HINCKLEY – Dave Dudzinski chuckles when he tells the story.
It goes like this:
In eighth grade, Jenna Thorp earned a spot on the Kaneland Cagers traveling boys basketball team. The current Hinckley-Big Rock senior, who again is headed to the Class 1A final four this weekend, earned it. There's no doubt about that.
"She was probably one of our best players," said Dudzinski, the Kaneland senior center.
And although everyone on the Cagers was on board with a girl playing with the boys, when the team would go to some tournaments, opposing coaches weren't always keen on the idea.
"Some of the other coaches were like, 'We don't want her to play. She could get hurt,'" Dudzinski said.
What happened next changed their minds pretty quick.
"Then she went and blocked their best players," Dudzinski said with a laugh.
It was that season – one the Cagers happened to go 31-10 that also featured Kaneland senior guard Ryley Bailey – that helped mold Thorp into the dominant player H-BR fans get to watch every game.
"I was definitely nervous at first with the first couple of tryouts," Thorp said. "Once I got on the team, they treated me as one of the guys but always looked out for me, knowing that I was still a girl playing with a bunch of guys.
"It prepared me a lot for a faster style of ball and more physical game."
It's where Thorp's ability to play multiple positions, something Northern Illinois woomen's coach Carol Owens cited as one of many reasons why she recruited Thorp, really took flight.
"Back then when she played on girls teams, she was in the post," Dudzinski said. "She had to get out of there."
Thorp still played some in the post, but added guard and wing to her repertoire.
"At Hinckley-Big Rock I was more of a post, but with Kaneland we always went up against bigger, stronger teams," Thorp said.
Thorp thrived in her role, sometimes handling the ball and playing multiple roles, just as she's done in her time at H-BR. The most notable of which came in the fourth quarter of last year's 1A state title game, when Royals coach Greg Burks put the ball in Thorp's hands to break West Central's press and then get to the free-throw line to clinch the state championship.
"It was a great experience, just playing with the boys in general and also a bigger atmosphere than playing with the Hinckley-Big Rock boys," Thorp said. "It was probably better competition with bigger schools."
And it helped set the course for one of the area's all-time best players.