Paige McCormick takes her small-town roots with her everywhere she goes

McCormick loves her hometown of Heuvelton and it loves her

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Paige McCormick takes her small-town roots with her everywhere she goes

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

By Tim Sorota, Collegian Staff

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Wherever Paige McCormick goes in life, she will never forget where she came from and it will never forget her. She grew up in Heuvelton, New York and attended Heuvelton Central High School. The town itself has a population of about 750 while the school has an enrollment of about 150.

It’s as “small-town America” as it gets.

“We don’t have a stop light. We have one, I guess, ‘store’: Stewarts, it’s a gas station,” McCormick said. “They have awesome ice cream, awesome pizza and I’m obsessed with their gummy worms, fun facts. But yeah, it’s just a really small town. It’s basically the school, that store. There’s not much. A couple delis, that sort of thing. It’s very community based and has a home feel.”

Heuvelton is located in St. Lawrence county in northern New York, about 10 miles away from the Ogdensburg-Prescott bridge which connects the United States to Canada. The nearest city is Watertown more than an hour southwest, and Ottawa is about 70 miles away to the north. It takes about two hours to get to Syracuse.

Heuvelton’s isolation means that aside from eating at one of the delis or getting gummy worms from Stewarts, there are not a lot of thrills around the small village. This would turn some people off — but not McCormick.

“I have my teammates here [at UMass] and they’ll be like, ‘Where’s your closest mall from your home?’ and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, an hour,’” McCormick said. “Everything seems to be an hour or two hours away and they think that’s hilarious.”

While McCormick’s home may not have a J.C. Penney or a Macy’s, they do have Heuvelton Central High School. Nearly all of the town’s 750 residents have a tremendous amount of pride in the school and many are regulars at high school athletic events. It is just one of a few things that the junior guard loves about Heuvelton, what she sometimes refers to as “small-town perks.”

“When I was in high school, the whole town showing up and watching us play our games, that kind of thing. They just called it a sea of purple. That’s a small-town perk,” she said. “Just little things like that. The support we have for each other is incredible, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

In Heuvelton, the cliché “everyone knows everyone” is very accurate. Pretty much everyone around Heuvelton knew about the four-sport star who excelled in not only basketball, but in softball, track and volleyball, and also excelled in the classroom, becoming a member of the National Honor Society.

What took McCormick to near celebrity status across the town, which sits about 14 miles southeast of the St. Lawrence River, was the season she and her team had on the hardwood during her sophomore year of high school. The Heuvelton Central Bulldogs had never won a state championship in any sport, so when McCormick and company put together a regular season with only two losses, the town was on notice.

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

The Bulldogs made the state playoffs and won their quarterfinal game to qualify for the final four taking place nearly four hours away in Troy, New York. The semis were set for a Saturday, with the championship on Sunday. Heuvelton Central had made the semifinals before and even the championship game a few times, but a win in the final game had eluded it. Despite its track record, the townspeople were ready.

“Everyone was pumped, they were so excited,” she said. “People were booking their hotel rooms in advance just trying to do everything they could to prepare and be able to support us.”

Growing up, McCormick never dreamt of bringing the first state championship home to her small town, and while the citizens of Heuvelton didn’t necessarily long for one, once the possibility of bring it home became more real, both the town and the player wanted it bad.

“I never thought of that,” she said about winning a state championship. “Me growing up, it was just like, ‘I’m gonna be the best basketball player I can be, help my team, and we’re going to be the most successful team in our school, in school history.’ You just never realize a state championship is a possibility until it happens.”

The Bulldogs won the semi-finals at Hudson Valley Community College, defeating Panama 57-39 to set up a showdown the next day against the top ranked and undefeated South Kortright Central School.

South Kortright’s enrollment more than doubles Heuvelton’s, with 384 students as of 2019. Their undefeated record surely made them the favorite but that certainly was not going to stop citizens of Heuvelton from cheering on their team.

Mehroz Kapadia/Daily Collegian

As McCormick stepped onto the floor for warmups before the biggest game of her life, she was graced by a familiar sight.

“Being there and looking in the stands, it was a sea of purple. Everyone had a purple shirt on,” she said.  “Compared to the ranked number one team in the state, undefeated, if you compared our fan section to theirs, we probably had ten times more. It was just crazy. And I heard that a lonesome soul was back in Heuvelton. That place was a ghost town. I still get chills.”

The crowd that decided to make the journey from Heuvelton to Troy was in store for a terrific game. The Bulldogs held a lead for most of the game, but South Kortright played like a top-seeded team and never let the deficit get out of hand. Heuvelton was in front 44-40 heading into the fourth quarter and scored the first four points of the final frame to extend the lead to eight. They held on and won, 61-54.

They were champs for the first time with McCormick leading the way with 23 points, three rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks. She was named MVP of the Final Four.

On the four-hour trip back to their hometown, the newly crowned champions received a hero’s welcome along the route.

“Every close town we came through, the fire departments would meet us and the police officers would meet us there and take us through town blaring their sirens, and we’d just like open our windows and yell out and everyone was outside cheering for us,” she recalled. “That started towns and towns over, and when we got to Heuvelton, it was just something special.”

The tiny village of Heuvelton was on the map. They were the best in the state and McCormick and her teammates wanted to keep it there. The expectations going forward were raised.

“Once we won it sophomore year I said, ‘Okay, this is going to be the standard,” McCormick said. “And that’s what you’re thinking every year, ‘We want to get there, we want to get there’. That was the goal but we didn’t know it was possible, so we just started working hard and that’s all we could do at that point.”

The 2015 season was the best in school history — until 2016.

2016 saw the Bulldogs run the table, winning their second straight title, this time with an undefeated record.

2017 was more of the same, resulting in a third straight NYSPHAA title. In the final three years of her high school career, McCormick won as many championships as she had regular season losses. Her final high school game was on that same court in Troy, which at this point had become familiar territory for her and her teammates. The opponent was the same as her first game there, Panama, and once again it was a 20-point win for the Bulldogs.

The only major difference between the 2015 championship and the 2017 championship was that there was another McCormick on the floor: Paige’s younger sister Madison. It was special feeling for the elder McCormick.

“It was amazing,” she said. “She is my best friend and going through that whole experience, even with softball. Crazy memories there too. Growing up with her has been awesome. She is by far my best friend. She makes me a better person.”

After the state championship game and another successful softball season alongside Madison, where both McCormicks found themselves on a state all-star team, Paige graduated and came to UMass.

She left the school with 2,452 points, the all-time leading scorer on the hardwood, and as a three-time New York State Class D Player of the Year. On the diamond, she made the All-New York First Team three times, as well being named all-conference in volleyball twice for good measure.

In a town as small as Heuvelton, it is safe to say those achievements won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

“The first time I went home spring break my freshman year, I went through the cafeteria to get to one of my old classrooms, and I walked through and everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Paige McCormick.’ They all asked me for autographs. It was the cutest thing,” she said. “That’s like my motivation. And that just makes me want to do everything that I am doing now. I love that and having that support, I just don’t want to let them down.”

After graduation, Paige traded in a purple jersey for a maroon one making the five and a half hour drive down New York 12 and I-90 to Amherst, although her final high school game was far from the last time she would see the Heuvelton “sea of purple”.

It didn’t take long for members of the sea to make that same drive and flood the Mullins Center for one of McCormick’s first game on UMass, another example of a small-town perk.

“The Thanksgiving game my freshman year when I had maybe 20 people in the stands from back home, taking time out of their vacations, their Thanksgiving vacations to come support me,” she said “That’s a small town perk.”

Even now, as McCormick is in her third year at UMass, the love and support from Heuvelton hasn’t wavered.

Over the summer, members of the women’s basketball team were given the opportunity to take over the Instagram account and one player seemed to generate much higher traffic than everyone else: the one who came from the smallest town.

“Everyone back home follows me, supports me, and wants to know what’s going on over here,” she said. “It’s just so different from back home, so when I took over the story, they thought it was the coolest thing.”

Even now, as McCormick lives roughly 300 miles away, in a seemingly different world than the one she grew up in, when she returns to Heuvelton, all the memories of the town, the people, and all they accomplished come rushing back.

“It’s kind of like I never left,” she said. “Nothing’s changed. I just go back; you see people you know. You catch up with them. It’s just home. I love Heuvelton til’ death and I love the people there, and they’ll always be in my heart. Everything I do is for them, everything.”

As she pushes to bring basketball glory to Amherst like she did in high school, she’ll be doing so with Heuvelton and that sea of purple on her mind and in her heart. The citizens of Heuvelton will be watching and supporting her on every step of that journey and whatever one that follows.

Neither would have it any other way.

Tim Sorota can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @TimSorota.

*Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled “Heuvelton.” The misspellings have been corrected.