigney said. "I tell him all the time that he is my hero, and even after I go to college, I know we will still talk and keep in touch with each other."
Nichols said Rigney is a great ambassador for the school. Rigney also excelled in volleyball, soccer and cross country, and she also is among the top Irish dancers in the country.
Rigney says she will always keep the basketball the school presented her as a momento of her on-court accomplishment.
"When I watch the video it makes me tear up; it was a very special moment," Rigney said. "To look at the crowd and see all of the parents and people who support me and all of my teammates, who had been there for me through it all, it was just a great moment."
Andrew Stark is a freelance writer for University City News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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