CHICAGO — Nia Coffey has excelled at every level of the game. In high school, she was a McDonald's All-American. She was twice named Associated Press First-Team All-State in Minnesota. At Northwestern, she earned First Team All-Big Ten honors as a freshman. The accolades have only continued from there.
Nia Coffey hates to lose. But frankly, she never has.
Heading into the 2015 season, high expectations have been heaped on Northwestern and Coffey. The Wildcats are ranked 24th in the preseason Coaches Poll, and were picked by media to finish third in the Big Ten. Coffey was a unanimous selection to the Coaches Preseason All-Big Ten Team, and the only Northwestern player to receive individual preseason honors.
That will put a lot of pressure on the 20-year-old junior. Coffey is the Wildcats' catalyst, and with two parts of Northwestern's seven-player rotation having graduated, Coffey will be even more of a focal point. How she handles that pressure will allow her to match up against her previous successes, and motivate herself to continue climbing the ladder of Northwestern women's basketball greats.
Despite having only played two seasons, Coffey already has a firm grasp on that ladder. She already ranks seventh in program history in blocks, and led the team in scoring each of her first two seasons. She earned a gold medal with USA basketball in 2013. And most importantly, Coffey led Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1997.
But while Coffey never shies away from success, she doesn't necessarily enjoy talking about it. A quiet, determined presence both on and off the court, she puts her head down to work rather than relishing in her accomplishments.
Her humble nature shines through when discussing her expectations for the coming season. "Our mentality right now is to not read into the hype," she says. "We are truly honored for our preseason awards, but it doesn't really matter. We're really focused on keeping our hard work and our chemistry together and focusing on being that nitty-gritty, hard-working team."
But Northwestern women's basketball has been different ever since Coffey set foot on campus. Even Northwestern's current senior class, featuring Maggie Lyon (who herself is a former Big Ten Freshman of the Year) and Lauren Douglas, experienced a losing season as freshmen. Their 14-17 campaign ended with just seven wins in their final 24 games.
"The people we have returning have paid their dues in the Big Ten," says Coach Joe McKeown. "They've gone through a lot of the ups and downs, snowstorms."
Coffey, though, refuses to succumb to the downs, the snowstorms.
"Everyone likes to win, but the great players hate to lose," says head coach Joe McKeown, one of the most respected coaches in the sport. "Those two players, [Lyon and Coffey], have that. They hate to lose. They'll show up the next day with a chip on their shoulder. Other people, it doesn't bother them as much."
Coffey is not a yeller or a screamer, McKeown says. "She came in as a freshman and [was] so humble," he continues. "But she hates to lose. That is kind of the electricity that goes through our team. Nia is not going to let you lose."
This attitude has manifested itself in obvious ways. There's no better example than February 14, 2015. Down one point at Michigan and needing a win, Coffey rebounded a missed Wolverine free throw, and and took control of the game. She dribbled coast to coast, and willed herself to the rim. Her layup gave NU the win. After the final buzzer, she bounded towards her teammates, fist-pumping and yelling.
On that day, Coffey simply wouldn't let Northwestern lose. Why?
Because Nia Coffey hates to lose. And perhaps that's why she never has.