Beavercreek (Dayton, Ohio) senior Mikaela Ruef always returns to Henley Hall.
On dark nights she drives down Space Drive to the small rectangular building on the outskirts of Beavercreek. With basketball in hand, Ruef gets out of her car and approaches the uninviting beige building with no windows and a peaked roof that makes it look like a barn. She walks up to the dimly lit entrance, pulls out the key her father gave her and unlocks the door.
Ruef then turns on the lights, revealing a mini basketball court. The tan, rubber floor squeaks as she walks across it. Chucking her car keys to the side, Ruef walks to the far hoop and puts up her first shot of the night. Swish.
This is Ruef's refuge. A place to perfect her jump shot in relative silence. Where the only noise is the ball hitting the net and then bouncing on the spongy floor.
Ruef knows this court well. She honed her skills on it from grades 2-6 while playing for the Beavercreek Stars with her dad, Mike, serving as coach. Deemed too tall to play with kids her age, Ruef competed against older kids and quickly realized basketball came naturally to her.
That hasn't changed. Ruef is now rated the nation's No. 16 recruit and state's No. 1 player in the ESNPU HoopGurlz 100.
"I was always one of the tallest kids, so everyone said, 'You need to play basketball,'" says Ruef. "I'm pretty competitive and I like competing against people. I was just always best at basketball."
A 6-foot-3 lefty, Ruef has developed into an all-around jaw-dropping center at the high school level, though she projects as a wing in college. She has soft touch around the hoop and an accurate jump shot from the outside. Her ball-handling skills, which she developed while playing point guard for the Stars, are
exceptional, her passing is spot-on and her court awareness keeps opposing defenses off balance.
"She's been a polished player since she was in middle school," says Beavercreek coach Ed Zink. "I've been in this for 33 years and I've never seen someone her size do some of the things she does. The sky is the limit for her, especially if she comes out and works as hard as she can."
That was the one criticism Zink had of Ruef -- she didn't always work her hardest. Ruef is so naturally talented she can often
dominate smaller high school players with just a halfhearted effort. And that's exactly what she did from time to time.
But Zink has noticed an improvement in Ruef's work ethic the past few years and is quick to point out that she led the way in
offseason workouts this past summer.
"She's grown up and she's working harder," the coach says. "She's always been a good player, but she could be even better."
To increase her stamina and improve her work habits -- even Ruef readily admits that was her biggest flaw -- she starting running for the Beavercreek cross country team as a junior and immediately recognized the impact.
When basketball season arrived last year, her body was trimmer and her legs more powerful than ever before. Running up and down the court didn't seem nearly as difficult after running up and down dirt hills. Plus, Ruef was fresher late in games, enabling her to continue banging in the paint for rebounds and points during crunch time.
"When I started running last year I thought I would hate it, but I wound up loving it," says Ruef. "It has really helped me."
Of course, the size that's made her a basketball recruiter's dream hinders her progress in cross country. And that's not the only place.
Blending in is impossible for the tallest girl in school. When she's introduced to new people, they're always quick to point out how tall she is -- as if Ruef doesn't know she's 6-3. And don't get her started on trying to buy jeans.
"I never can buy pants in regular stores -- I have to order them online," she says. "Sometimes it's good to be tall. Other times you stick out. But I'm happy I'm tall because it helps me in basketball."
That height helped Ruef average 12.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game as a junior, though she knows her height won't be nearly as big of an advantage when she moves onto college.
"It will be weird at first," she says. "It will be different, but I'm going to be able to adjust to it. It's going to be a lot harder than high school, so I'm kind of nervous."
Ruef will also be heading across the country for college, committing to Stanford earlier this fall. And with that decision out of the way, she'll now be able to focus on one thing this winter -- leading Beavercreek to the next level of the state tournament.
In each of Ruef's first three years, the Beavers failed to move beyond the district finals. Beavercreek entered last year's district final with a 22-1 record before losing to Oak Hills. The Beavers graduated a lot of talent from that team, meaning more weight than ever will be put on Ruef's shoulders this season to help Beavercreek finally clear that hurdle.
"I don't necessarily feel the pressure," she says. "Obviously I want to get us past that. I just need to keep working hard."
With a developed work ethic and lofty postseason aspirations pushing Ruef, trips to Henley Hall are more frequent than ever these days. If a workout or practice doesn't go well, she always heads to her sanctuary and takes a few jump shots.
When she's done, she turns off the lights, locks the door and walks back toward her car. When she looks back, the faded beige building doesn't look nearly as dark.
It looks like her second home.
Brian A. Giuffra covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.