Virginia women’s basketball sophomore Dani Lawson was sure to appreciate the moment when her name was announced among the starters in the Cavaliers’ season opener against Bucknell on November 5. The evening capped a nearly two-year long journey to return to the court and the game she loves.
“For me, I think it was just a moment watching all my hard work come to fruition,” Lawson said of her return to the court. “Two years away from basketball was hard. I mean, not only was I injured for those two years I wasn’t playing, I was also in the midst of transferring. So, everything for me was so new, and to be able to not only play my first game but start my first game, I think it was just like an ‘a-ha’ moment.”
After a stellar high school career at Hathaway Brown in northeast Ohio, Lawson enrolled at Purdue University. In her freshman campaign with the Boilermakers, Lawson appeared in five games before suffering a season ending knee injury. The following summer, she decided to leave Purdue and found her new home on Grounds at Virginia under newly appointed head coach Tina Thompson.
Lawson’s decision to transfer to Virginia was unique, as initially she intended to rehab her injury and stick it out at Purdue.
“I mean I think for me it was definitely just a shock because my original decision was obviously not to be at the University of Virginia and continue my four years where I was,” Lawson said. “But I think that there’s always a silver lining, because I’m in a way better situation in terms of mentally, spiritually, health-wise.
“Transferring is rough on anyone I think but transferring and then also not playing and then being injured, you really see things differently. I think transferring for me has been probably one of my best decisions, and it was able to be an easy transition because of the coaching staff and my teammates here.”
Lawson’s transition to Virginia, while long thanks to her recovery, was eased by a close bond with former then-senior Moné Jones.
“I would definitely say last year Monet Jones, me and her got really close, and she’s a really positive person so she always made me see the bright side of things,” Lawson said. “She always asked me how I was doing, always took care of me, drove me around because I didn’t have a car and so I think she was probably the most helpful and influential person in my transition from where I was to UVA.”
Along with her bond with Jones, Lawson also felt at home with her new coaches. For her, the Virginia staff made her feel at home with their support and openness.
“I think having the coaches believe in me is what’s different,” Lawson said. “Then having coaches that are transparent and honest and aren’t afraid to tell me the truth. I think that’s really the biggest difference. I think that’s where they’ve been the most help. Coach T [Tina Thompson] is pretty honest. Coach Kar [Karleen Thompson] for me has been the most helpful coach though, because she’s kind of helped me, and kept me up and positive. Coach Pitts, he recently came in, so we’ve gotten pretty close and he’s been there with me so far and helped me a lot as well.”
Even with a strong support team surrounding her, Lawson admits there were plenty of tough times during her nearly two-year absence from the court.
“I think just mentally staying focused,” Lawson described as the biggest challenge, “because physically for at least a year-and-a-half of those two years, I was not doing things because of my injuries. So kind of just being positive and focusing on the bright side because I had a lot of rough moments, a lot of days where I cried and didn’t think I was going to be able to do this anymore, and just staying mentally focused and leaning on my parents for support.”
While she was sidelined last season with the Cavaliers, Lawson says the chance to see the game from another perspective helped her understand her coaches even more.
“Sitting out and being around games made me realize things from a coach’s perspective,” she said. “You see things differently because you’re not out there, so not all the criticism is on you and you realize that maybe I could do some things differently and when I do get out there I can add to this.”
Off the court and in the classroom, Lawson’s journey has also seen change in the past two years. A member of the ACC All-Academic team, she’s now a sociology major after another one of those ‘a-ha’ moments.
“That’s actually a great question because I think I’ve changed my mind about 400 times,” Lawson said. “I initially came in and I wanted to be a doctor my freshman year. Then, I realized I am not so great at math and science so I was like ‘you know what? We’re going to go to law school.’ So right now, I’m majoring in sociology focusing on public health and political science and policy.
“I want to eventually go to law school and pursue that. I like reading and writing I love reading and writing and I’m really into politics, and like I like to learn the way things work and how they affect certain people in certain things. So, I think law was probably the best option for me.”