Mitchell proves dedication on, off court
The fear for many high school coaches with players capable of playing in college is that when the offers pile up and the player makes her decision, there is a let down. The auditions are over and the goal achieved and the concern is that the player loses focus or becomes content.
That's not how Tiffany Mitchell, a junior guard at the Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C., is wired.
Her love for the game of basketball has been tested by virtue of the scariest three letters in the game: ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). These letters are now so infamous in the sports world that saying "a player had an ACL" doesn't actually mean she has the ligament in her knee. It's pretty much vernacular for saying the person has torn the ligament. Like so many players who are on the court all year playing games and working on their skills, Mitchell had an ACL in her left knee.
Mitchell's injury happened in April 2009 when she became tangled with a defender on a breakaway layup. It was the type of injury that makes you cringe, as the ligament didn't just tear a little bit, it popped loud enough for everyone in the gym that night to hear. The resulting injury was a complete tear and some bruising to the meniscus as well.
The injury wiped out the spring and summer club circuit preceding Mitchell's sophomore season and though she was cleared to play for most of that season, she wasn't the same player head coach Josh Springer was used to, at least not right away.
Mitchell refused to let the injury define her, and while it was a devastating event, it also provided the opportunity to show all the coaches who had extended scholarship offers that her athletic potential wasn't her best quality.
Mitchell is a relentless competitor.
"She'll play in the gym against me," Springer said. "She'll play against you. She'll play against a fourth grader or Michael Jordan. She just loves to play."
Following the injury, Mitchell became her own opponent. Would she approach her rehab with the same intensity and consistency she displayed in developing her dribble penetration moves and finishes? She answered the question with a resounding "Yes." She returned not only having strengthened all the muscles that support her surgically-repaired knee, she came back physically looking like a college player.
Mitchell's resolve and focus seem grossly misplaced when you consider she was a kid who, as a youngster, couldn't stick with any activity for very long. Coach Springer refuses to take any credit for Mitchell's talent or competitiveness, placing all the credit with her mother Cheryl Mitchell. And it's probably pretty deserving as everything changed when Mitchell's mom put her in a parks and recreation basketball league when she was 10. It was actually a boy's league, but from that first game she was hooked.
The next year Mitchell joined the Queen City Jewels club team and the history of losing interest in sports and activities was gone for good.
In the eighth grade, Mitchell joined Toni Gore's club program, based out of the Atlanta area, and it didn't take long for her new coach to take note of her commitment and passion for the game.
"She's wired differently," Gore said. "She has that thing you can't teach."
As an 11-year-old, Mitchell did a report for school on basketball and it included a detailed bio of her favorite player, Dawn Staley, who will be her head coach when she reaches college following her verbal commitment this week. Mitchell grew up going to WNBA games with her mom and godmother and the hometown Charlotte Sting happened to star the Olympic gold-medal winning point guard-turned-coach.
But Mitchell's commitment wasn't instantaneous upon receiving an offer from Staley.
Being a fan and student of the women's game and its history, a rare quality for many of today's prospects, her commitment to handling the process was challenged by her emotions. The player ranked by ESPN HoopGurlz as 39th in the 2012 class had an offer from the superstar figure that helped sow her love for the game. But she didn't succumb to that emotion.
As is the case with many coaching changes, Staley's move from Temple to South Carolina came with its fair share of speed bumps. Staley took over a team that was led in scoring by a freshman the previous season. Jordan Jones' 13.1 points per game was good enough for ninth in the Southeast Conference. Jones transferred to Florida, never playing a game under Staley.
Staley would get the highest-ranked prospect in school history when Kelsey Bone, ranked No. 2 in the 2009 class, signed with the Gamecocks. Bone led the SEC in rebounding as a freshman while scoring 14 points per game, but she too transferred, choosing to be closer to home at Texas A&M.
The next year Staley got some interesting and positive news when the No. 43 prospect in the 2011 class, Kayla Brewer, decided to enroll early with the 2010 signing class. Brewer had already completed enough credits in three years of high school to enter college with an associate's degree. Just two months into her freshman season at South Carolina, she decided to transfer out as well, to Texas.
"I did ask the tough questions," Mitchell said. "That was kind of a red flag when all those players did transfer. She told me truthfully [what the reasons were]. Their decisions have nothing to do with mine."
Gore added, "She asked all the right questions. She's a good communicator and she didn't hold anything back."
Don't expect Mitchell to be the next high-profile prospect to transfer out of Staley's program. Mitchell is a member of the seemingly shrinking group of players who have stuck with one club program for her entire high-school career.
Mitchell, who fully understands the for-better-or-worse expectations that her commitment is supposed to come with, chose South Carolina, in part for its proximity to her family in Charlotte. Gore also points out examples of how her star player really understood her decision. Gore told her to do things the right way, her way, or she could choose another club program that would accommodate doing things Mitchell's way.
"She told me, 'That's why I play for you coach,'" Gore said.
"She wants that. She wants the discipline. She wants to do whatever it takes to be the best."
Mitchell wants to be a Gamecock and her commitment to Staley's program is as strong as her commitment to the game itself.
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. He is a member of the McDonald's All American team selection committee. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
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