Henefer • Walk into North Summit High School and the first person you bump into is the music teacher.
“Oh, you’re doing a story on Kennady?” he asks, his face lighting up. “Taught her in middle school, played the drums. She’s intense.”
A couple of feet later, you walk past the administrative assistant, Shelly Moore.
“I have a Kennady story, too,” she offers unprompted. “When she was a two-week-old baby I had to give her a PKU shot. She held her breath and passed out. Only baby to ever do that. Now look at her.”
And then you finally weave into the principal’s office, where Devin Smith is eagerly waiting with a small anthology of Kennady McQueen stories. But before he begins, he prefaces his comments with this.
“There is a buzz in this town right now, and that is because of her,” Smith says. “To know Utah is a No. 2 seed, and one of [its] best players is from North Summit — that is unicorn stuff. We know her.”
If you have watched any of Utah women’s basketball this year, you know McQueen is the smooth-shooting guard who comes up with the big shots in the big moments. It has earned her the nickname “Lightning McQueen” among the fan base. She had seven points against Gardner-Webb on Friday and helped Utah advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades with a win over Princeton on Sunday.
But around here, there is a different sort of pride. She is the player from Henefer, a town that covers less than a square mile and has a population of 853. Everyone saw her grow up. And for her to be the lone Utah native to start on Utah’s best team? From Henefer?
“She is one of us,” Smith says, shaking his head. “For her to be from here and on that stage. Just doesn’t happen where we are from.”
Back in high school, when McQueen was being recruited by Utah, Utes head coach Lynne Roberts came to Henefer for an in-home visit. McQueen had the option to do the traditional stuff: nice dinner, talk with the family and give the pitch.
Instead, McQueen fired up two four-wheelers and took Roberts around the town. They went up to the mountain and saw where high schoolers hit golf balls into the abyss.
They cruised down the main street, and everyone was waving at McQueen.
“She asked, is that normal for them to all be waving?” McQueen said. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, everyone knows each other.”
Then they came back inside and ate fried chicken sandwiches and fries from Larry’s Spring Inn — a staple in the community.
“We wanted Lynne to see who Kennady really is,” Melanee McQueen, McQueen’s mother, said.
And McQueen is Henefer, born and raised. Just like her mom was, just like her dad was. Just like her grandparents, who live a block away.
A quick primer about Henefer, it really only has two claims to athletic fame: Doug Toole, a former NFL referee who officiated John Elway’s final game in ‘98 and Ray Lewis’ first Super Bowl in ‘01; and Brant Boyer, a former NFL player who now coaches special teams for the New York Jets.
Other than that, it mostly is just a sleepy town, by McQueen’s estimation. Smith joked that usually the biggest thing that happens is Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley comes around once a year and asks if they have any football players.
“And we say no,” Smith laughed.
But McQueen changed all of that. When she was in high school, over 1,000 people would pack into a 100-year-old gym two nights a week to watch her drop 20 a game. The front row would be littered with coaches. Gonzaga’s staff would be there. Then Texas Tech, BYU, Hawaii and the rest of the calvary.
They would even come to volleyball games, where McQueen was a four-year starter and won three state titles.
“It was a spectacle, something we had never seen before,” Smith said. “I remember the Gonzaga athletic director calling me one day and saying, ‘We really want Kennady.’ I came out of the office like, I’m the athletic director at North Summit. It was special.”
And McQueen rode that special wave to becoming the Utah Gatorade Player of the Year in 2020, taking her team to the state title game along the way.
When it was time to make her decision about college, it was between Utah and Gonzaga. But really it wasn’t much of a choice. A chance to represent her hometown in her home state, 50 minutes from Henefer. After all, Utah is where her mom played basketball, too.
“It was always Utah,” McQueen said. “I wanted to do something that’s never been done. … People might go their whole life without saying North Summit. Now they are talking about it.”
Ask McQueen about Henefer and her whole demeanor changes.
“I’m just thankful to be representing Henefer,” McQueen starts. “I love where I’m from. The people I grew up with, I went to preschool with and graduated with. Like my friend’s parents were my second parents. Everyone’s just super close and always at each other’s houses. And I just think that’s a super cool benefit, having this deeper understanding of each other. I’m the girl from the little town.”
All of a sudden the memories come rushing back. She remembers catching the bus in elementary school up to the high school to watch varsity basketball practice, where her mom helped coach for 20 years. She’d try to run the wind sprints with them, but couldn’t keep up.
She remembers the softball league for her older sister, where she would run the base paths between innings hoping to get her shot. She remembers the off-the-field moments, too.
Her favorite restaurant comes up. Her time caring for sheep at her grandfather’s house is a topic of conversation. She actually wanted to be a veterinarian growing up before she settled on studying kinesiology.
McQueen remembers it all, and everyone else does, too.
“We all saw her during halftimes of varsity games shooting baskets when she could barely shoot,” Smith said. “She was all business. Everyone watched her kind of grow into who she is today.”
This is why, when they see her now, this all feels so crazy. She was a normal Henefer kid, now fans come to games holding signs that say “Lightning McQueen” as a homage to her last name and her fast-paced style of play. She is averaging just under 10 points a game on a top-10 team in the country.
And the whole town is loving it. During Utah’s game against Oklahoma game earlier in the year, Henefer bused 400 people down to the Huntsman Center. Young girls went up to her and called her their hero as she signed a toy of the Pixar character Lighting McQueen. They said they would come to the new camp, KM24, she puts on every summer.
“Even boys came up to me and told me that,” McQueen said. “They have to act cool and stuff, because a girl can’t be their hero. It is cool to show that people from our town can do it.”
Before games, McQueen picks out people from Henefer in the crowd. Sometimes she is surprised by who comes out. They aren’t basketball fans, just there to support. McQueen knows they all share in the moment when the lineups are announced.
McQueen goes second every time.
“A 5-10 guard from Henefer, Utah,” the PA announcer screams. “Kennady McQueen.”
For her, for this town, on this stage, it means the world.