COLUMBIA — A single class at MU might consist of 500 students or more. Tori Niemann, a freshman on the Missouri women’s basketball team, went to a high school with less than half that many people.
Niemann is from Canton and graduated in a class of 44 people. But the transition to a bigger town hasn’t been too hard for her.
Missouri Western Griffons
at Missouri Tigers
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
Missouri Western returns 10 players from last year's 7-20 team, including junior Jessica Koch, who led the squad with 14.3 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game. First-year Missouri coach Robin Pingeton spent the past seven seasons as the head coach at Illinois State.
“Columbia is so laid back,” Niemann said. “It’s kind of got that small town feel, but there’s also a lot more people. It’s just nice to have a McDonald’s that’s 5 minutes away instead of 25 minutes away.”
What kind of restaurants does a town the size of Canton have?
“You’ve got your Subway, Pizza Hut … and that’s about it,” Niemann said.
At Canton High School, Niemann averaged 19.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, leading the Tigers to a 98-17 record while she was there. She was first-team All-State her junior and senior seasons and made the second team her sophomore year. She was a 2010 McDonald’s All-American nominee. And those are just her basketball accolades.
Niemann also ran track and played softball. In her junior and senior softball seasons, she was an All-State infielder. In track, she competed in the long jump and triple jump, qualifying for state four times. Even with her success as a three-sport athlete, Niemann didn’t brush aside academics. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was salutatorian of her class.
Even with all her high school success, Niemann has stayed humble. She casually mentions all she accomplished, as if it were no big deal. But she did acknowledge that it took a lot of time and effort to achieve what she did in high school.
“Sports were my life,” Niemann said. “My best friends were also my teammates. We always made time to hang out with each other. We’d go out to eat when we could.”
Even though she’s only playing one sport in college, things haven’t changed much.
“I don’t really know what free time is, but that’s OK,” Niemann said. “When I really think about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Niemann could have played softball or track at the college level, but she said choosing basketball was simple.
“I just thought about what sport I couldn’t live without,” she said. “I love doing every sport, but basketball is the one I knew I’d miss the most. I miss softball all the time too, but I just couldn’t do without basketball.”
Niemann's passion for the game started at a young age.
“I think I went to my first basketball game when I was just a few months old," she said. "My mom has been a coach my entire life. She’s coached me. She’s coached other teams. I’ve just always been around it, and I love it.”
After choosing to pursue a collegiate career in basketball, Niemann said she doesn’t really know why she ended up choosing Missouri. She said it just felt right.
Niemann has known new Tigers coach Robin Pingeton for a while. She attended several of Pingeton’s basketball camps at Illinois State when she was in high school. So, when Pingeton was hired by Missouri in April, she knew recruiting players like Niemann could only help the program.
“She’s a great character kid,” Pingeton said. “She has the understanding about what it takes to build a winning program, create a winning culture. Her passion, her drive, her work ethic are all things we’re trying to instill in our program here at Missouri.”
Pingeton said time would tell if Nieman’s success at a small school will translate to success in the Big 12, but Pingeton likes her odds.
“She brings it every day. She competes hard,” Pingeton said. “She’s got a great work ethic and is really fundamentally sound. She’s got a great understanding of the game, but she’s got a lot of work to do.”
Niemann realizes it isn’t going to be as easy as it was in high school. She found that out right away.
“I remember the first week we played 5-on-5. I would just get hit by one of the other girls, and I would just fall backwards,” Niemann said. “I thought ‘I didn’t realize I was this weak or this slow.’ It’s a crazy difference between high school and college.”
In addition to playing against better players, Niemann will have to adjust to playing on a much bigger stage. She has experience playing in Mizzou Arena, where she played several state tournament games in high school, but most of her high school games were played for a much smaller venue.
“We played in some packed gyms (in high school),” Niemann said. “But there were also times when it was just your parents and a few townspeople there.”
The idea of playing basketball at this level is a mixture of excitement and nervousness for Niemann.
“I’m more excited for the opportunity to be here,” she said. “But of course I’m nervous. I’ve never been around anything like this. Big games. Big people. These are the people you grow up watching that we’re going to be playing against.”
Niemann is excited to play a tough nonconference schedule right away. The game versus Tennessee will be particularly special for her.
“Growing up, I was a huge Pat Summitt fan,” Niemann said, referring to the Tennessee women's basketball coach. “Just watching her on TV and watching them play. And now to be on the same court as her, it’s going to be awesome. I think that’s every little girl’s dream is to play on that kind of stage.”