Freshman Emily Cady answers questions Saturday at NCAA Tournament Press Conference.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Freshman Star Cady Built to be Tough

By NU Athletic Communications

Huskers Meet Media in Little Rock

Photos: NCAA Press Conference

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The day before the Big Ten Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis, Emily Cady could barely walk. Somehow, though, a good trainer, a good massage therapist and her own incredibly strong mental toughness enabled Nebraska’s freshman star to play four games in four days and help the Huskers push Purdue to two overtimes before losing the championship game.

Those who see Cady every day – her coaches, teammates and support staff surrounding her – all offer a resounding “YES” when asked if Cady is tough. Their answers are as confident as they are quick.

The interesting thing is Cady doesn’t really look all that tough. The 6-foot-2 freshman forward from Seward, Neb., is so slender that it’s a hoot watching opponents size her up before tipoff. If I could climb inside their heads, I think I know what they’re thinking: How’s this skinny, angular freshman going to beat me?

Cady’s so Tough, She Surprises People

Emily Cady even looks a little awkward at times, especially standing next to taller and older players with more experience, more weight and more honors. No wonder opponents are baffled when Cady runs right by them on her way to the basket or when she drills a 3-pointer while surprised defenders suddenly realize her range is deeper than they thought. Cady perhaps is most surprising when she leaps into the bulk and muscle and spears a rebound that others thought was theirs.

How does all that happen for a true freshman in a rugged, physical league?

Let’s put it this way. If a big old truck can be built Ford Tough, Emily Cady can certainly be built Husker Tough, and that isn’t intended to be clever. It’s the truth. Since joining the Cornhusker Shooting Stars club basketball in the third grade, Cady has been programmed to be tough and has been coached forever to use that toughness to her advantage.

The Emily Cady Success Story is a short book with three chapters so far:

Chapter 1: Emily Cady, the little girl who learned all about mental toughness in grade school, playing for a club team that taught her how to compete and to lead.

Chapter 2: Emily Cady, the high school player who learned how to size up an opponent so well that she knew what she was going to do before the girl knew herself.

Chapter 3: Emily Cady, the college star who was not expected to take anything by storm as a freshman, but was so well prepared, she must have decided why wait?  

Ten minutes with Cady following a pre-NCAA press conference on Thursday substantiated the theme for our little book on Nebraska’s big-time, big-play freshman. Let’s listen to her describe why each chapter makes sense to her:

The Little Girl: “I started playing for the Shooting Stars in third grade, and my life has changed ever since.  I would not be where I am today without that program. We would practice twice a week – on Thursdays and Sundays – for three hours. Sometimes, even in third grade, we would have two-a-days or even a four-hour practice. Dan Lesoing (the director of the Shooting Stars club team) really helped me build my mental toughness. We’d all get tired, and he would tell us when we got older, the whole game of basketball depends on mental toughness. He said if the strongest athletes or the best athletes weren’t mentally tough, they wouldn’t play the game of basketball, and he was right.”

The High School Star: “Tom Tvrdy was my high school coach at Seward. He was big on mental toughness, too, but the reason we never lost a game is because he was so thorough in scouting the teams we played. He spent a really long time, hours after hours, watching the teams we played and then preparing a plan for how to play them. We had to know all the little things about the teams we played, whether it was their hands or what way they’d turn on the post. He was a great coach on mental preparation, and I learned that was a really important part of our success in high school. We knew what the other team was going to do before they did it."

The College Freshman: “Coach Dan and Coach Trvdy coached mental toughness. Coach Dan was all about toughness on the court. Coach Trvdy was about toughness in the way you prepare for a game. And Coach (Connie) Yori is big on both of those things. She blends them together. We spend 2½ hours a day on the court and the rest of the time in the training room in strength and conditioning. That builds toughness. She and her staff are always preparing us for what to expect. I know the night we found out we were playing Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, Coach Sunny (Smallwood) was up until 2 in the morning getting us ready. Coach Yori’s whole staff is dedicated and tough.”

Toughness is Multi-Faceted Character Trait

We all know toughness isn’t any one thing. It is self-belief, desire, motivation and focus wrapped up together. It’s responding to pressure and fighting through aches, pains, even injuries. More than anything, toughness is a mindset that reliable and productive athletes embrace. They learn to compete, not complain, and Cady said that’s a perfect description for what this young Husker team is doing … together.

Until her college freshman season, Cady had never been hurt, so when her left knee worsened to the point she couldn’t walk, she needed help. “It was really, really bad,” she said. “I have a floater, and it was in a weird spot right before the Big Ten Tournament. Our massage therapist (Amy Seiler) was able to manage it in a spot where it didn’t hurt, and it was really, really helpful. I’m glad we brought her to Indianapolis. She spent 30 minutes working on the tendon and moving it back into place.”

Cady knows her knee will require surgery when the season’s over, and she uses the three-word response that all of her "dinged" teammates are using at this stage of the season: “It’ll be fine.”

 Moore, Burke Nebraska’s Toughest Players?

Still, who can resist asking the obvious question for a freshman: Who’s the toughest Husker of all?

 “I don’t know,” Cady said, “but probably either Lindsey (Moore) or Kaitlyn (Burke). Kaitlyn had her nose broken and has played through so many other injuries, and Lindsey’s just tough no matter what. She gets knocked down and falls to the floor all the time. So does Jordan (Hooper). In fact, I don’t even know when Jordan’s not on the floor. But like everyone else, she just gets right back up and keeps going.”

Attitude is the ignition that starts such mental toughness every morning.

Before, during and after Husker women’s games, fans hear other fans say Emily Cady plays so hard that it looks like she never gets tired. Well, she gets tired, and she also gets mad. That’s when her inner self reminds her that the player she’s guarding and the one who’s guarding her has to be just as tired as she is.

So the big question comes down to this: Who’s going to win the mental battle? Judging by Cady's unrelenting performance, you know how she'd probably answer that question: “Me, because I’m tougher mentally.”

Yes, that mindset traces its roots back to her third-grade coach. “That program molded me into the basketball player and the person I am today,” Cady said. “It taught me how to take responsibility for my actions and how to become a better leader on and off the court. That team became a second family to me and a way to relieve stress. I learned how to have fun and get work done at the same time. And if I could, I’d do it all over again.”

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