By Samuel Northrup, Editor-In-Chief
While growing up in South Utica, Michele Davis had two options to keep herself busy after Sunday morning church service let out: she could watch the day’s NASCAR race with her father, which she found boring with the exception of car crashes, or she could shoot hoops outside her grandmother’s house.
Davis chose the latter, and she became hooked on the sport of basketball from there.
Davis leisurely shot hoops on Sundays in her grandmother’s driveway — which often resulted in a broken window or two — until 1985, when she decided to sign up to play basketball on a team in fifth grade. However, her mother was hesitant to let her daughter play out of fear she would hurt herself or someone else. But after some convincing, Davis’ mother would agree, and the decision would prove to be the first step in her daughter’s journey to becoming both a decorated player and coach.
It was an immense love for the game that motivated Davis as a player, but now, as she enters her 19th season as head coach of the Utica College women’s basketball team, it is a passion for her players and their success on and off the court that keeps her coming back to the sport she began playing 30 years ago in her grandmother’s driveway on Mohawk Street.
“It’s the relationships you have in the office, when you go to lunch with them (the players), when you finally get to take them out to Beardslee Castle (a fine-dining restaurant in Little Falls) for their senior dinner and let loose a little,” Davis said. “It’s being there and trying to support them through their academics and the issues they may have during the years they are at UC.”
Davis has led the Pioneers to eight Empire 8 Conference Tournaments, two conference championships and two NCAA Tournament appearances on her way to becoming the winningest coach in her program’s history with a combined record of 236-229.
Now in her 21st year with UC, which dates back to 1997 when she started as an assistant coach, Davis remembers when her team won its first Empire 8 Conference Tournament in 2008. After a 55-46 win against Stevens Institute of Technology, the E8 title would send the UC women’s basketball team to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1985.
“I just remember being so honored to be in that spot and soaking it all in because you never know when it’s going to happen again,” Davis said. “I want us to get back there because these players [currently on the roster] work so hard.”
While one of Davis’ primary goals remains winning, she does not just want to collect victories and accolades — she wants each of her players to experience winning and the pride that comes with it.
In order to do this, Davis said, it starts with the players and their ability to “buy in.” And there is perhaps no better example of buying in than former All-American forward Jessica Berry, a member of Utica College’s Pioneer Hall of Fame and the all-time leading scorer for the women’s basketball team.
Currently a police officer in Philadelphia, Berry credits Davis for her successes in both life and her record-setting basketball career at UC.
“She pushed me to do my best, and then she pushed me to go beyond that,” Berry said. “She had very high expectations of all her players, and personally, I wanted to meet those expectations to be the best that I could for the school, the team and her. For me, she was a very difficult person to disappoint. She expected you to work and do your best, but her high expectations and how much she believed in me helped get me to that point.”
Now, Berry has one simple piece of advice for current players hoping to get the most out of their experience working with Davis: listen.
“Even when I thought I was doing my best, she knew I could do better and the team could do better,” she said. “She has a way, I can’t really describe it, of pulling out your best skillset and making you understand what she wants you to do and what she expects you to do.”
Junior guard Nicolette Conkin will be taking Berry’s advice to task this season.
In addition to her responsibilities as one of the team’s upperclassmen at the guard position, Conkin has accepted a challenge from her coach to take on a greater leadership role this season — an important trait to have on a Davis-coached team, she said.
“She’s very competitive and passionate about winning; we get it,” Conkin said. “She’s not going to dance around what you did wrong, she’s going to tell it like it is.”
Conkin first met Davis over the course of three separate recruiting visits in her senior year playing for Homestead High School in Los Altos, California. While Conkin is attending UC for a degree in health studies, she credits Davis’ passion for the school and the Utica area for convincing her to attend college nearly 3,000 miles away from home.
“She was really funny and knew so much about basketball and the Utica area,” Conkin said. “She showed us a bunch of local stuff and told us all about the local food; you could tell she was really passionate about basketball and where she coached.”
Sophomore Brigid Johndrow, who was the team’s fifth and youngest leading scorer last season, also appreciates Davis’ honesty and passion. Like Conkin, Johndrow, who grew up in Connecticut, was persuaded to come to UC because of the impression Davis left on her after recruiting visits.
If it was not for Davis’ “passion for the game,” Johndrow explained, then she might not have decided to attend UC.
“She’s always upbeat and never likes when you slow things down,” Johndrow said. “She always likes things going and going, and you always have to pay attention because it all goes so fast. She likes to have fun, but you always have to be aware of what’s going on because she’s a very intense person.”
Through passion and devotion to her players, Davis has been able to continue both a culture of winning and a family atmosphere with her teams. For the success, friendships and memories, Davis explained that she has one simple message for her current and former players — “thank you.”
“You build these relationships with them, and it’s awesome to see them grow,” Davis said. “It’s pretty cool when you look at them when you were recruiting them as a senior in high school, then, all of a sudden, they’re married and have two kids. It’s funny to look at that timeline and see how you’ve grown with them — it’s special.”