Two years ago, Megan Whittaker was at a crossroads. The former West Forsyth girls’ basketball standout felt ensnarled by the maelstrom of college basketball. The coach who recruited Whittaker to Louisiana-Lafayette in 2011 had been fired. Her new one brought in new assistant coaches and new players and a new style. Whittaker went from playing in 30 games as a freshman to nine as a sophomore.
"It just didn’t work out in my favor," she said.
A week ago, Whittaker started her 53rd consecutive game for Loyola University in New Orleans, scoring nine quick points in a 106-69 demolition of Faulkner University. She’s a sharp-shooting guard on the No. 6-ranked team in the latest NAIA Top 25 poll. She feels that she is right where she belongs.
"I really lucked out that I found Loyola," Whittaker said.
Loyola and Whittaker have made an auspicious pairing. Two years ago, the Lady Wolf Pack was an average team that lacked a reliable outside shooting presence. Whittaker was an outside shooter who lacked a sense of where she belonged at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Together, they’ve climbed to heights previously unseen at Loyola. The Lady Wolf Pack entered Thursday’s game 17-1 overall and 8-1 in the Southern States Athletic Conference. Loyola has been ranked as high as No. 4 in the country this season, the first time the program has ever been ranked inside the top five. Whittaker has started all 18 games and is second on the team averaging 10.4 points per game while shooting 41.1 percent (51-for-124) from the 3-point line.
To Whittaker, the Lady Wolf Pack is simply picking up where it left off last season. Whittaker transferred from Louisiana-Lafayette and in her first season paired with star Jasmine Brewer to lead Loyola to one of the best years in program history: a 23-12 record, a first-place finish in the west division of the SSAC and a quarterfinals appearance in the NAIA National Championship Tournament.
"Since we got to go to the national stage last year, we know what we’re capable of doing, and we know the competition now," Whittaker said. "I think that experience has really helped us."
Whittaker inherited her love for hoops from her mom, Martha, a former college basketball coach and Megan’s first head coach at West her freshman season when the school opened in 2007.
"She’s always been my role model," Whittaker said, "so ever since I’ve been growing up I’ve always aspired to play in college."
A four-year starter at West, Whittaker emerged as an all-county and all-region caliber player her junior and senior seasons. When she signed with Louisiana-Lafayette, she was the first girls’ basketball player at West to sign with a Division I school.
Whittaker struggled to make the transition her freshman season. She played in 30 games, but averaged just 3.7 points and 10.1 minutes a game. She was recruited for her shooting prowess but shot just 29 percent from the 3-point line.
When her coach was fired and her playing time dropped as a sophomore, Whittaker contemplated quitting. She was an impressive student, after all. She’d graduated from West with a 4.14 GPA and made the President’s List all four semesters at Louisiana-Lafayette. Maybe it was time to focus on academics.
But Whittaker couldn’t give up basketball. She’d grown up around it, played it every day. She told her mom she might like to play in Florida or maybe New Orleans. A big city, she said. She started looking at Division II and NAIA schools.
"I sat down and realized I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am," Whittaker said, "and if I have the opportunity to continue to play, why would I throw that away?"
The day after their conversation, Whittaker’s mom called. She’d already talked with Loyola women’s head coach Kellie Kennedy. The Lady Wolf Pack needed a shooter, she said.
The next weekend, Whittaker visited Loyola, playing with the team, meeting the coaches, touring the campus. At the end of the weekend, Kennedy offered her a full scholarship.
"It was really perfect," Whittaker said. "…It was really hard to say no."
Whittaker quickly embraced the change in scenery. She’s coached middle school basketball at a local private school. An accounting major, she interned last summer at Ernst & Young and accepted a job offer upon graduation. She’s a runner for New Orleans’ NBA team, the Pelicans, dishing out stats during timeouts and transcribing interviews with coaches and players for media members.
And, of course, there’s the food.
"The best part of New Orleans, hands down, is the food," Whittaker said.
Once, as a little girl, Whittaker dreamed of playing in the WNBA. Maybe the best part of all was Whittaker got a chance to keep playing the game she loved for just a little longer.