As Virginia’s top girls’ basketball teams prepare to compete for state championships this weekend in Richmond, Yorktown High senior Mikayla Venson will be 100 miles north of the capital, working out at the Langston-Brown Community Center in Arlington.
Yorktown’s season ended weeks ago in the Conference 6 quarterfinals, but Venson, who is regarded as the best player in Virginia and the third-best point guard in the country, has not played one minute of high school basketball since she suffered a concussion in a game on Dec. 6, 2011.
Instead, she spends fours hours a day, five days a week, honing her skills alongside her father and personal trainer in a small gym filled with windows that invite onlookers to stop and stare.
Despite a lack of game experience and highlight tape from her final three years of high school, Venson’s skills and potential earned her scholarship offers from Tennessee, UCLA, California, South Carolina, Stanford and Lousville, among other big-time basketball schools. In November, she signed to play for Virginia, capping a tumultuous three-year stretch that saw her go from a promising freshman playing on the varsity to relative basketball solitude.
Venson is the first top-35 player in the past five recruiting classes to play just one year of high school basketball and land at a major Division I program, according to Dan Olson, a national evaluator who is director of ESPN HoopGurlz.
“This kid is kind of an anomaly,” Olson said. “She found herself in a BCS program and in a legitimate conference as a nationally ranked player. I’d love to see her do well and stay healthy.”
Venson, 17, an electric, 5-foot-7 point guard, led Yorktown’s varsity team in scoring as a freshman and dazzled the selection committee at the U-16 National Team Trials in the summer of 2011.
But as a known quantity her sophomore season, Yorktown opponents played her more physically. Venson attempted 27 free throws in her team’s first three games, and in the final quarter of the third, she was struck across the head while driving to the basket.
Venson had a concussion diagnosed the next day. She never took the court for her high school team again.
Venson vividly recalls the symptoms of her concussion. The sensitivity to light. The dizziness, headaches and fatigue. But she can’t remember if she went to school the following Wednesday.
Because of her symptoms, her family decided to homeschool her through the end of the school year. Venson said she slept an average of 17 hours per day, and she didn’t pick up a basketball for five months.
“The day after I got the concussion, I didn’t know if I wanted to play high school ball anymore with the way I felt,” Venson said. “After playing three games, I didn’t know if my body could take shooting 30 free throws. I was just thinking, I need to be smart about this.”
In June 2012, she attempted to return to the court with the prestigious Boo Williams AAU program, but symptoms resurfaced during her first tournament.
When Venson returned to Yorktown that fall, basketball was an afterthought.
“I knew my health came first, and I had already made up my mind,” Venson said. “I didn’t want to risk another six months away.”
She played her first full year of AAU basketball since 2008 last summer with Team Takeover’s Under-16 team.
In her first action at the New Jersey Sparks Basketball Classic in April, Venson averaged 20 points, earned MVP honors and led Takeover to the team title. She followed that with six blowout wins en route to another team title and MVP at the Boo Williams Invitational in Hampton, Va.
But at the AAU Super Showcase in early July in Orlando, Venson took a blow to the head that led to a hospital visit and 14 stitches. She thought she was headed down another long road to recovery.
“It was a great relief that it wasn’t a concussion. The first one was rough, and I would never wish that on anybody,” Venson said. “It’s not a fun thing, but I was just blessed. I was really happy that nothing was wrong.”
Venson’s father, Michael, was the 1989 All-Met Player of the Year at Oxon Hill, and the first player from a Prince George’s County public school to be selected to the McDonald’s all-American Game, where he roomed with Shaquille O’Neal.
Venson works through her father’s intense sessions twice a day, five days a week. They involve fast-paced ballhandling and shooting drills.
On her off days, she travels around the Washington area playing against boys and men at recreation centers and outdoor courts. She’s gone head-to-head with men at the Glassmanor Community Center in Oxon Hill, the courts her father frequented when he was the best player in the area in the late 1980s.
“Our work has taught her the fundamentals of the game,” Michael Venson said. “It kept her hungry and gave her time to have a social life and enjoy being a kid. The way we did it paid off. Now, I’m not saying that it will work for everybody else, but it worked for us.”
Venson, who has earned a 4.0 GPA in her last three semesters at Yorktown, signed with Virginia because of its academic reputation and the proximity of the school to her tight-knit family.
Venson’s parents have been together for more than two decades, and she has one sibling, an older brother also named Michael, who was born with cerebral palsy.
Michael, 22, is a Yorktown graduate and takes classes at Northern Virginia Community College. Venson calls her brother her best friend, and her decision to stay close to home will allow him to continue to critique her game.
Virginia women’s basketball Coach Joanne Boyle first saw Venson at a Cavaliers camp as a rising senior and was immediately impressed by her ballhandling skills.
Venson, who played 28 total games for Yorktown, is the first player Boyle has recruited with such a limited high school game résumé.
“I knew she was taking a risk of being hit or undercut if she continued high school ball,” Boyle said. “Her dad was a great player, and I’ve seen her at camps. If anything, high school ball may have brought her skill-set down. Working with her dad at the recreation center has kept her at a high level.”
Among Venson’s Takeover teammates, Paul VI’s Ariana Freeman, who will be attending Louisville, and Bullis’s Lynee’ Belton, who will play for Duke, both won private school titles over the last few seasons. But Venson said she doesn’t feel like she missed out on high school glory.
“Actually, I loved the experience of just being a teenager, getting to hang out with my friends on the weekends and also working on my game 24-7,” Venson said. “Of course games are great, but I really wanted to get my game to where it needs to be before I went out and exposed myself to show everyone what I was looking like.”