Photo | Mike Kittrell
In a news item that could have been the top story on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” St. Luke’s multisport standout Whitney Novak took the day off last Saturday. It is rumored she did the same on Sunday.
“Today, I’m taking an off day for the first time in a few months,” she said Saturday. “I slept in until 10. It was very nice. And that’s all I’ve done so far. I don’t know what to do.”
A full daily schedule is the norm for her. Those who follow St. Luke’s athletics understand the significance of the weekend off for Novak, who just completed another successful tennis season on the heels of another successful basketball season, which was preceded by a successful volleyball season. Add to her athletic workload the fact she is a 4.1 GPA student who was recently named a Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Award winner and you start to get an idea of the go-go-go world in which she lives — and in which she excels.
Maybe a glance at her resume will offer some insight into her accomplishments and day-to-day activity.
Basketball: The 5-foot-11 standout was a five-year starter for the Wildcats, scoring 1,705 career points and averaging 19 points and eight rebounds a game her senior year. She earned All-State honors her sophomore, junior and senior seasons, helping the Wildcats reach the AHSAA Final Four all three of those seasons, the only times the school has reached the Final Four.
She played AAU basketball from the fifth grade through her senior season, playing locally for the Bama Storm and then moving to the national AAU team the Alabama Starz out of Huntsville. She signed a scholarship to play basketball at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. (and she may play tennis there as well).
She started her career as a point guard and eventually played all five positions during her career, becoming a post player her senior season because her team needed a rebounder and inside scorer despite the fact she had a high percentage as a 3-point shooter.
Tennis: St. Luke’s won the AHSAA Class 1A-3A girls state championship this year and Novak was a key member of the team, winning state titles in No. 3 singles and as a member along with Ella Bentley in No. 2 doubles. In all, during her St. Luke’s career, she won four singles state championships and four doubles state crowns (with three different partners) in her career. It might have been five singles and five doubles state titles but COVID-19 issues shut down the 2020 tennis season. She posted a 28-0 record in singles and doubles in the state tournament over the years, beginning as an eighth-grader but having to miss her junior season.
She was named to the AHSAA’s South All-Star tennis team for its annual competition during All-Star Week and helped St. Luke’s to a state title, state runner-up finish (2019) and fourth-place finish (2018).
She played in the Final Four state semifinals this year March 3 in Birmingham and the next day, the Wildcats’ basketball season now complete, she played her first match of the season for the St. Luke’s tennis team, having not played tennis since the previous season.
“It was kind of like the icing on the cake, a good way to finish off my high school career,” Novak said of the state championship in tennis. “This year my teammates won state championships, too; we won seven of the nine spots [in the state tennis tournament, singles and doubles finals] this year, which is a lot more than we’ve ever done.”
Volleyball: A three-year starter, she played most of the positions on the team at one time or another. At one point, the Wildcats had the top-ranked team in the state in their classification, and St. Luke’s reached the Final Four her junior season. Novak played on national-level club volleyball teams from the fourth grade through her senior season, traveling across the country with the teams to compete in tournaments.
Soccer: Yep, she added soccer to her list of activities as a senior and quickly became a starter, though she had limited experience in the sport, deciding to join the team “just for fun.” Because soccer is a spring sport, taking place at the same time as tennis, Novak would play soccer matches when she didn’t have a tennis match.
To recap, Novak, an honor student who would often take care of her homework and other academic requirements in the back seat of the family’s Suburban when traveling to and from one of her athletic endeavors, played six full-time sports during her career: high school basketball, volleyball and tennis, as well as AAU basketball, club volleyball and USTA-level tennis. Often, she was competing on two or three of those teams at the same time. It was not unusual during the spring for her to play high school tennis Monday through Thursday, then use the weekend to travel to AAU basketball or club volleyball matches.
Oh, and she was named captain of her basketball, volleyball and tennis teams at St. Luke’s and was also named prom queen her senior year.
On Monday, there was no more sleeping in for Novak. She was back at work on her basketball game, getting ready to arrive at Millsaps in August and start her college career.
With all those accomplishments, what stands out most to Novak?
“Probably that I could just do it all while still having good grades. I never had to stop doing anything because my grades were slipping,” she said.
One other memory does stand out, though.
“Winning is fun and it’s memorable to win state championships and to make it to the Final Four, but there was this one time, it was during a basketball game [my junior year] and it was my birthday. We were winning by a lot and they took me out and the crowd starting singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. It was a good experience,” she said.
For Novak, the crazy schedules fit together perfectly.
“There were some days of course where you’re just tired and your body is tired,” she said. “But I love playing sports and I love competing, so there was no actual time I wanted to quit or anything.
“I started my first sport when I was 2 with K3 soccer. So I’ve just always kind of been involved. Actually, it was my mom who wanted me to get involved in sports, which is weird because we didn’t do any sports together and my dad is the one who did the 7 million sports. But I really just loved the competing aspect of it. I stuck with everything because it was fun and I was doing well … I compete at everything, like grades and stuff. I always wanted the highest grade in the class. It has always stuck with me.”
As one might expect, she enjoys playing all the sports with which she is involved, but she does have a favorite.
“During the season, whatever sport I’m playing is my favorite,” Novak said. “Basketball is my overall favorite. I’ve always had really good coaches and teammates and they make it easy to have fun. Tennis is fun because it’s individual — that’s my only sport where it’s just me, but there are limited team aspects to that. Basketball, I started that when I was 5 and I have really enjoyed it.”
She even appreciates the fact she has played every position on the basketball court.
“That’s probably why I like basketball the best because I can move from position to position, so I don’t get tired of just being a shooting guard or just being a post [player],” she said. “They would always move me around in games so it would be easier for me to score because not one defender could stay on me the entire game.”
St. Luke’s basketball coach Garreth Trawick offered high praise for Novak and what she brought to the Wildcats’ team during her time in the program.
“Whitney is a coach’s dream with her work ethic alone,” he said. “What she does on a day in and day out basis, in being an athlete in multiple sports here at St. Luke’s, she always found time to work on every sport she played, let alone basketball. She had motivation and drive and she never made excuses. She always found a way. That’s one of the first things that stood out to me. No matter what she was doing, she was going to dedicate some time to basketball, she was going to dedicate some time to the weight room or to volleyball or to tennis.
“This time last year we’re in a pandemic and at their house, Mr. [Scott] Novak put up some floodlights off the back of their house and projected them onto their driveway. They painted some lines — we didn’t know if we were going to get summer basketball, which is huge for recruiting going into your senior year — so she was doing skill work and shooting and sending out videos to schools showing that she was working out. It was a big testament to what she was doing and not making excuses and finding a way to continue to improve on what she was trying to pursue.”
Tennis coach Nick Arnold had similar praise for Novak.
“The best thing I can say is that she has this calm demeanor, but with confidence,” he said. “She’s definitely that team member that everyone always rallied around. When she came to the team after basketball, probably a couple of months into the season, you could tell that first moment she arrived and was back everybody gained their confidence back. It was contagious with her confident side and with her calmness. The moment she steps on the court she brings that confidence. She walks out knowing she’s going to win the match, you can just tell. And everyone kind of rallies around her on that.
“As a person, it’s kind of funny, but the way she is on the court is the way she is off the court. I’ve only had the pleasure of knowing her since late January because this is my first year with the team, but just knowing her that brief time, she’s very calm and mature beyond her years at 18. She’s confident.”
Novak now takes her talents to Millsaps, where she said she felt right at home during the recruiting process. She had other options but Millsaps was the better fit, she noted.
“I really loved the coaches at Millsaps,” she said. “I went up for a visit in January and I met Coach [Justin] Leblanc and Coach [Caitlin Kriesel] Bigler, and I met the team and the team was really nice. They were fun to be around and I could see myself with them. And the coaches, they had a plan for me. They told me what they could see me doing with their offense, and not many of the other coaches [recruiting me] talked about that. They would talk about general things, but the Millsaps coaches were really specific.”
Novak said she may add tennis to her list of sports at Millsaps, but if so, she would only play doubles.
“There’s a slight chance. We’ll see once I get there,” she said. “I like staying busy. I don’t know what I would do with free time … I don’t know what to do right now [with my day off on Saturday].”
For one who has accomplished a lot already, setting more goals seems natural, and that is where Novak finds herself as she steps into offseason training for her college career.
“I want to get stronger and faster because that’s how the next level is,” she said. “I’m really going to start focusing on the skills that I am good at and that they would need. They need shooting guards so I’m going to work on my shooting and I’m going to choose a major.”
As might be expected, Novak is looking to double up academically as well.
“I’m thinking pre-engineering and business, a double major,” she said of her academic leanings. “But I’m still looking into all that right now.”
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