By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — She bounded into the women’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday, still full of energy after an early morning workout with her new basketball team.
That will surprise no one who knows Mikayla Venson, one of the jewels of the first-year class that joined UVa head coach Joanne Boyle’s program this summer. As a student at Yorktown High in Arlington, Venson awakened most weekdays at 4 a.m. to train with her father before heading to school.
In the afternoon, Michael Venson, a McDonald’s All-American at Oxon Hill (Md.) High who went on to play at Georgetown and JMU, and his daughter would hit the court again for another session.
“She probably spends more time in the gym than any player I’ve ever coached,” Boyle said Wednesday.
A 5-7 point guard, Mikayla Venson arrived in Charlottesville last week, and she’s rooming with teammate Aliyah Huland El, a 6-1 wing from Randolph, N.J. Rounding out the Wahoos’ freshman class are Lauren Moses, a 6-2 forward from Mount Holly, N.J., and Jae’Lisa Allen, a 6-2 post player from Pine Bluff, Ark.
“I love `em to death,” Venson said. “I’m going to be with them all the time, and they’re great people, and I think we’re going to have a really strong bond.”
The Cavaliers’ first full-team practice of the summer was Tuesday, and Venson, as expected, made a good first impression on the court. Off the court, she shows the poise and polish of someone much older. (Venson turns 18 late this month.)
“She’s going to elevate our program,” said Boyle, who’s heading into her fourth season at Virginia. “She’s very, very talented, very gifted. She’s going to help our team a lot on the floor early in her career, I think, but it’s great just to know that maturity is there, that there’s so much potential for leadership.
“She has those qualities, and I think she’ll be able to step into that role, with the help of others obviously, early in her career.”
Venson, whom FullCourt.com ranked No. 16 in the Class of 2014, chose UVa over such schools as South Carolina, Louisville, Wake Forest and Tennessee. To say she followed an unconventional route to a college scholarship would be an understatement.
After suffering a severe concussion in December 2011, late in the third game of her sophomore season at Yorktown, Venson never played high school ball again. She later resumed her AAU career, but most of her on-court time was spent training under her father’s direction or playing pickup games at the Langston-Brown Community Center in Arlington.
Because of her concussion, Venson had to be homeschooled during the spring semester of her 10th-grade year. With her parents’ blessing, she chose not to rejoin the Yorktown team in 2012-13.
“I got the concussion, and after that it was a long process [of recovery],” Venson said Wednesday, “and I had just decided that I didn’t want that to happen again.”
She knew she could attract the interest of Division I programs by playing in showcase events, “and I really wanted to just continue to work on my game, get the fundamentals down and everything, so they would be tight going into college,” Venson said. “So I just didn’t want to take that risk again, knowing how bad it was before.
“My health is more important than anything. I was like, `Let me rest for a little while. I know this is very severe, and it’s not anything to play with.’ I just took my time.”
Venson committed to the Cavaliers last summer. By then she was starring for D.C.-based Team Takeover on the AAU circuit. As a 12th-grader in 2013-14, she focused on training with her father and again opted not to play for her high school.
“Of course my friends would ask me why or say, `You should play,’ ” Venson said. “But they were supportive. It wasn’t like they were bashing me because I wouldn’t play [for Yorktown].”
In fact, Venson was playing regularly, in serious pickup games, and she saw her game progressing.
“I always played against boys,” she said. “I just could tell going against them that I was getting better. I was beginning to easily blow by them, easily win games. It was a struggle at first, just because I was usually younger than the people I was playing against, but once I became more mature and started growing into my body and just getting older, I really started to see a change in my game, just maturity-wise and just athletically.”
Boyle said: “She’s very skilled, but she’s got a high motor. She and her dad spent a lot of time working on making her a complete athlete, not just one sliver of it.”
Last July, Venson needed 14 stitches after taking an elbow to the head at an AAU event in Orlando, Fla. But she’s been free of concussion symptoms for two years and does not fear contact on the court.
“I’ve taken some falls and everything, but it’s definitely made me tougher,” Venson said. “I’ve been going through that since I was 10, 11 and would play against 15-, 16-year-olds and grown men, actually. I would just play through it. You had to. I couldn’t cry in front of grown men. They weren’t even worried about it. They would have been like, `Get off the court.’ So I had to get my bumps and bruises in, but I’m used to it.”
Her family is exceptionally close, and that’s among the reasons Venson, who was born and raised in Arlington, chose UVa. She’s five years younger than her brother Michael, who has cerebral palsy, and he’ll be able to see her often in Charlottesville.
“He’s my No. 1 fan, and we’re best friends, and I love him to death,” said Venson, who graduated from Yorktown with a 3.7 grade-point average.
“He’s brilliant. Has a great attitude about everything. Very positive. He’s my motivation every day to wake up. I see him pushing through the day, every day, so I’m like, `I need to get through, too, no complaining.’ He just has a positive outlook on life, and I really love that about him.”
Venson said she loved “the family atmosphere” in Boyle’s program, as well as what UVa offers academically. She’s also thrilled to again be part of something more than an AAU team.
“It feels wonderful,” Venson said Wednesday. “Not taking away from the fact that I worked out with my dad, and I played pickup, so I was always playing with people, but it’s a great feeling. It’s family-like. I like that. Team bonding-wise, yesterday we had a great practice. Everyone had each other’s back.”
Coming off a 14-17 season, Boyle has a roster that includes only four upperclassmen, and she needs her first-year class to make an immediate impact if the Cavaliers are to return to the ACC’s upper half.
“You don’t want to put too much pressure on them,” Boyle said. “Obviously I would like our upperclassmen to be consistent, because you can’t always count on that from youth.”
Still, Boyle added, “I’ve said this before: I have no problem starting freshmen. I’m going to ask [a lot of] our freshmen. That’s why they came here. They came here because there’s a need.”
Of her expectations for 2014-15, Venson said, “I’m hoping to play early. I just want us to have a winning season. I want all of us to do well as a team and just work like it’s our last day, every day.”
November can’t get here quickly enough for Venson. Three years after her last appearance for the team at Yorktown High, she’ll finally play hoops in a traditional setting again, in a venue with fans and cheerleaders and a band.
“I know I’m going to be nervous, of course,” Venson said, smiling. “I’ll have my little butterflies, but as soon as the ball tips, I’m good. I actually like it when there’s a big crowd. My adrenaline’s more up. I like that kind of pressure. But I’m just really excited. I can’t wait to get on the floor. I love my teammates. I can’t wait to play with them, battle with them. I’m just ready for it to start.”