by Aaron Garcia
RALEIGH – There was no happy-to-be-here sentiment in Tiffany Mitchell’s eyes – just honest-to-goodness pain. In fact, it was pretty easy to see that the then-freshman wanted to be just about anywhere else rather than standing outside her locker room following Hickory Grove’s 2009 N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Class 3A championship win over Mitchell’s Providence Day Chargers.
And in many ways, though at that point she had already arrived as one of Charlotte’s – and the nation’s – top young stars, her legacy-laying dominance started with the following words:
“When I leave here as a senior, I’m going to have three state championships,” she told a reporter following the game.
It was an eye-popping declaration for anyone to make, especially a freshman. But youthful exuberance was missing from the statement, instead replaced by a resolute certainty that usually comes with recollection rather than a prediction.
And for the three years following that rare loss, Mitchell steadfastly followed through on her promise, which finally culminated on Feb. 25, when the Chargers drubbed Greensboro Day, 66-42, for the their third consecutive state title.
“I don’t like losing at all,” she said following last weekend’s win. “To feel how I felt my freshman year playing Hickory Grove and to be so close and to lose it, I never wanted to feel that way again.”
But Mitchell’s follow-through did more than serve to simply evade the hurt that comes with a runner-up finish; it cemented her place as one of south Charlotte’s best all-time girls basketball players, if not the best.
Even as a freshman, the signs were there. She was a more-than-capable ball handler who loved to take big shots. And her now-trademarked fearlessness was apparent from the outset. Chargers coach Josh Springer recalled how Mitchell, fresh from middle school, joined the team for a summer team camp at Wake Forest University before her freshman year. In her first game, she hit a buzzer-beating game winner, and then she repeated the feat in overtime of the Chargers’ next game that same afternoon.
“I said to myself, ‘This kid has never played a high school game, but that ‘it’ is there,’” Springer recalled. “That ‘it’ doesn’t come along in many kids.”
But that was only half of Mitchell’s “it.” The other half started showing itself when she was a sophomore, after she began the season a little late following what could have been a devastating knee injury that required surgery.
Looking back, Mitchell explained that tearing her anterior cruciate ligament was her turning point. She said it made her realize that the game could be taken from her, that she would need to not just be better than everyone else, but tougher. Almost overnight, Mitchell transformed herself from an offensive dynamo into a do-it-all player as adept at collecting steals and clogging passing lanes as she was stroking 3-pointers or dishing assists. If a ball was on the floor, chances were she was sliding on the deck after it. It didn’t take long for her scoring averages to be rivaled by the number of floor burns on her legs or scratches on her face following a game. The only image as indelible within the Chargers’ floor as Mitchell’s nearly iconic No. 3 jersey was her multitude of knee pads. She said she usually went through five or six pairs per season.
Their purpose was purely pragmatic, said Springer.
“She wears them because she knows she’s going head-first after every loose ball,” said Springer.
And that, perhaps, will be Mitchell’s greatest legacy, starting next season when she matriculates to the University of South Carolina to begin her career with the Gamecocks. It will be the description the remaining players give the newcomers when trying to explain what Tiffany Mitchell meant to the Providence Day program. Unfairly or not, it will be the benchmark all future Charger stars are forced to measure up to.
When asked about her legacy following the most recent title game, Mitchell said she remembers what it was like to be the young player looking up to the seniors. She said she hopes the young players currently in the program remember her fondly and that they follow Springer’s coaching.
Then, she paused as the tears building in her eyes did something no defense has been able to do for the past three years – they stopped Tiffany Mitchell dead in her tracks.
“I’m sorry (for crying),” she said.
She shouldn’t be. For the last three years, her job on the court has said enough.