Lake Norman & Mooresville

Back in Davidson, coach helping team improve

Jessica Mitchell knows Davidson well. She gets recognized at the grocery store and runs into familiar faces all over town - even on her Davidson Day team.

The first-year coach went to college a mile down the road from the school, at Davidson College, where she was a four-year player for the Wildcats.

So far, Mitchell has the Patriots making big strides in the right direction.

Davidson Day's girls' basketball team already has surpassed the number of wins it had last season: two.

"I've been very pleased with them thus far," said Mitchell of her 3-6 Patriots. "We've really tried to redefine what success is and look at it not so much from a wins and losses standpoint but from what we view excellence as for our team: Working hard every day, focusing on the details, being disciplined."

That mentality came as a "shell-shock" for the young team.

"The first two or three weeks were a challenge getting to know each other, getting them to play together," she said, explaining that only five of her 12 players are returners.

Despite still working as an assistant coach at Wingate, Mitchell started individual workouts with the Patriots when she got the job in April and continued throughout the summer. She said she's seen vast improvement in the team as a whole and in the core group of girls that has been working out with her.

"We've really started understanding the game a little better," said Mitchell. "They're starting to put it together a little more."

Doing the "little things" - like switching on defense, keeping their assignments in a zone and taking better care of the ball - have been a big boost for the Patriots.

Point guard Alexas Bradford, only a seventh-grader, is showing the way for Davidson Day. Bradford is leading the team in scoring and assists so far this season.

"She's been one of my biggest competitors and my best ball-handler," said Mitchell. "When she gets a little older - even as an eighth-grader - she'll feel more ownership and step up and direct like she needs to."

Center Kay Funderburk also has been a big-time player for the Patriots, nearly averaging a double-double.

"She's just a force to be reckoned with," said Mitchell. "She's getting a lot of boards and also produces a lot of points for us in the paint. The girls know that if she's open, we need to give her the ball."

Junior forward Jasmine Hamilton, one of the few returners, has also stepped up for Mitchell.

Funderburk said she and her teammates have enjoyed playing for Mitchell.

"She's cool and fun to be around outside of coaching," said Funderburk, saying they've learned a lot from Mitchell on and off the court.

Mitchell, who describes herself as a "fundamental coach," admits it was a transition to coach high school after spending a few years at Wingate and as a graduate assistant at Augusta State after graduating from Davidson in 2007.

"In college you are blessed with a lot of talent and ability, so the drills you're able to do are fast-paced, high-tempo, and we're going to explain it once so you either get it or you get off the court," she said. "I wouldn't say I have that liberty any more."

But Mitchell still holds her team to a high standard, running "watered-down" college drills and working the players hard.

"I've had to learn a lot of patience but I haven't been disappointed," she said.

The Patriots run a mix of styles Mitchell learned playing and coaching in college - at an up-tempo pace, but with a calculated half-court approach.

"We're still a work in progress," she said. "We need to establish an identity and change the culture of women's basketball here."

Mitchell and her Patriots have high goals for the future.

"I want to build something where Davidson Day is known in this area for having a competitive team, for having good kids and fundamental basketball players," she said.