Brea Beal could not wait to be a Rock Island Rock growing up.
"Way back in the day, she painted her room red, black and gold," her father Kevin Beal said. "She's had this love for the city, for the area and the people. She always wanted to represent Rock Island."
In the last four years, the basketball standout has left her mark on Rock Island and the Quad-Cities.
She is the all-time leading scorer in Western Big Six history. She is the reigning two-time Illinois Gatorade player of the year and two-time Ms. Basketball. She is one of 24 girls selected as a McDonald's All-American.
There are 12 banners hanging in the small gym at Rock Island that she's had a direct hand in earning, with more on the way.
"She's just that kid that comes around once in a lifetime," Rock Island head coach Henry Hall said. "You're going to have that barbershop talk like you do with NBA players.
"You'll hear talk about who's the best player in Rock Island basketball history? She's got to be in that conversation."
The final chapter of Beal's run at Rock Island is here. The Rocks (26-1) open up Class 4A regional play Tuesday night at home.
After graduation, she'll head off to play at the University of South Carolina. The legacy she'll leave won't be forgotten.
"It's crazy all the accolades we've had throughout the years," Beal said. "Sometimes it's been tough, sometimes it's been the best moments of my life. But overall, it's just been great being surrounded by all these people, all these kids and all these coaches."
Worth the sacrifice
Beal remembers playing basketball at the YMCA when she was about five years old.
It wasn't love at first sight.
"At first it was weird, I didn’t really want to do anything," she said. "I wanted, like regular kids, to just go play with dolls."
But as time went by and her talent began to shine through, it was clear dolls weren't going to be in the picture.
Starting out with The Showtime, a local youth team, Beal started receiving recruiting letters when she was in sixth grade. Beal had scholarship offers before she attended high school.
The opportunity ahead of her didn't sink in until Beal was in eighth grade.
"I remember taking pictures and I had (20 to 30) college letters laid out on the floor and I was looking at them thinking, ‘OK, maybe this is something I should take seriously,’" she said. "In reality, this is your future. Seeing all that on the floor in front of me, I was like, ‘OK, let’s start cracking down on this now.’”
Beal and her dad started scheduling routine trips to the gym for workouts, many times twice a day.
That meant waking up for a workout at 6 a.m., and then hitting the gym again after school. Kevin has lost track of the miles he's put on his car driving Brea around the country for tournaments and practices over the years.
At times, it took a toll. Beal credits her father — who played Division I basketball at the University of Texas at El Paso — for making it clear what she was in for from the outset.
"He’s been through it all, he’s played college basketball, he’s played high school basketball and he started young with me," Beal said. "That’s just how we started, he got it into my head, you’re going to have to sacrifice something if you really want this, and he really sat me down and asked me if this is what I wanted, and I said yes.
"So I sacrificed going outside and playing with a lot of kids. I was mad at some points, but when I look back at it, it was all worth it because that’s four years of free school that I earned for myself."
Kevin often has been at the forefront of Beal's development, but she praises her mother, Nicole, for providing support through some of the rough patches.
"My mom is the one behind the curtains. She makes sure everybody is straight," Beal said. "Coming home after a rough game, she’s that mental person. You want to talk to her about all that stuff. My dad is more of that hands-on, points you in the right direction kind of person. They both have different characteristics."
In eighth grade, Beal joined the Midwest Elite, an AAU team in the D1 Circuit Nike Elite Youth Basketball League. She started off playing with the sophomore team. She was on the varsity team by her freshman year.
That quick progression is rare.
Gabbi Ortiz, a former star at the University of Oklahoma, and Jewell Loyd — who was the espnW national college basketball player of the year in 2015 with Notre Dame — have made that early jump with the Elite.
Coach Ralph Gesualdo knew he had a similar talent in Beal.
"It didn’t take a lot to realize she was going to be pretty special," Gesualdo said. "She wanted to be challenged, so whoever the best player on the other team was, that’s who Brea wanted to guard. It didn’t make a difference if that player was a point guard, an off guard, a power forward, a center, it made no difference."
Beal's physicality was the first thing to make an impression on Gesualdo. As the years passed, she continued to add to her game.
She became stronger defensively and was more than just a physical presence on offense. She began watching film and more of the college game, looking for things she could add to her skill set.
The biggest jump came between her sophomore and junior year. Beal developed a consistent outside shot thanks to a routine of an estimated 1,000 attempts per day.
"She became prolific from the 3-point line, and there’s nowhere on the court that Brea wasn’t comfortable shooting the ball, which really took her to the next level in my mind," Gesualdo said. "She quickly learned that they couldn’t stop her from getting to the rim if they had to come out to guard her, so she knew she had to develop an outside shot. And when she did, she became unstoppable."
Loyd was the first overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft and helped lead the Seattle Storm to a championship this past season. Gesualdo thinks the sky is similarly the limit for Beal.
"I believe that if Brea wants to, she’ll play at the WNBA and she’ll be an impact player at that level as well," Gesualdo said. "She’s got that edge and the real great players do. They have an edge about them where they will themselves to win games, they’ll take over a game. She’s got all the intangibles. Physically she’s gifted, mentally she’s extremely tough and she’s willing to put the work in.
"That’s a tough combination to stop."
Leading the Rocks
Before she stepped foot in Rock Island High School, people knew Brea Beal.
The news of the already highly touted 6-foot-1 player joining a program that had won four straight Western Big Six titles was hard to miss.
Beal scored 12 points in her varsity debut, a game against an Annawan team that featured two Division I talents in Morgan and Jayde VanHyfte.
Five games later, Beal made her Western Big Six debut against Moline.
"I was shaking," Beal said. "It was so nerve-wracking."
She made a big statement in that game with 22 points.
"She made an impact on our conference, on our league from day one," Hall said. "First game, she made an impact, and she continues to do that."
Four years later, Beal wrapped up her regular season with another dominant performance. She tallied 26 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, had nine assists and eight blocks in a win over United Township.
It sealed a 40-0 career in the Western Big Six, a feat never accomplished.
Despite being the focus of defenses in most of those 40 games, Beal averaged 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds in conference play. She helped the Rocks extend their streak of conference titles to eight straight.
Beal enters her final postseason averaging 21 points per game, is 110-14 and has never lost on her home court.
Even though she can take games over, she's made a point to get her teammates involved. Hall said that gets lost in the shuffle.
"She could probably get 50 points a game if she wanted to, but she's probably the most unselfish 2,500-point scorer I've ever seen in my life," Hall said. "She understood that for us to be good, it was going to take all of us."
Of all the achievements and awards, the one that stands out the most to Beal is when she was named a McDonald's All-American on Jan. 24. She'll head down to Atlanta to play in the game on March 27.
The honor is still sinking in.
"After all the years of high school, there's somebody out there watching me and understands how hard I've worked and sees how good I am, to put me with the other 23 top athletes in the country," Beal said. "After I heard my name on the McDonald's (selection show), I felt like all the pressure was off me. I don't really have to prove anything to anybody, I'm just playing for myself, my team and my community."
The awards might not stop coming.
If Beal wins another Ms. Basketball, she would join two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker as the only players from Illinois to win the award three times.
Beal hopes her career can spur another generation of players to strive to match her achievements, and surpass them.
"Talking with my parents, I told them it's amazing to be in this position, to work to get to this position, but I want to make girls who come behind me have to work to get to here, too," Beal said. "I want somebody down the line to be able to say they beat the records I set."
'We got a steal in Brea'
Dawn Staley always was aware of Beal, having followed the early part of her AAU career.
The South Carolina head coach, however, really became interested in Beal about two years ago.
Assistant coach Jollette Law had been heavily recruiting Beal when she was at the University of Tennessee. When Law joined the Gamecocks in 2017, she made it a point to ensure Beal's skill set didn't go unnoticed in Columbia.
"Every time I saw her play, she wasn’t really playing in her position," Staley said. "She was always playing the four for her AAU team, and I didn’t really see her do a whole lot.
"Then as I kept watching and watching and watching, even when she played on her AAU team, when they slotted her in her natural position, which is the perimeter — I think she’s a prototype 3 player — I just saw her being able to score on three levels."
Staley, one of the most decorated players in United States women's basketball history, is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and was a two-time national player of the year while at Virginia. She finished her college career as the only player in Atlantic Coast Conference history with more than 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 700 assists and 400 steals.
Staley played eight seasons in the WNBA and won Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Since becoming head coach of South Carolina, she's led the Gamecocks to four SEC regular-season and four SEC tournament titles and the 2017 NCAA National Championship. She's also currently the head coach of the USA national team.
In Beal, Staley saw someone who could do damage on the court in multiple ways.
"She can hit the 3, she’s got great mid-range, and her ability to get to the basket and draw fouls is uncanny," Staley said. "That’s the one thing I’m really looking forward to working with her on is her ability to draw contact and get to the free throw line, because that’s an art."
The recruiting process was somewhat of a chore for Beal.
As time went on and the hype grew, Beal eventually had offers from nearly every Big Ten school along with national powers like Louisville, Tennessee and the Gamecocks.
By August of last year, Beal had the process narrowed down to five schools — Duke, Illinois, Louisville, Michigan and South Carolina.
She kept coming back to the opportunity to learn from Staley, and committed to the Gamecocks on Nov. 8, her birthday.
"After I committed, I could relax," Beal said. "I found my home, I knew where I was going to go. Let's get that out of the way and just play basketball. This year is so much fun, just laughing on the court, there's extra worries you don't have to worry about anymore ... you can just go home and enjoy the night."
Beal's commitment added to an already stellar recruiting class for the Gamecocks. South Carolina has the top-ranked recruiting class according to espnW HoopGurlz, with national evaluator Dan Olson saying it could be considered among the best of all time.
A lot of that is due to Beal, who is ranked 13th in the country.
South Carolina also has the Nos. 3, 7 and 10th ranked recruits, but Staley believes Beal could be the key part of the class. She plans for Beal to play on the wing and expects her to be ready to contribute immediately.
"They have her as the 13th-ranked player in the class, and I think that's somewhat underrated," Staley said. "She values herself and she bets on herself, and that's what I love about her.
"We got a steal in Brea."
Beal already has the endorsement of a former teammate who has quickly excelled at the next level.
Chrislyn Carr and Beal formed a potent 1-2 punch at Rock Island for two seasons. Carr is now shining for Texas Tech, leading the Red Raiders and standing second in the Big 12 in scoring as a freshman.
Though she's finding her own way this season, Carr thinks Beal could instantly succeed once she reaches South Carolina.
"Even at this level, you don't see a lot of players who can do everything the way that Brea does," Carr said. "She does so many things so well, and that is only going to help her when she gets to college."
The last banner
For all the accolades, the stats and the banners that Beal has compiled in her four years at Rock Island, there's still one thing that eludes her — a berth in the state tournament.
In each of her first three seasons, the Rocks' season came to a bitter end against Edwardsville in the sectional championship.
"It does hurt, in a way. That's the last game, you're done, there's no rematch," Beal said. "I think, after those moments, you just take it and learn from it. You can't really do anything about it.
"After those games happened, you're going to be sick a little bit, but after a week or two, you ask 'What could I have done better, what could we have done better as a team?'"
Once again, the Rocks could be poised for a showdown with the Tigers, a potential sectional title game on Feb. 21 in Normal.
If Beal can get the Rocks past Edwardsville, through the super-sectional and to the state tournament, it would be the perfect way to cap her high-school career.
"That would mean a lot to me, just to be able to, in a sense, take this team down to state," Beal said. "Do something nobody thinks could happen. That would mean a lot to me, the people in this school, to do something that hasn't really been done. That would be amazing."
'This is always home'
Beal has been under the spotlight throughout high school, nationally recruited and the focus of every game since her freshman year.
She has over 25,000 followers on Instagram and 5,000 more on Twitter. She's had social media interactions with Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal and the musician Drake.
All of that can be overwhelming for a teenager who has never attended her own prom, but Beal has kept it all in perspective. She has donated shoes to the Rock Island Academy in the past and routinely takes time after games to pose with fans and sign autographs.
"She’s a great character young lady," Staley said. "When you have that combination of having a great player and a great person, success is just waiting for you to step in and embrace it."
One of Beal's role models growing up was former Rock Island star and current Washington Wizards guard Chasson Randle. He has made it a priority to give back to the community that raised him, and Beal wants to do the same no matter where she ends up.
"I want people to look past the basketball stuff, to what type of person I was," Beal said. "I want to be more of a giving and reaching out type of person instead of, 'Yeah, I can put the ball in the basket,' but what can I do for the people who look up to me?"
For the kid who painted her room red, black and gold all those years ago, that's still what matters most.
"No matter where you go, this is always home," she said. "This is always where you come back to."