By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a student at Yorktown High in Arlington, Mikayla Venson awoke most weekdays at 4 a.m. to train with her father, a former college basketball player, before heading to school.
At the University of Virginia, Venson’s trademark work ethic remains very much in evidence. She still arrives at John Paul Jones Arena before dawn two or three times a week to train with UVA assistant coach Cory McNeill and then returns for the team’s practice later in the day.
“I like to get things out of the way,” Venson said. “Don’t procrastinate.”
A 5-7 point guard, Venson made an immediate impact in her first season of college hoops, leading the Cavaliers in 3-pointers made (61) and 3-point shooting percentage (41.2) in 2014-15. She ranked second among UVA players in assists (74) and third in scoring (11.9 ppg) and made the ACC’s all-freshman team.
“Her learning curve compared to most freshmen was pretty good,” Virginia head coach Joanne Boyle said.
Venson also had a team-high 89 turnovers last season, however, “and I think that bothers her, and she wants to correct that,” Boyle said. And so that’s been an offseason focus for Venson.
“I still had a lot to learn last year,” she said. “The game was definitely faster, but this year it’s slowed down, so I’ve noticed my teammates a lot more on the court and just where to get them the ball. [Setting up] my teammates to score is always a good way to go.”
Venson started every game in 2014-15 for the Wahoos, who finished 17-14 overall and 7-9 in the ACC. She played a team-high 1,028 minutes, which accelerated her development as a Division I point guard.
“I’m still learning a lot now, but I definitely feel like the game has slowed down a lot,” Venson said. “When I first got here, it was definitely different. You really don’t know how it’s going to be until you get on the floor, and the speed of the game is totally different than high school. You can’t even compare it.”
Boyle said: “I think for any first-year it’s a change. You can’t simulate that. You can’t simulate that environment, you can’t simulate that kind of competition.”
Venson’s background made the transition more challenging than it might have been for some players. She played little more than a year of high school basketball.
After suffering a severe concussion in December 2011, during the third game of her sophomore season, Venson never played for Yorktown again. She eventually resumed her AAU career but focused primarily on playing pickup games at the Langston-Brown Community Center in Arlington and training with her father, Michael Venson, who had been a McDonald’s All-American at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland.
“I played pickup and stuff,” Venson recalled, “but you still can’t compare that to playing elite ACC basketball. So it was a big transition.
“I definitely was happy with how I played last year, but I’ve made a lot of new improvements this year, just getting my shot off quicker, taking less dribbles to get my shot, getting to the hole more this year, and definitely getting my assists up.”
On a team with only one senior, All-ACC guard Faith Randolph, Venson will be asked to provide leadership as well as points, assists, rebounds and steals. Boyle also expects the on-court chemistry to be better between Venson and Randolph this season.
“I think they really worked on it this summer,” Boyle said. “They spent time playing together and learning how to complement each other’s game. I think they respect each other’s game, and they want to put each other in position to do well.
“I think they found some common ground. They’re meshing much better together.”
Randolph attempted 439 field goals last season, 146 more than Venson, who was second on the team in that category. Randolph realizes she needs to look more to her teammates, among them Venson, junior guard Breyana Mason (9.5 ppg), sophomore forward Lauren Moses (6.1 ppg), sophomore wing Aliyah Huland El (5.6 ppg) and freshman forward MonÃ© Jones.
Venson said she and Randolph “have been playing great together. Our whole backcourt has been playing really well. We’re definitely looking to push it more this year, which is going to be exciting. We’re all excited about that. So anytime we can get out on the break instead of having to slow the game down, it can definitely help us.”
Her chemistry with Randolph “has gotten a lot better since last year,” Venson said. “We’re feeding off of each other’s energy, which is a great thing, so I’m just excited for us to get on the court and play together.”
Boyle doesn’t plan to use Venson exclusively at the point this season, which for Virginia begins Nov. 13 with a game at Middle Tennessee State. Mason led the `Hoos with 112 assists in 2014-15. When Mason is in the game, Venson can slide to the 2-guard spot, where she’ll have more catch-and-shoot opportunities from the wing.
Venson hasn’t selected a major yet, but she’s interested in the Curry School of Education, as well as media studies. During her first year at UVA, she said, “I learned a lot off the court too, just time management with the books. My study habits have become different.”
She found herself distracted at times as a freshman — “You want to go out, go to the movies, that type of thing,” Venson said — but her academic focus has improved.
Venson said she’s learned the importance of “really buckling down and knowing what’s best for me and kind of planning ahead better and knowing that if I have certain things to get done throughout the month, to knock them out and not procrastinate on them. I’m just excited to have that year under me finally, so that I can look back and see the mistakes I made. I’m happy with my improvements. I’ve been working really hard in the classroom, and I’ve definitely seen results. I’m going to continue to work.”
She’s living this school year with Mason, a graduate of Forest Park High in Woodbridge, and “that’s been a great experience so far,” Venson said.
“Bre’s not a talkative person, and I think that’s good for me. Like I said, last year I had some distractions, wanting to be around friends all the time, and being in a dorm with a roommate. I’m kind of living in my own room now, but also still living with Bre has really let me find myself a lot and focus on what I need to be focusing on. She’s great as a roommate.”
Venson, who turned 19 in July, has three college seasons left, yet she’s already achieved veteran status at UVA. She’s far from satisfied, though, and that’s why her early-morning workouts continue at JPJ.
“Still have a long way to go,” Venson said, “a lot more learning to do, and I can’t wait to see what my future has in store for me.”