Tyra Buss is superstitious, which shouldn't surprise anyone associated with a basketball player who has scored more than 3,000 points and is destined to become the most prolific scorer in state history. But the 5-foot-7 junior point guard from Downstate Mount Carmel takes superstitions to a whole new level.
She wolfs down a Subway sandwich before every game. She used to favor turkey, but switched to ham after someone suggested that turkey might make her tired.
On the night before each game, she favors macaroni and cheese. She likes pizza but removes the toppings.
She always takes the last lay-up before her team goes to the locker room after pre-game warm-ups.
After each game, she and her brother Kyle share a special handshake.
And she doesn't play one-on-one with boyfriend Levi Laws, a sophomore starter on the boys basketball team, because each is so competitive that they'd get mad if one lost to the other.
She has other superstitions, her mother willingly confirms, but they are too numerous to mention. Except the biggest one of all.
"After every practice, before I go home, I have a routine before I leave the gym," Tyra said. "I make a half-court shot, then a shot from the volleyball line, then a three-point shot, then a free throw, then a eight-foot jump shot, then a left and right-handed lay-up, then a reverse left and right-handed lay-up, then an alley-oop."
She said she usually converts from half-court after no more than two or three misses.
It works for her. Coupled with an intense and uncompromising work ethic and desire to excel in the classroom and in basketball, Buss is an extraordinary student/athlete who is writing her own chapter in the Illinois High School Association's record book.
The 16-year-old is a three-time unanimous Class 3A All-State selection.
She scored 1,025 points as a freshman, 1,121 as a sophomore and a national best of 1,285 as a junior to rank 1-4-7 in state history. Last season, she was the No. 3 scorer in the nation, leading Mount Carmel to a 32-1 record and the sectional final by averaging 38.9 points per game.
She has scored 3,441 points in her career and likely will surpass Brittany Johnson of Olney as the state's all-time leading scorer. Johnson scored 4,031 points from 2003-07. Charles "Chico" Vaughn of Tamms set the boys all-time record of 3,358 from 1955-58.
"She is a modern-day female version of (former Lawrenceville star) Jay Shidler," said sportswriter Gordon Engelhardt of the Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press, who grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, and saw Shidler play in the mid-1970s.
[Related: Tyra Buss is Mount Carmel's best since Archie Dees]
"Her numbers are staggering. If she is open when she comes across mid-court, she can take a shot. But she also is very good at driving to the basket and she is automatic at the free throw line."
But she is more than a basketball player. She ranks No. 1 in a class of 148 with a 5.0 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale. She also competes in tennis and cross-country in the fall and runs the 400, 800, high and low hurdles and relays on her mother's track and field team in the spring.
As a member of coach Phil Kessler's Indiana Elite Swish AAU program based in Evansville, Indiana, she competes against some of the best players and teams in the nation. Last summer, she was named to all-star teams at the Adidas All-America camp, Music City Madness, Adidas Memorial Day Showdown and University of Louisville Cardinal Classic. In the last two years, her team was 58-5 and won seven tournament championships.
Last November, before her junior season began, she ended her recruiting process by committing to Indiana. She has been recruited by more than 100 Division I colleges, including Tennessee and Notre Dame. She will join AAU teammate Maura Muensterman, who led Evansville's Mater Dei to back-to-back state titles as a sophomore and junior, at Indiana.
And this spring, for the first time, she will go to the prom.
It is hard to imagine anyone who is more competitive.
"Basketball has always been her passion," said her father, Tim Buss, who also is superintendent of schools in Wabash Community Unit School District No. 348. "But she is as competitive in the classroom as she is on the basketball court or tennis court. She knows how important an education is. There is more pressure on her because her mother and father were teachers and her older brothers are, too. She wants to do well in everything she does."
Scott Mees, a sportswriter for the Southern Illinoisan newspaper in Carbondale, is a huge fan. He personally covered six games last season and watched about a dozen others on video.
"She is that much fun to watch," Mees said. "She is an incredible player, very unique. Normally, we don't have players of that caliber in our area.
"She is one of the sweetest people off the court. But when she steps on the court, she flips a switch. Then she is a stone cold assassin on the court.
"You hear people talk about how Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and their desire to win, how they are willing to do anything to be better. She is like that."
Buss, who more closely resembles a Barbie Doll, doesn't back down from that assessment. "I hate to lose. I want to win. I do whatever I can to win. I've got a lot of competitiveness in me. My grandmother sends me an inspirational text. She always says: 'Get in a beast mode.' That's the way I play," she said.
"The most exciting thing is to see her dribble the ball, her slick moves," Mees said. "She likes to get a lot of steals, about six per game, then drive and shoot with her left hand for a lay-up."
Tyra never takes a day off. Even on family vacations in Florida, she runs on the beach or wherever she can find a track. Every day, she engages in some kind of workout. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she lifts weights and runs sprints or long distance, two or three miles a day. On Tuesday and Thursday, she works out in strength shoes to strengthen her calves and vertical jump. Every day, she shoots hoops and does ball-handling drills. Kyle often plays one-on-one with her.
"I know my hard work is paying off," she said. "Ever since I was little, I loved playing basketball. I wanted to play with my brothers. I always played with boys. The girls weren't good enough. The boys were better and I wanted to be better. They roughed me up but they respected me. They'd get mad if I stole the ball."
In fifth grade, when she started on the sixth grade team, and in seventh grade, when she started on the eighth grade team, she began to think she could be "pretty good" in basketball. She played against boys at the YMCA. Then, after her AAU season in the summer before her freshman year, she began to attract the attention of college coaches.
"I got excited. It meant I could keep playing (beyond high school) and my hard work was paying off," she said. "I have good time management skills. My mother is well organized. She helps me manage my time. I don't get much sleep. There are a lot of late nights, never a day off from sports. But I enjoy that. I don't want to take days off."
Tim Willis, in his ninth year as Mount Carmel's girls basketball coach, has watched Tyra play since she was in fifth grade. "She got a reputation at the YMCA, on all the teams she played on. You knew right away that she was the best player in her class. Her skill level was much higher than anyone else," he said.
"Her competitive nature is unbelievable. When the game starts, she is all business. Most kids look around to see what is going on. But she is locked in. I haven't seen anyone on the female side who has ball-handling skills that she has."
She doesn't pay attention to her website, TyraBuss.com, which was established by family friend Kevin Williams, or her ever-mounting scoring records. Her goals are team goals, specifically to beat Teutopolis in the sectional. In each of the last three years, Teutopolis has eliminated Mount Carmel in the sectional tournament, twice in the championship game.
The last time was Feb. 14. Teutopolis won 57-34 in the sectional final, snapping Mount Carmel's 32-game unbeaten streak. Tyra was limited to 20 points, her season low. But she played the game with an injured shoulder that few people outside of Mount Carmel were aware of.
"In the first game of the sectional against Sullivan, I was going for a loose ball before halftime and reached too far and my shoulder popped out. It hurt so bad. But it popped back in," said Tyra, who finished with 48 points.
"In the sectional final, I felt pain. But I was going to play. It was a very disappointing finish. Our goal was to get to state. I felt this would be our year. It was a dream season. It was the first time a boys or girls team had gone unbeaten in the regular season.
"But we fell apart against Teutopolis. They played a box-and-one against me. I couldn't make anything that night. So I'll just try to work harder as a senior and try to make it to state. I don't talk about negative things. I like to stay positive."
According to her father, she gets her good looks and speed from her mother and her athletic ability from him.
Tim Buss recalls, at age 3 and 4, Tyra could handle a basketball and played in the parks and gyms with her older brothers. She always played baseball, never softball. In Little League, she played shortstop and was the only girl selected to the all-star team every year.
"One thing the community doesn't have to say is she is playing because her father is superintendent of schools," he said. "She is good because of how hard she works."
Nobody can argue with that.