One of the wonderful things about sports is that nobody’s crystal ball is 100 percent accurate.
Trying to predict the future, especially when it comes to high school sports, is a fool’s game.
For instance, if you had asked Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams after last season to name who he thought would be his best player this year, he would not have said Niki Lazar.
But Lazar, a 5-6 senior guard, enjoyed a breakout season, becoming the unquestioned leader on one of the best teams in school history. The Wildcats went 28-6, winning the third-most games in program history and their first sectional title since 2002.
“I didn’t expect it but I’ll take it,” Williams said. “We had the same situation last year with Allison Hedrick. When she was a junior she was behind some kids, didn’t make [waves].
“Now [last year] Niki Lazar was behind some other kids, and she’s stepped in. She’s done everything consistent. It’s not just one or two games.”
Lazar has been on the varsity since her freshman year, as have sisters Malia Smith and Najee Smith and Lauren Deveikis. The Wildcats compiled a 98-25 record in that span, though Lazar didn’t start until last year.
Even then, Lazar was just a role player. That changed in a big way this winter. Lazar averaged 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and two assists, leading the team in scoring and tying for the team lead in rebounding and steals. That earned her Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division Player of the Year honors.
For her efforts, Lazar is the Naperville Sun Player of the Year.
“I’m only a 5-6 girl and I don’t think a lot of people expected [her to do well] but I just worked hard,” Lazar said. “I owe a lot to my teammates. They just pushed me hard in practice and they made me look good.
“It’s all thanks to them and thanks to the hard work that I put in.”
That hard work transformed Lazar into a player who could outsmart much taller players for rebounds, find the seams in defenses with pinpoint passes and pickpocket unsuspecting opponents to fuel fast-break opportunities. She also became a reliable three-point threat.
While the Smith sisters drew more recruiting interest and sophomore guards Kai Moon and Myia Starks are flashier and faster, it was Lazar who was the driving force.
She scored a career-high 27 points in a 68-58 win over sectional finalist Trinity on Jan. 20, which Williams said was a turning point for the Wildcats, who won 16 straight games, including a 54-52 win over Oswego in the sectional title game in which Lazar led Neuqua with 13 points and helped make the game-winning defensive stop in the final seconds.
“I’m not surprised [by Lazar’s success] at all,” junior center Bryce Menendez said. “She’s a very hard worker and she gets in the gym, she works on her ballhandling, she works on her three-point shot. She’s awesome.”
Above all it was Lazar’s enthusiasm and competitive fire that endeared her to her teammates.
“She is definitely a role model on and off the court,” Menendez said. “We all feed off each other’s momentum and she definitely plays a huge part in supplying that momentum and she’s definitely a big part of our team.”
If Lazar were six inches taller, she would be fielding offers from Division I colleges. Instead, she is looking at Division III schools.
Lazar’s prep career ended with a 57-39 loss to state powerhouse Young in the Hinsdale Central Supersectional, but that didn’t take away from a memorable season.
“It’s been the best senior year I could ask for,” Lazar said.