EDWARDSVILLE — Leaving a legacy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is important to Raven Berry, and breaking the school's career rebounding record is one way she can do it.
Berry, a 6-foot-1 senior center from Collinsville, is 35 rebounds shy of Kim Lowe's record of 917 rebounds amassed from 1991-95.
"I just want to leave my name here in the program, and I want to be someone for the younger girls coming in to look up to," Berry said. "And, for me to be a local player, it would mean so much more for local girls. It would attract great local players to come here.
"Like, 'Oh, Raven Berry from Collinsville came here and she did great things and I probably could do the same thing.' It's a role model thing that I want to leave behind."
Berry is undersized by Division I collegiate standards. She routinely goes against post players who stand 6-foot-4 or taller.
She also isn't blessed with a great vertical jump or quick-twitch reflexes.
"According to the coaches here now and the past coaches, I have great hands and I am strong," Berry said. "I admit that. I do have an ample amount of strength. I think the refs catch that sometimes.
"I'm like, 'It doesn't count that I am stronger than them. It's not my fault if I go for a rebound and they end up on the floor.' Who wants the ball more? That's how I look at it."
Berry leads the Cougars in scoring with an average of 12.7 points per game. She's also second on the team in steals with 25 and she's shooting 45 percent from the field.
But, Berry's true forte is rebounding. She's averaging 8.9 rebounds per game, which ranks third in the Ohio Valley Conference.
"I really feel like she has that good basketball IQ, she uses her body very well," first-year SIUE coach Paula Buscher said. "She positions herself very well. So much of rebounding is the desire to continue to go after it and continue to get it. She doesn't give up on the ball. She goes and gets it."
Broken prom date
Berry scored over 1,000 points and set the career rebounding record at Collinsville High School, yet she drew little interest from Division I colleges.
The decision to skip Collinsville High's prom her junior year led to her coming to SIUE.
Berry said Todd Hill, the coach for the Southwestern Illinois Jets AAU team who now coaches the girls squad at Althoff High School, convinced her to go to a showcase tournament instead of the prom.
"My coach, Todd Hill was like, 'Come on Raven. You need to come. There are going to be lot of scouts there, and going into your senior year, you need some looks,"' Berry said.
Berry already had a dress and a date for the prom.
"Two weeks before prom, I had to tell him that I couldn't go," Berry said. "He was all right. He ended up going by himself, but he said he had a blast and he understood."
Former SIUE coach Amanda Levens was one of the coaches attending the tournament.
"It just so happened that is where Coach Levens saw me," Berry said. "It was like a blessing in disguise. And, I never thought about coming to SIUE.
"SIUE is two minutes down the road. I'm trying to go away, I don't want to be here. But, when I came on a visit, it felt like home, and still to this day, it's like a family here."
Strong family ties
Family comes first to Berry, so SIUE's close proximity to home turned out to be the perfect fit.
"I have a big family," said Berry, the daughter of Tracey and D'Rico Berry. "I am one of 13 -- with the 14th on the way -- grandkids. I am the oldest grandchild. My grandfather has 21 brothers and sisters, my grandma has 10 brothers and sisters and mom has six brothers and sisters.
"We're a big family. You kind of have to be nurturing because somebody is going to miss out on the motherly love somewhere because there are so many of us."
Berry has one sibling, a sister named Rikkail. The freshman is playing basketball and running track at Edwardsville High School.
"'Every time I think about something I am doing here, I think about my little sister," Berry said. "She always says that she doesn't want to live in my footsteps. She always says, 'Everybody knows me as Raven Berry's little sister.'
"But, at the same time, I want to her to be, 'Yeah, I look up to Raven, but I want to be better than her.' I want to set the bar high for my sister. I want her to want more for herself. Make a name for yourself."
Rikkail Berry is a 5-foot-3 guard
Making the transition
Berry's career has been marked by transition, the Cougars' transition from a Division II to Division I athletics as well as the transition from Levens to Buscher this season.
The Cougars were ineligible for postseason play during Berry's first two seasons.
"We were really just playing games to be playing games," Berry said. "I remember Coach Levens having to get us on the line and run us in practice because our focus was gone. Just because we knew we had nothing to play for. Last year, that kind of changed."
Last season, the Cougars went 18-12 overall and finished third in their first season of play in the OVC. They played in the Women's Basketball Invitational, the school's first NCAA Division I postseason event.
After the season, Berry got some shocking news.
First, assistant Laura Gonsalves left to take a position as an assistant at University of Illinois-Chicago. Then Levens left to become the associate head coach at her alma mater, Arizona State.
"Coach Gonsalves was a really good post coach, and I was wondering who Coach Levens was going to bring in," Berry said. "Then a couple weeks later, Coach Levens comes in and says, 'I'm leaving.' I'm like, 'No, this was not a part of the plan.' It hit me hard because I had grown to love them and we were all a family.
"No matter how much they got on my nerves and all the punishments and running and conditioning we had to do, we grew as a family."
Buscher, who had spent the previous 12 seasons coaching the Bradley Braves, was hired to replace Levens.
"As soon as I heard she got the job, I knew that I had to gain a personal relationship with her just so I can trust her and play the way I want to play," Berry said. "I came to her office probably every week just to say, 'Hi,' and talk for 10 minutes. I made sure we started off on the right foot."
Buscher said she knew about Berry as a player, but not as a person before arriving at SIUE.
"I played against her last year," Buscher said. "I knew she was a big, physical kid. A strong kid. I watched her on film a lot. I knew how much she'd improved."
Buscher quickly learned of a bonus aspect to Berry.
"Talk about the character piece," Buscher said. "She's a good kid, she does the right things. The bonus is that she is a good basketball player, too. She does the right things in the classroom, she does the right things in the community. She represents Collinsville very well and she represents us at SIUE very well."
Taking the next step
The Cougars are currently 8-9 overall and 2-3 in the OVC, but the next two months will define their season.
"This year, with the snowball effect, let's try to get to the conference championship, let's try to get to the NCAAs," Berry said. "Let's do something. I want for us to be the first at something this year."
After this season, Berry would like to continue her basketball career playing overseas for a professional women's team.
Berry, an exercise science major, has a Plan B if playing overseas doesn't materialize.
"If all else fails, I want to be a nurse practitioner," Berry said. "That's my fallback plan."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.