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Dec. 17, 2014

As a nine-year old, Mikayla Venson bounded into her family’s home in Arlington, Va., after a great day on the hardwoods, playing for the Fairfax Stars. She had initially taken up the game because one of her friends asked her to be on a team, but by nine years old, her love of the game was growing. As she returned home that day, she noticed for the first time all of the trophies and awards that her father, Michael, had displayed around the home, remnants and mementos from his days as a player at Georgetown and James Madison.

“I asked my dad if he could help train me because I wanted to have that [the trophies and the chance to play in college], too,” Venson recalled. “He said, `It is going to take a lot of hard work, and you have to be really dedicated.” I bought into it and I’ve been playing and training ever since. He started working me out with basic things like fundamentals, lay-ups, left-handed lay-ups, right-handed lay-ups and then it went on from there.

“When I started out, I was mainly a shooting guard. I love shooting that ball. I had decent handles, but nothing crazy. When I was in middle school, I started going to camps and that was when I really focused on being a point guard. I wasn’t growing very tall so I had the mindset that I would probably be a point guard and I should really start working on my handles. I sharpened my skills with my passing and ball handling and made that my number one priority. I also continued to get my shooting in, because as a point guard you have to have a three-point range and a mid-range game as well as getting to the basket.”

Initially, Michael’s training was supplemental to his daughter’s practices with rec league teams and her school squads. During Venson’s freshman season at Yorktown High, she was the 2011 Virginia High School League National District Co-Player of the Year and National District Rookie of the Year, averaging 14.3 points and 5.5 assists per game and seemed on track to have a stellar prep career, until that derailed in December of her sophomore season.

“We were playing Centreville and I remember driving to the basket, going up and just getting hit on the side of the head by a really tall girl,” Venson said. “I was on the ground for a while and the surprising thing was that the refs didn’t stop the game while I was on the ground. I got up and was in for another minute and a half, but I wasn’t really doing too much, I was kind of just out there. My coach realized that something was wrong and he took me out and I went on the end of the bench. I remember going to the locker room and everything was just going in one ear and out the other. I just wasn’t feeling right. I remember telling my mom after that game that something wasn’t right and my head was bothering me. She said I probably had a concussion, so I went to the trainer and I had to go take the concussion test.”

Venson did have a concussion, one that was severe enough to send her to a DC Hospital. Her symptoms were so severe that she could not shake them, and she ended up having to be home schooled by a private tutor from January through the end of the semester in June due to lingering headaches.

Returning to the basketball court was an even longer process.

“I remember trying to go back and play during the springtime of my sophomore year, and I still wasn’t feeling right, so I sat out a little longer,” Venson said. “I eventually went to some camps in September or October, which was my first time back. Going into my junior year, I didn’t want to take a chance that something was going to happen to me, like getting a hard foul. It was a long process that I had to gone through and I didn’t want to do it again. Not that I was scared to go out and play, because it was never that, but my health is my number one priority.”

Venson chose not to play high school basketball, but she never wavered from her dream of playing collegiate ball. Father and daughter would wake up at four a.m. everyday and be at the gym at five, working out and practicing before Mikayla would head off to school and Michael would return home to work with his wife, Pia, at their in-home daycare.

“We did a lot of lifting in the morning, a lot of squats, and then we would get in some shots and do some drills and then I would go to school,” Venson recalled. “I would come back from school and workout for about two hours. It was very difficult and took a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears, but I didn’t have any complaints about it. I loved the whole process. It got me a lot better, so I can’t complain. I really thank my dad for the whole process of him waking up with me in the morning, because that’s not an easy job to do. So, I’m just really grateful that my dad was there to help me and stick with me and grind with me.”

Though her father did much of the training, he was also able to let go when his daughter was at a camp or a showcase, working on getting recruited. Venson’s mother, Pia, was the one who took Venson out to Colorado Springs for the 2011 U16 USA Basketball national team trials.

“My mom and I just went on the trip to Colorado so we would have our girl time,” Venson recalled. “We were out there for a week. There were 150 girls that were there and I got down to the final 20, so that was an amazing experience. I had never been out West before, so Colorado was a lot of fun. It was different, I was a little homesick at the end, but I was excited and proud of myself for getting to the end.”

Since coming to Virginia, Venson has continued the work ethic she honed in high school, getting to the gym very early in the morning to get up shots before the morning lift. That dedication is paying off on the court with Venson averaging 10.0 points a game through the first seven games of the season. The biggest difference, however, is playing with a team and one very key element of that.

“The best thing about playing with a team is getting wins,” Venson said. “To beat a team when you know that you put your all into it is incredible. Knowing that we played as a team and got the win, that is the most-fulfilling thing.”

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