By Gabriel Stovall
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — Kayla Mitchell took to Twitter Monday night to make her college choice known.
But if you’ve read it, it might have made you reach for a box of tissue.
The senior guard from Woodland High committed to Brenau University School of Nursing, and the verbiage of her announcement shed a little light on her chief source of motivation.
— kay❤️ (@lovemy_alyssa) May 12, 2015
Mitchell’s mom Kimberly died of breast cancer back when Mitchell was in the fifth grade. She said she has an older sister who is in graduate school, but didn’t have the benefit of an athletic scholarship to help foot the bill.
Mitchell didn’t want to see her dad have to try and shoulder the financial burden of putting both of his girls through college. That’s the reason, she says, basketball transformed into something more than just a cool way to pass the time.
“For a while basketball was just like a hobby for me,” Mitchell said. “But when I began to realize that this could be a way for me to take the stress off my dad’s shoulders, that’s when I really began taking it seriously. I started training more and just making sure I was doing what it took to get to the next level.”
She remembers exactly the moment when that shift in seriousness came, too. It was when she returned from her first torn ACL injury as an eighth grader.
That’s right. Her first, as in there would be another.
The next time, it would happen during her sophomore year at Woodland. Couple that second setback with the fact that now, a few years older, she was starting to truly feel the void of growing up into womanhood without her mother.
The injuries plus the family void would probably have been enough to derail most young athletes. But Mitchell credits her father Alvin and her grandmother for keeping her on track.
“Between my dad and my grandmother, I have an amazing support system at home,” she said. “My dad is my biggest critic, but he’s also the only person I can go to if I have a problem. He was really the person who was there for me when I had my knee surgery. I knew he would be the one to help me. So really, this is his scholarship. He was the one behind everything. The money, pushing me to work hard. This was all him.”
Mitchell’s talent had a little something to do with it as well.
The two-guard developed a reputation as a sharp shooter for the Lady Wolfpack who, under recently resigned coach Ashley Maddox, advanced to the Class AAAA Final Four during the 2013-14 season, and came within a game of winning back-to-back region championships this past season.
Woodland lost the Region 4-AAAAA title game to eventual state semifinalist Forest Park, but it was against that same Lady Panthers squad where Mitchell may have played her signature game during the regular season.
Mitchell scored a team-high 16 points to temporarily dethrone the Clayton County powerhouse from its Region 4-AAAAA perch in a 50-37 regular season win. It was a game that Mitchell then said helped her earn her coach’s trust.
Mitchell admitted though that she sometimes struggled to find a place on the team after her second injury.
“I knew this program was always a good program,” she said. “I knew that positions on the team had already been established, and sometimes I didn’t know how I’d fit in. Coach (Maddox) tried so many different ways to fit me in, but it just didn’t work for me. But when I Was finally able to feel like I had a part in making my team better, that was the highlight of my career here.”
Now Mitchell will move on to the Gainesville, GA school excitedly, and not just for basketball reasons. Mitchell, who carries a 3.0 grade point average at Woodland, chose Brenau over Huntington College and Benedict College more for what she could accomplish in the classroom rather than on the court.
“All three of those schools are good schools and have great programs for basketball, but my main concern was furthering my education as well,” she said. “Brenau was the only school that had my pre-nursing major and the program I needed after my major.”
Mitchell wants to be a nurse anesthetist. It’s not quite the same aspiration she had when she was younger and watching her mom fight breast cancer, but it’s still something that will help her accomplish her bigger purpose beyond basketball.
“I would say my mom’s cancer definitely played a role in my wanting to be in the health care field, but I was always into watching health care shows when I was younger and when I found out there was a health care club in my school, I wanted to be a part of it. I used to want to be a doctor,” she said. “I wanted to find the cure to something and make sure nobody loses their mom to a disease.”
She’ll officially sign her letter of intent to Brenau next Monday in a signing ceremony in the Woodland library. And when she does, it’ll be the culmination of all that her time on the court in high school has taught her, as well as the ushering in of a new life chapter.
“I definitely learned work ethic by being here,” she said. “In my mind there were times I thought I was going hard, but I really wasn’t I needed people to push me to work my best and my hardest. That’s really what I learned here. My time definitely went by fast. When you’re younger you can’t wait to be a senior, and now it’s overwhelming that it’s time to be an adult, buckle down and study hard.
“I’m going to school for my major now and for my career. I’m definitely happy and ready to graduate.”