On May 21, 2019, Vanessa de Jesus committed to play basketball at Duke under then-head coach Joanna P. McCallie.
Nearly 14 months later, McCallie announced her resignation after 13 seasons with the program. That announcement shook the confidence of Duke's then-2021 commits, and while they all de-committed, the five-star point guard remained.
Now only a few days away from the long-awaited 2020-21 season, de Jesus is about to begin her journey as the sole freshman on a women’s basketball squad headed by new head coach Kara Lawson, who was hired just shortly after McCallie stepped down. The transition was sudden, but de Jesus was ready for the challenge.
“Just hearing about Kara and all her success from playing in the WNBA as a point guard, coaching and from playing in the Olympics, I knew it would be a huge thing for her to come here and just to learn from her,” de Jesus said. “I’m so looking forward to the next few years.”
The mid-summer coaching change was a surprise to everyone—de Jesus even admitted to being shocked—but the team had confidence in who was being brought in. Even though her future classmates wavered, de Jesus stayed strong. The idea of playing for a coach that didn’t recruit her was more intriguing than scary for the Sierra Canyon High School product.
“It is interesting, but we do get the chance to learn about each other...where [Lawson] can really get to know who I am, and we can get to know each other together,” de Jesus said. “So far, it’s going really well. She’s very open and really wants to get to know us. She’s a player’s coach.”
And above all that, de Jesus knew she wanted to be a Blue Devil no matter what. The freshman guard wants to take the pre-medical path and knew there was nowhere better to pursue both of her passions at the same time.
“For me, I was really looking for a school that had the balance of both basketball and academics because those are two important things that I grew up with," de Jesus said. "So, when looking for a college, Duke was high on my list."
Being in a class of one can be a daunting and seemingly lonely task. But de Jesus says she’s been anything but alone, and that her teammates and coaches have been there for her every step of the way.
“I was a little worried at first, but my teammates have been super helpful and supportive of me, guiding me through it all,” she said. “I think it could have been rough, but they’ve been really inclusive, and I don’t really feel like a freshman. I just feel like one of them.”
Additionally, this year’s COVID-19 housing regulations have all sports teams living together, and the women’s basketball team resides in the Washington Duke Inn, which means a lot of bonding time. The shared rides, meals and other group activities give de Jesus the feeling of never being alone, especially when it comes to making the transition to college life.
As Duke women’s basketball begins its new era, there is a lot of uncertainty around what the next year or four may look like. De Jesus only has optimism, though, and her outlook for the years to come is simple:
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“I think everything happens for a reason and I’m super excited to see what comes next.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said that the rest of Duke's 2020 recruiting class de-committed following McCallie's resignation—rather, it was Duke's then-2021 commits who de-committed (de Jesus was the only member of the Blue Devils' 2020 class). The Chronicle regrets the error.
This article is one of many in The Chronicle's women's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.