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KENLY — Jada Santiago wants to be a Division I college athlete at the beach. Tayanna Jones found her perfect blend of academic prestige and a small campus. Lexi Godwin, a University of North Carolina fan her entire life, experienced the thrill of signing with her favorite school. For Mary Catherine and Barrett Davis, both born premature, it was the chance to do something that some thought wouldn’t be possible.
Indeed, everyone had a story to tell during Wednesday’s extensive signing extravaganza inside the North Johnston High media center. Jones will take her basketball talents to the Big East Conference and Georgetown University, while Santiago and Godwin will head to the Division I level at UNC Wilmington and UNC Chapel Hill, respectively.
The Davis sisters will split up for their college volleyball careers, but not by much. Both will remain in the same Division III conference, with Barrett suiting up for William Peace University. Mary Catherine will head to Rocky Mount to play for North Carolina Wesleyan. Both schools are situated in the USA South Athletic Conference.
BALANCE FOR JONES
Jones, the daughter of Keno and Brandy Jones of Pine Level, also entertained interest from Virginia Tech, among others. But the idea of playing high level basketball while getting a quality education from the Washington, DC school won out in the end. She plans to major in graphic design with the potential of embarking in journalism.
“Georgetown is really closed in, and it’s about 7,000 students,” Jones said. “So I felt like that was good. Virginia Tech was an awesome program, but I felt like I wanted to be known more not only as a basketball player, but on the academic side. Georgetown, being very prestigious, I felt like me going to Georgetown — it was family agreement as well — it would be a better option for me.”
As a junior, Jones averaged 17.8 points per game to go along with 7.1 rebounds, two steals and just over two assists per game. Her length from the point guard spot gave head coach Jay Poole an extra element from the point guard position, as she accounted for two blocks per contest. Jones, at the top of NJ’s 1-2-2 press, was responsible for generating deflections and turning them into easy baskets on the other end. Poole would know, as he eagerly charts deflections on the defensive end.
“That’s a trait she’s blessed with,” Poole said. “To have a 6-1 point guard is very unusual. For several years here at North Johnston, I used to always say I could look everybody in the eye, and that’s not a good thing. Then, when Tayanna came along, all of a sudden, I had to look up. And that was a good thing! But she creates a lot of deflections, alters passes, forces lobs and slows teams down.”
From the perimeter, Jones was accurate as well, knocking down 39 3-point field goals as a junior. Entering the rugged Big East — where basketball is the first priority for many member schools — Jones said she will have to get stronger off the dribble and learn how to finish through contact at the rim.
“I know the Big East is going to be very competitive,” Jones said. “I know finishing through traffic and contact is something I need to work on. I feel like my jump shot is pretty good. I have a lot of confidence in that, and that’s something I think I can really use at Georgetown.
The Hoyas were 17-13 last season and 9-9 in the Big East, losing to Fordham in the opening round of the WNIT. Associate head coach James Howard will take over the lead chair for 2017-18 after serving in his previous role for the past two seasons.
BACK TO KENLY
After spending her freshman year at North Johnston, Godwin transferred to Greenfield School, where she played basketball as a junior. But Godwin, an intended business major at UNC, returned to North Johnston for her senior season of softball. Greenfield does not offer the sport.
Godwin chose the Tar Heels over interest from UNC Charlotte, Mercer, Memphis and UNC Greensboro. However, when North Carolina came calling, it wasn’t a hard choice.
“From day 1, I always wanted to be a Tar Heel,” she said. “When I found out they were interested, all my interest went to them.”
Godwin’s development into a Division I softball prospect happened primarily on the travel softball circuit with the Carolina Elite out of South Carolina.
For the Elite, Godwin typically found herself in the Nos. 3 or 4 spots in the batting order. This season with the Lady Panthers, Godwin will team with Santiago to give NJ a lethal combination in the middle of the order. She will attempt to learn a defensive position at first or second base before joining the Tar Heels, but is largely known for her bat. Time at the designated player spot is a possibility in Chapel Hill.
“I hope this year, we’ll be able to produce a lot and hopefully, get a state championship,” Godwin said. “I think for a lot of people, we’ve always been a doubted school. And I think when the Lauren Battens and everybody left, they thought we weren’t going to be very productive. Last year, I was really impressed with the team and I’m very excited being back this year to see what we can do.”
For Godwin, the daughter of Ricky and Tracy Godwin of Selma, her signing carried a bit of personal validation. As a sophomore, Godwin recounted the tales of those telling her she was not capable of performing at the Division I level.
“It’s the reason I’m sitting here today,” she said. “When they told me I could not make it, it’s what ignited me. It gave me all the motivation to get where I am. Anger. It fueled me. There’s not many people that I can say are going to be able to look at me and tell me that I’m not going to be able to become what I’m going to become and who I’m going to become.
UNC, under veteran head coach Donna Papa, went 40-21 last year and lost in the championship round of the Oxford Regional to host Mississippi.
BEHIND THE DISH
Santiago, the daughter of Richard and Candy Santiago of Pine Level, summed it up in the first four words of her interview.
“I love the beach!” she exclaimed.
She’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore that passion at UNCW as an intended exercise science major. Santiago, who wanted to go to a UNC system school of some kind, considered interest from UNC Greensboro, UNC Charlotte, Campbell, Lenoir-Rhyne and Elon.
Santiago, who played travel softball with the Carolina Wildcats, hit .408 as a junior at North Johnston with 34 RBIs and seven doubles. But her role as a clean-up hitter was emphasized with her team-leading 10 home runs. The Lady Panthers went 20-6, won the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference title outright and reached the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs.
Arm strength and getting runners out on the basepaths ranks as a strength for Santiago before embarking to Wilmington. Yet her mental preparation in readying to compete against fellow Division I athletes will be a work in progress leading into her freshman year in the 2019 season.
“I know I’m going to have to earn it,” Santiago said of playing time at UNCW. “But I’m going to prepare myself as best as I can and hopefully, I will earn it.”
Santiago assured a scholarship spot on the UNCW roster is her dream situation at the Division I level.
UNCW was 35-20-1 last season and accepted a bid to the National Invitational Softball Championship, where it went 2-2 with an elimination loss to Ohio.
BACK AND FORTH
Jeff and Nicole Davis have been involved in athletics for nearly their entire lives.
So the task of watching both Mary Catherine and Barrett Davis at their respective schools will be challenging, but nothing they haven’t juggled in the past.
Both Mary Catherine and Barrett will celebrate their 18th birthdays next week. Nicole Davis, the athletic director at North Johnston, remembers what the statistics bore out in regards to her own daughters. College volleyball simply wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Honestly, I’m speechless,” she said. “As a mama, their birthday is next week. They’ll be 18. They were born premature, and this is just icing on the cake. They were not supposed to have been able to do all the things they’re doing. We just feel blessed.”
In college, Barrett will patrol the libero spot for William Peace. Mary Catherine, at Wesleyan, will take on the defensive specialist spot. Both were noted defensive players for their mom in high school, with Barrett Davis running the Lady Panthers’ offense through the setters spot. Division III schools are not permitted to award athletic scholarships.
“I liked the small college atmosphere,” Barrett Davis said. “The volleyball program has been very successful in the past.”
Both twins realized that playing college volleyball for the same school was not likely due to proficiency at the same spot.
“We both play the same position,” Mary Catherine Davis said. “So we didn’t want to have to compete for playing time. We both knew it was a high possibility that we wouldn’t play together.”
But that’s not to say that they won’t play together on the same court in college as USA South opponents, when WPU and Wesleyan intersect on the court.
“If that happened, I would just lose it,” Nicole Davis said. “I think I’m going to have to get half of a Wesleyan and Peace shirt and maybe have to get a flag. Like State and Carolina, a ‘House Divided.’”