2014-11-19 / Sports

Sports Taking flight

Bird’s top-ranked hoop stars pick Louisville, VCU
By Jim McConnell

L.C. Bird High seniors Kenny Williams (left) and Taja Cole have decided to continue their basketball careers at VCU and the University of Louisville, respectively. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer L.C. Bird High seniors Kenny Williams (left) and Taja Cole have decided to continue their basketball careers at VCU and the University of Louisville, respectively. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer As they developed into two of the nation’s top high school basketball recruits, L.C. Bird High classmates Kenny Williams and Taja Cole received the typical treatment – countless letters, phone calls, texts and even home visits – from college coaches seeking to secure their services.

Both sought programs that offered not only an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, but a first-class education and nurturing family environment off the court.

While Cole finally settled on a new home nine hours away, Williams found what he was looking for without having to leave Richmond.

Cole signed a national letter-of-intent with the women’s basketball team at the University of Louisville. Williams signed with the men’s basketball program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The seniors were expected to celebrate their college selections with family and friends during a ceremony Tuesday morning at Bird.

“My decision came down to family,” said Williams, who chose VCU over offers from North Carolina, Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State. “I wanted my parents to be able to see me play, and knowing I’ll have a support system 20 minutes down the road made me feel a lot more comfortable.”

Cole could have taken the same path – she also had VCU among her list of finalists – but thought she needed to move away from home to “grow up and hold myself accountable.

“It’s going to make me grow as a person instead of always being able to rely on my mom for everything,” she added.

The longtime friends already are among the most explosive scorers in Virginia high school basketball.

Cole, a 5-foot-7-inch point guard, is the No. 12 national recruit by Prospect Nation. She averaged 24.4 points per game as a junior.

Williams, a 6-foot-3-inch shooting guard, averaged 21.3 points and 5.7 rebounds during his junior season. He’s ranked 79th nationally by ESPN.

Both Skyhawks also are part of elite recruiting classes at their new schools.

VCU, which beat out defending national champion Connecticut last week to sign wing Tevin Mack (ranked No. 58 in the Class of 2015 by ESPN), likely will have its second consecutive top-15 class.

Louisville’s group of incoming freshmen was rated No. 1 nationally by two recruiting services. The class includes point guard Asia Durr, a Georgia native who is considered the top women’s high school player in America by Prospects Nation.

“A lot of people would be hesitant to put themselves in that situation, with another bigtime point guard coming in the same class,” Bird girls basketball coach Chevette Waller said. “They’d be looking to go somewhere they know they’ll be the starter. But Taja is always looking to challenge herself. She enjoys seeing what she can do against tougher competition.”

According to Cole, Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz made a big impression by handling her recruitment himself instead of passing it off to one of his assistants.

“He told me he wants me to help them beat UConn and win a national championship,” she said.

Williams acknowledged that he “fell in love” with VCU during a visit to one of the Rams’ practices last season. When head coach Shaka Smart punished his players for failing to properly execute a drill, Williams was surprised to see Smart and his assistants on the floor doing pushups with them.

That moment resonated with Williams even after he received an offer from NCAA blue blood North Carolina, visited the Chapel Hill campus and saw all the ACC championship banners hanging in the rafters of the Tar Heels’ cavernous 20,000-seat arena.

“It was hard [turning down UNC’s scholarship offer], knowing the history and all of the great players who went there,” Williams said. “But knowing the relationships I had built with the staff and players at VCU made it easier.”

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