Libertyville guard Emily Fisher got the ball in the corner near her basket, looked up and fired a baseball pass nearly the length of the court.
Teammate Sophia Swanson caught the ball in stride and sank a layup, all in one motion.
The play elicited oohs from some spectators stunned by the sheer audacity and execution.
It was akin to a quarterback finding a receiver on a back-shoulder throw for a long touchdown pass.
Libertyville coach Greg Pedersen applauded the rare play but wasn’t surprised by it. He has seen them before, although not until Fisher’s arrival. Baseball passes are rarely attempted, especially in high school, let alone pulled off so perfectly.
“We’ve seen it for four years now,” Pedersen said. “She’s of course getting older and stronger, but even as a freshman she could throw a 40-foot pass on a dime.
“When she was a freshman, she would throw a 40-foot bounce pass through traffic, and a kid would catch it in stride and score a layup. So she can do all of that.”
Then Pedersen brings up one of the most famous plays in college basketball history.
“If we ever need a Christian Laettner type of play, she’s not catching it,” Pedersen said. “She’s throwing it.”
The Maryland-bound Fisher can do just about anything on a basketball court. But the 6-foot senior said she thinks passing could be her best trait and is one of the things she enjoys most.
“I feel like finding my teammates, on the run especially, is one of my stronger points,” Fisher said. “My favorite play would be assists, like getting those long passes or the super cool no-looks.”
If pulling off plays that few people have seen is cool, then Fisher is the high school basketball version of Fonzie, minus the motorcycle and leather jacket. When she’s in the lineup, every day is a happy day for the Wildcats.
Junior guard Kate Rule is in her third season playing with Fisher. She, too, has never seen a baseball pass work like Fisher’s did in the Wildcats’ 61-37 victory against Cary-Grove on Dec. 19.
“No, absolutely not,” Rule said. “It’s really one of a kind. She can do everything. She makes amazing passes. I think that’s one of her biggest strengths. She sees the floor so well. She’s able to make passes from 90 feet and little bounce passes.”
Fisher has always been proficient at passing, although at first she used her feet to do it. Basketball was not always Fisher’s favorite sport or the one she thought would take her the furthest.
“I started out with soccer when I was very little, so I thought I was going to be doing that all through high school and college,” she said. “That was my dream, to be on the national team.”
That was a lofty goal but not an unrealistic one. Fisher was a regular at Olympic Development Program camps and made the ODP regional team.
In 2018, Fisher won the Golden Ball award as the best player at the US Youth Soccer national championships. Two years later, her club team again qualified for nationals, but the tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Something shifted in Fisher’s mind.
“After COVID, it became more clear that I just wanted to stick with basketball,” she said. “I started bringing in offers for basketball the summer after eighth grade. Being able to go and see these schools, it was a whole different thing, and it just changed my perspective about what opportunities I could have by choosing basketball over soccer.
“My love for it grew more. I just enjoy practice more, and the games, and the environment is great here.”
Fisher actually credits her club soccer coach, Chris Kipley, with sparking her interest in basketball.
“I originally never wanted to do basketball, didn’t know anything about it,” Fisher said. “Then in third grade, I was on a soccer team with his daughter. He started this basketball team. He said, ‘You could come join. You’re athletic. Why not?’”
Kipley, whose daughter Kora is a senior at Buffalo Grove and has committed to play soccer at Western Kentucky, founded the Wolverinas AAU basketball team in 2014.
“He put a little team together out in Arlington Heights,” Fisher said. “He put all this time and energy into it. He wasn’t getting paid for it, just did it for fun and for us, and we’ve been together ever since. Now AAU is actually over, which is sad, because we’re going off to college.”
Fisher was part of a powerhouse team that included Hersey senior Katy Eidle, Barrington senior Sophie Swanson, St. Viator alum Joy Bergstrom and Bergstrom’s sister Mia. Eidle, a Michigan recruit, and Swanson, a Purdue recruit, will be joining Fisher in the Big Ten next season. Joy Bergstrom is a freshman at South Dakota, and Mia Bergstrom, a St. Viator junior, has committed to Saint Louis.
Fisher said she gets her athleticism from her parents, Jeramy and Renee, who excelled in sports in Iowa. Jeramy Fisher played football at Drake, and Renee Fisher played multiple sports in high school.
But Emily Fisher’s basketball prowess, particularly her versatility, is a result of playing for the Wolverinas. She can play all five positions, changing seamlessly between each as the situation dictates.
“I consider myself a point guard/strong forward, but I’ll go anywhere on the court that my coach needs,” Fisher said. “I feel comfortable at every position.”
Why is that?
“It was definitely the way I was coached on AAU,” she said. “Growing up, it was like positionless basketball. So being able to try every position, being forced into every position there is, you kind of get used to everything and adapt. It’s just grown with me.”
Fisher’s talents have grown with each passing year, and the Wildcats have grown with her.
The fourth-year starter averaged 9.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals as a freshman, when she was a support player for a team that went 27-5.
Libertyville, which has won 70% of its games since the program’s inception in 1974, hasn’t been to the state finals since the 1984-85 season. Fisher believes the Wildcats could have qualified during her sophomore year, when she averaged 15.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.0 blocks as the team went 16-2. But that season was truncated due to the pandemic, and no state tournament was held.
Fisher committed to Maryland before her junior season, during which she led the Wildcats in all statistical categories, averaging 14.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.2 blocks. She also deflected 65 passes.
But the Wildcats, who finished 23-11, lost to eventual state champion Stevenson 42-30 in a Class 4A sectional semifinal. That has fueled the fire for Fisher, who is their unquestioned leader and only senior starter this season.
“I’m always going to hope for (going to state),” Fisher said. “My sophomore year when COVID hit was a solid team. This year, especially, we have possibilities, as long as we keep playing the way we’ve been playing and getting better each day.”
The Wildcats (19-4) won 14 in a row in the middle of the season, and Fisher has been the linchpin right along. She’s averaging 14.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.7 steals while shooting 48.6% overall. She hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer against defending 4A state champion Stevenson on Jan. 13.
“She takes everything up a notch,” Rule said. “She’s super athletic. She runs the court really well and uses her body really well, especially finishing, and she plays really tough defense.
“It just makes it that much more fun to be able to play with her, being able to give her passes, get passes from her. We just feed off the energy that she brings to us.”
Fisher is truly an outlier. She recently broke 2020 graduate Lydia Crow’s school career scoring record of 1,156 points and ranks second in program history with 202 steals, 14 short of 2021 graduate Lauren Huber’s mark. Fisher already is the program’s career leader in blocked shots with 119, an extraordinary feat for a guard, and ranks fifth in career assists with 293.
It’s hard to come up with a player to compare to Fisher, and she hasn’t molded her game based on anyone in particular.
“I’ve never really had one player I’ve tried to mirror,” she said. “I’ve always done whatever my team needs, and if I get compared to some people, then I get compared to some people.”
Fisher isn’t readily comparable to anyone else. She stands out, and not only in obvious ways like physical ability.
“She tries to get everybody involved,” Pedersen said. “She can try to score whenever she wants to, but she’s determined to get other kids their fair chances too. She’s always about making the extra pass or the extra 80-foot pass.”
Those efforts are appreciated by her teammates, as is her positive attitude.
“She really encourages us on the court,” Rule said. “If something goes wrong, she’s always, ‘Next play, you’ve got it.’ Building people up is one of her biggest strengths. She’s such a great leader, especially this year.”
In her first two seasons, Fisher played with some of Libertyville’s other all-time greats — like Huber, who plays at Holy Cross, and DePauw junior Margaret Buchert — and didn’t have to assume a vocal leadership role. She has embraced that responsibility and said communication is the key.
“It is about being able to have them come to you whenever (so) they don’t feel like they’re threatened or anything, giving and receiving constructive criticism,” Fisher said.
“It’s just like a talking point because if you don’t talk with your team on defense or offense, you’re not really going to get anywhere. I feel like communication is the way to succeed at basketball. In the beginning, you try to be friends with everybody, text them individually, make sure everybody knows that you’re there for them and everybody is there for me as well. It is just the bonds that we’ve created.”
Those bonds have been forged not only on the court, and they have steeled the Wildcats for what could be a long postseason run.
“I think our chemistry comes from friendship outside of practice and games and is what makes us play better,” Fisher said. “We’re able to talk to each other on the court. Nobody gets offended when somebody says something. We all just listen to each other, and we’re always working hard.
“That’s something we’re stressing every game, not to get relaxed or think that we’re better than other teams. Work hard, and the results will show.”
Fisher, an honor roll student who has a 3.6 GPA, is thinking about studying psychology in college. She wants to become a sports psychologist and work with young players. It’s her way of giving back to the community.
That’s in the future. She has more pressing business these days.
“I think somewhere after the first couple games it kind of kicked in that this is the last hurrah for high school basketball,” Pederson said. “I know she’s looking forward to Maryland. But at the same time, I see her embracing each game, like, ‘This is it. I want to make the most of it.’
“She’s living her best life as a senior basketball player.”
Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.