CICERO, N.Y. -- Since her early teens, Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.) basketball prodigy Breanna Stewart seemed destined for greatness.
Thursday, the 6-foot-4 senior picked up some hardware to validate the hypotheses when reigning WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings ambushed a stunned Stewart in the school library to present her with the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year trophy.
"Her face was fantastic," said Catchings, a 10-year veteran of the WNBA and a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist. "I really think she thought she was in trouble for something. She kept looking at me like, 'Do I have something on my face?' It was great. You can tell she understands what an honor this is."
An electric, baseline-to-baseline playmaker, Stewart has led the Northstars to a 19-3 record, the Section 3 Class AA championship and a berth in the Class AA state tournament semifinals against Ossining (N.Y.) on Friday. The state's returning Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year, Stewart is averaging 25.7 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 3.2 assists and 3.2 steals entering the class postseason final four.
"Let's just say I was not expecting that," Stewart said after accepting the trophy from Catchings. "Oh my gosh, I saw my parents come in the door with Tamika and I thought I was in trouble or something. I was not ready for that to happen."
Stewart was the leading scorer and rebounder for the USA Basketball Women's U19 National Team that won the 2011 FIBA World Championships last summer and has been selected to participate in both the McDonald's All-American Game and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-America Game this spring.
New York's Section 3 career leader for points scored (2,000-plus and counting), she is rated as the nation's No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2012 in the HoopGurlz ESPNU 100. She has signed a national letter of intent to play basketball on an athletic scholarship at Connecticut this fall.
A seven-time WNBA All-Star, Catchings earned Rookie of the Year honors upon entering the league in 2002 and won the MVP last year. The 32-year-old forward has twice earned gold medals as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team (2004, 2008) and is the only four-time Defensive Player of the Year in WNBA history.
Catchings is president of the WNBA Players Association and, in 2008, became the first recipient of the WNBA's Dawn Staley Leadership Award, presented to the player who best exemplifies the characteristics of a leader in the community. As a senior at Duncanville (Duncanville, Texas) in 1997-98, she earned Gatorade Texas Girls Basketball Player of the Year honors.
"The last college prospect we've seen with her balance and wingspan, and ability to impact the game at either end, in a variety of ways, was Maya Moore," said Glenn Nelson, founder of ESPN HoopGurlz. "Stewart really has a chance to be the next great player at Connecticut. Considering her history-making international experience, she has had an unprecedented high school career.
"And on top of everything, she is as humble and unassuming as they come, rare qualities in what can be a look-at-me generation stoked by social media and the instant adulation that comes in sports."
Stewart is now a finalist for the prestigious Gatorade Female High School Athlete of the Year award, to be presented at a special ceremony prior to The ESPY Awards in July. She has maintained an A average in the classroom and has volunteered locally on behalf of Ronald McDonald House charities, the March of Dimes, the Special Olympics, the Salvation Army, youth basketball programs and a literacy/outreach initiative.
Stewart, who turns 18 in August, is the third New Yorker to earn Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year recognition in the award's 27-year history, joining 1998-99 winner Nicole Kaczmarski of Sachem North (Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y.) and 2005-06 winner Tina Charles of Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.).
Stewart is the fourth Gatorade national POY in the last seven years -- and one of a record six in the award program's history -- to sign a letter of intent with the UConn women's basketball program. ESPNHS manages the award's selection process.
Gatorade National Player of the Year alumni from the realm of the pro gram include Minnesota Lynx forward Moore (2005-06), two-time winner Candace Parker (2002-04) of the Los Angeles Sparks, Seattle Storm guard Katie Smith (1991-92), ESPN analyst Abby Waner (2004-05) and Charles of the Connecticut Sun.
Stewart is the ninth New York native to capture Gatorade national honors in any of the award program's 12 sports. Former Archbishop Molloy (New York City) star Kenny Anderson became the first winner from New York in 1988-89. Most recently, Cornwall (Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y.) alumnae and Stanford freshman Aisling Cuffe won National Cross Country Runner of the Year honors in 2010-11.
Only five states (California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Indiana) have produced more Gatorade national winners than The Empire State.
Want to know who won Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year in your state? Click here. Visit the ESPNHS Player of the Year blog and be the first to know who wins 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year hardware in seven other sports by following the ESPNHS team that manages the award program's selection process.