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For Yorktown's Mikayla Venson, basketball is a family affair

By James Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 12:03 AM

It's 5:57 a.m., dark and bitingly cold. Sitting outside Langston-Brown Community Center in Arlington in a black SUV is Mikayla Venson, Yorktown's freshman point guard, and her father, Michael Venson. It's two days before Christmas but Mikayla Venson is here, as always, waiting to work out.

A custodian arrives, unlocks a side door and the two head to the second-floor basketball court where the 5-foot-6 Mikayla promptly starts stretching. For the next hour and a half, the 14-year-old performs a series of rapid-fire drills with her father directing, from dribbling two basketballs while weaving through cones, taking dozens of shots and layups with either hand, running up and down stairs, while never admitting she is tired.

"Just trying to make you better," said Michael Venson as Mikayla stood at half-court, winded, her hands at her hips after a combination of 28 consecutive layups and jump shots. "What do we say? Most people still have slob in their mouth," he added with a chuckle.

This homespun workout is the creation of her father, a distinguished basketball player from Oxon Hill who was the Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year in 1989, a high school all-American who went on to play at Georgetown and James Madison. And it's the reason Mikayla has gone from an average player five years ago when she first began the father-daughter workouts to one that has already drawn the attention of major Division I schools.

Known in Arlington as the "girl who plays at Langston," Mikayla's skills have proved vital to Yorktown's hopes of contending for a district title. She has started every game for the Patriots (6-5, 3-1), averaging 13.3 points, 4.5 assists and 3 steals per game.

And she has had an immediate impact. With the score tied at 45 in the waning seconds of the season opener against Robinson, Yorktown senior guard Peyton Lee told her coaches to call one final play for Mikayla. When the screen on the right wing collapsed, Mikayla took a few dribbles and hit a game-winning three-pointer, "with two people in her face," said senior forward Brooke Huffman.

"That was the first time when we were like, 'Whoa, she can play,' " added Lee.

That killer shot and dribble started with a raw but willing 9-year-old. After failing to take to dance, gymnastics, flag football and baseball, Mikayla settled on basketball, asking her father one day to train her. "I saw his trophies and I just really wanted to be like that," she said. "I really enjoyed playing basketball."

Michael Venson, who was known as Michael Tate (his mother's married name) in high school, agreed but only after he felt confident that she wanted to tackle the challenge without complaint. He didn't want to damage their bond and is willing, he said, to get her a trainer if it does.

"They have a great relationship," said Mikayla's mother, Pia Venson, 43. "Mikayla, of course, has the option of playing AAU but she wants to work out with her father and play [pickup basketball] against the men in the gym. And [she and her father] have bonded in the gym. A lot of people say dads at one point have to stop training [their kids] and coaching them. But in her case, she has flourished with her dad."

Choosing her own path

Michael and Pia Venson, who run a day-care center in Arlington, have always believed in allowing their daughter, one of two children, to choose her own path. It was Mikayla who decided to attend Yorktown despite overtures from some of the region's top private schools such as McNamara, Riverdale Baptist and St. John's. She felt the long commutes would eat up time with her family and friends. It was Mikayla who decided to stop playing AAU basketball at 11 after three seasons because it was a time-drain and she wanted to train exclusively with her dad.

At first, they held the workouts as often as five times a week, an hour and a half after elementary school. As she progressed and grew older, the routine got tougher, longer and more frequent. By 11, she added a morning workout. Now, the workouts are only in the morning, six days a week as she practices with her team in the afternoon. Even after late nights because of games or homework, Mikayla insists on working out, setting her own alarm for 5:15 a.m. "It's easy for me," she said.

The workout is part young Michael Venson (who said he learned to play basketball by training alone), part John Thompson (his coach at Georgetown his freshman season) and part Lefty Driesell (who coached Venson after he transferred to James Madison for his final three years of college).

The drills last no longer than three minutes each under the direction of Venson, who at 41 looks more like a football player than the skinny 6-foot-4 forward who averaged more than 30 points a game as a high school senior in Prince George's County. One moment Mikayla is dribbling a basketball between her legs while tossing a soft baseball ball back and forth between hands, the next she is jumping rope 300 times in two minutes. She has done it all so many times that she rarely misses two shots in a row nor loses control of her dribble.

"She shows the kind of flair and poise and skill set that could elevate her to the status of one of the top point guards to come out of the area," said Oakton Coach Fred Priester, who has coached in Northern Virginia for nearly three decades.

Early interest

Colleges, such as Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and JMU, have already seen Mikayla play. Other schools mail her questionnaires, informational packets and handwritten letters.

It's not uncommon anymore for a freshman to receive such interest, said Lisa Bodine, a national evaluator with ESPN HoopGurlz, a basketball recruiting Web site. Top players get seen by big-time colleges earlier through showcases and camps, where Mikayla began drawing attention two years ago.

"It's not just her skill-set, it's her IQ and her approach to the game," said Bodine, who added Mikayla's ball-handling is "off the charts." "She's got an old-school approach to it and she works on her game. And every time I see her, she has improved on a different aspect of her game."

During that pre-Christmas workout, Mikayla ended with a quick game of full-court one-on-one against her cousin. First one to three baskets wins. By then, it was 7:30 a.m. and the sun was starting to poke through the gym's windows.

"While I'm doing this everyone is still asleep," she said afterward. "And it just makes me work even harder and I push myself every day. And since I wake up early in the morning, it just makes me one inch better than them every day."

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