For many graduating women’s basketball players, commencement marks the official end of their journeys as student-athletes.
Some student-athletes relish the moment as it represents an opportunity to chase professional dreams or pursue new passions off the court. For others it’s daunting to leave the safety net and daily structure that comes with college athletics. The transition surely isn’t an easy one.
Today, there are a number of paths players can take once they complete their walk across the university stage, turn their tassel and toss their graduation caps in jubilation.
Due to a missed season, injury or the use of an additional year of eligibility awarded during the coronavirus pandemic, some graduating seniors will continue their collegiate playing careers, like Vanderbilt guard Demi Washington. A select few, such as Virginia Tech forward Taylor Soule, are drafted into the WNBA, where many will fight for a coveted roster spot. Others, such as USC guard Destiny Littleton, will explore professional options overseas. And many, like University of North Carolina guard Ariel Young, will walk away from their playing days altogether in pursuit of their next journey.
Andscape followed four graduating women’s basketball players with four different postgraduate paths as they concluded their experience as student-athletes and readied themselves for their next opportunities.
When Young stepped onto the court as a freshman at the University of Michigan, she thought she had a solid plan for her college career and the work she had to do to make that happen. She was going to earn her minutes on the floor and develop as a player. For the most part, she had accomplished that goal after her first seasons on the court, as a freshman with the Wolverines and as a redshirt sophomore after she transferred to the University of North Carolina.
In September 2021, during a practice with the Tar Heels, Young tore her ACL and both of her menisci. When Young had surgery for the injury that November, doctors had been forced to remove 70 to 80 percent of her meniscus.
“In terms of cushions in my knee, I basically had none,” Young said.
Young missed the 2021-22 season. Because of the severity of the injury, Young’s rehabilitation process was slower than normal and at the beginning of the following season she was still in rehab. She would eventually be cleared to play in the 2022 preseason and saw her first action on the court in a year and a half. But during a practice following UNC’s second preseason game, Young heard a pop in her knee during a defensive drill. A scared Young began hyperventilating and she called for her athletic trainer.
“I said, ‘I did it again. I did it again,’ ” Young recalled. “Anybody who’s ever had a ACL tear, they know that scary feeling you get of doing it again. The MRI came back and ultimately the pop was essentially me tearing my meniscus, if I had one.”
Due to her previous injury, and the lack of meniscus structure she had continued playing with, Young had a cartilage lesion on the outside of her knee and a large amount of thinning of her cartilage.
Young was faced with a choice: endure more surgery to repeat the rehabilitation process without guarantee of a positive outcome or medically retire from basketball. She consulted her parents. Her mom Carolyn, who played for the Portland Fire in the WNBA and the 1992 Olympic team, experienced an ACL tear right when Young was born. Her dad, Charlton “C.Y.” Young, also a former pro basketball player, is an associate head coach at Missouri.
“I felt, in that moment, after I talked to my trainer and I talked to my parents, the fear of me just letting it go was very hard for me,” said Young, who took a medical retirement in January. “I understood that this was probably the best decision for me long term.”
With her playing career over, Young chose to pivot. She knew that she still wanted to be involved in college athletics. That’s why she completed her degree in sports administration. She also knew that while her love of basketball and sports had changed, she still wanted to give back and find a way to be on the front lines of giving college athletes an experience greater than the one she had. She decided to pursue a graduate degree at UNC in sports administration with a focus on intercollegiate sports. Young hopes to become an athletic director.
Basketball remains one of Young’s first loves, one that will never leave her. She’ll miss playing the game but she says she’ll still dribble a ball from time to time. She is excited to watch and enjoy the game and support her former Tar Heel teammates.
“I’m more of a fan now. I can relax. I can relax a little bit and just sit back and enjoy it. And I’m excited for that,” Young said.
When Young reflects on her college journey and the significance of receiving her degree, she looks back on her path with pride.
“Things happen. You can’t really predict all the things that are going to happen to you in your life,” Young said. “I learned a lot about myself. It built my character, in terms of, if I can go through all this stuff in just this short period of time, I’m going into the next step of my life feeling well prepared that I can face any problems that I do face in the real world.”
On May 10, Virginia Tech held its commencement for its graduate students. Missing from that ceremony was Hokies women’s basketball guard Soule. As Virginia Tech graduates posed for photos with their diplomas, Soule was in the Midwest, posing for pictures on media day for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.
The last few months were a self-described fever dream for Soule. In late March, she was playing for a Hokies team that had achieved its best season in program history – making it all the way to its first Final Four. In April, just 10 days after her collegiate season ended, Soule was drafted with the 28th pick by the Lynx. On April 30, Soule reported for training camp in Minnesota, where for almost three weeks she had been grinding for a spot on the Lynx’s final roster.
Soule was cut from the Lynx roster on May 18, the final day of the preseason.
“Training camp’s been fun. It’s obviously different from college basketball,” Soule said before the final cuts. “There’s a jump physically and how strong the girls are, how fast the game is played. But I think I got really lucky with the team that drafted me where I feel I’m surrounded by vets that want to help me grow. It’s definitely been an adjustment and it’s not always gone perfectly, but I’m having a good time.”
Soule drew from recent experience when it came to entering an environment in which she was fighting for her spot on a team. She felt the same kind of pressure at Virginia Tech after transferring from Boston College, where she had started all four years, but had to prove herself all over again. Soule became integral to her Virginia Tech team, which would win its first ACC tournament championship. She called it the best season she’s ever had playing basketball.
Before Soule left Blacksburg, Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks had some parting words. He told her to be herself, take a deep breath and don’t leave anything on the floor.
“Because you never know in this league when today’s going to be your last day, and so you have to give it everything you’ve got,” Soule said.
In camp, Soule’s focus was on excelling in the areas that got her into that position. She emphasized being a high-energy, vocal player for the Lynx and was able to make a strong impression on the organization with her quickness and activity on both sides of the ball. Through Minnesota’s preseason slate, Soule emerged as one of its most impressive performers.
It was a bit of a bittersweet experience for Soule as a pro, as she lived out a lifelong dream while also being unsure how long her time in Minnesota would last.
“There’s only 36 people that get drafted and only a small percentage of them are going to make a spot on a team,” Soule said. “It’s a mixture of being blessed for the opportunity and then going and getting it and being like, ‘I deserve this,’ and putting in the work to close that gap. It’s been quite the last few months.”
Soule, 23, is still getting used to the transition into adulthood. It’s been a shift for her to go from hanging with college-age students to a team of pros, some of whom have families. She’s had a lot of downtime, especially after completing her studies.
“I feel now the transition is like, ‘OK, now what do I do with my time when my teammates are mothers and have pets and have families to go back home to?’ ” Soule said. “Trying to navigate that, paying taxes, a whole bunch of adult stuff.”
Soule received her bachelor’s degree in communications at Boston College and completed her master’s degree in instructional design and technology at Virginia Tech. Besides handling the stress of battling to make a WNBA roster, Soule finished final projects for her degree in the first few weeks of training camp. She hopes to get into coaching during her basketball career.
“Academics haven’t always been kind to me, but I’ve been surrounded by people that have always motivated me and helped me out,” Soule said. “Even if I don’t recognize the importance of my bachelor’s and my master’s right now, my mom and dad are always telling me, ‘Five, 10 years down the line, you’re going to be happy that you did it.’ And they haven’t been wrong so far, so I trust them.”
When Littleton signed with USC, she wasn’t sure that she still wanted to play basketball. Following the end of her senior season at the University of South Carolina, which concluded with a national championship, Littleton was drained. She was so tired and mentally exhausted by her roller-coaster experience in collegiate athletics and basketball that she didn’t really know if she wanted to continue. She ultimately chose basketball, but wasn’t sure it was the right decision. She didn’t know if she’d ever regain the energy and love of the game.
It was a process for Littleton, but she slowly began to reclaim her passion for the game, crediting USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb for not rushing her through her comeback. Littleton went on to have the best season of her career on a USC team that had its best season in almost a decade.
“I had a really, really fun year. I don’t regret anything,” Littleton said. “And I’m really happy that I was able to have the experience that I had playing basketball.”
Littleton is one of a number of graduating players who unfortunately did not hear their names called during the draft or receive a WNBA training camp invite, but remain committed to playing professionally. For many, that opportunity will be to play overseas.
“As we all know, the WNBA is really, really hard to get into,” Littleton said. “My career as a basketball player kind of just got started last year. I’m not really too worried about my future in the WNBA, but overseas is daunting and a lot of people don’t go overseas because it’s a lot, it’s different.”
Littleton has sought advice from those in her network who have played internationally. Littleton speaks with her agent, who will be contacted by overseas teams, and they have weighed all factors from contract type to team structure to country. She’s not too picky in terms of where she wants to go, but being in a safe place with a team that fits her style is a priority. With offers already on the table, Littleton plans to sign a contract by the end of May and will go overseas in the fall.
Littleton plans on playing basketball as long as she can, but when the athletic chapter of her life ends, she looks forward to pursuing her other aspiration, to become a doctor, either in orthopedic surgery or pediatric oncology.
“If basketball takes me really, really far and I don’t have the opportunity to become a doctor, then that’s kind of God’s plan. But as of now, my passion is to become a doctor and whatever path that I have to take to do that, then I’ll do it,” she said.
In a speech given during USC’s student-athlete commencement, Littleton detailed her harrowing experiences of what she endured on and off the court. She recalled how she grew up in poverty, left home in middle school and slept on couches and in guest rooms through high school.
At Texas, she overcame multiple injuries to start on a Top 25 team. Off the court, she learned that her biological father had been arrested for a cold case murder and later had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, would not seek treatment and died. She had to raise money on her own to pay for his funeral. Littleton then spoke about her transfer to South Carolina and how during that transfer year, she was diagnosed with stress fractures in both feet. The injury required surgery and Littleton used a wheelchair for months. She had to relearn how to walk. Littleton rebounded, by the 2021-22 season, and appeared in all 31 games of South Carolina’s championship run.
“Every little stop that I’ve had at Texas, South Carolina and now USC, I’ve taken everything, all my learning moments and just built on it from start to finish,” Littleton said. “And just kind of seeing myself.”
While Littleton is still unsure of where she’ll play later this year, she’s fortunate to have a plan, something she said is one of the scariest parts for any graduating student-athlete leaving the “safety net of college athletics.”
“I think that’s a really hard thing that student-athletes don’t realize until they’re at this point,” Littleton said. “We spend so much time on the court, on the field, on the track and we don’t really realize that college is four, five years and then we’re done. We have to go and venture out and release from the umbrella of being a college athlete. It’s scary.”
Littleton was the first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree when she graduated with a degree in exercise science (with a pre-med focus) from South Carolina. Now, she’s also the first in her family to attain a master’s degree. At USC, she’ll leave with a master’s degree in communication management.
“Being a student-athlete is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Littleton said. “For me personally, my college career has been one that I have had many ups and downs, but if I had to do it all over again, I would, because you learn so much just going through the discipline that you need, the accountability, the time management, the personable skills, there’s an endless list of things that you learn being a student-athlete that is invaluable that nobody else can say they’ve experienced, nobody else can say that they’ve gone through.”
When Washington reflects on her four years at Vanderbilt, she remembers her first experience playing in the postseason, the relationships and lifelong friendships she built with her teammates and the irreplaceable moments in the locker room — memories, Washington said, that will last a lifetime.
She’ll remember the struggle to find a balance juggling the demands of being a student-athlete with the academic rigor of an institution like Vanderbilt. It’s been an unpredictable journey for Washington who had to endure the coronavirus pandemic, a change in the coaching staff and a health scare that temporarily upended her sophomore season.
Washington’s basketball career came to an unexpected halt in 2021 after an MRI done after she got COVID 19 revealed she had myocarditis, which is inflammation around her heart. It was the most difficult thing Washington endured during her collegiate experience.
“Finding out that I wasn’t going to play my sophomore season because of inflammation around my heart was heartbreaking,” Washington said. “I remember just bawling, crying to my dad. Like, ’What did I do wrong?’ I was blaming myself for something that I really had no control over.”
Washington was eager to return to the court, but progress was slow. She could only participate in activities for 30 minutes at a time or until her heart rate reached a certain number of beats per minute. Basketball, she says, is her purest form of joy. Enduring the rehabilitation process without it forced her to grow in ways unexpected.
“Through it, I just realized how strong I am, how resilient I am, and that I can literally do anything and get through anything that I put my mind to,” Washington said. “I feel like now anytime something comes along that is challenging, but it’s something that I can’t control, I’ll have a better outlook on how to handle it.”
Washington returned to the court for the Commodores in her junior season, and started in 27 of 35 games. After overcoming myocarditis and having the opportunity to play once again, Washington said, she developed a new view of the game.
“I just wanted to have fun every time I stepped on the court and not take things so seriously,” she said.
Washington was given the option to go home following her myocarditis diagnosis but she remained on campus, choosing to continue her studies and support her teammates as they endured playing through a pandemic year. Something that helped Washington during that tough period was going to therapy.
“I think my experiences with going to therapy really sparked my interest in the realm of psychology and then my future career goals of being a therapist,” said Washington, who will graduate from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s in psychology. “I had a great lady mentor me named Vickie Woosley, who is actually the therapist now for the Predators here in Nashville. And she really mentored me and coached me up and I just reflected on a lot of the impact that she made in my life during some of the hard times that I went through, and I knew that I wanted to have the same impact on someone else one day.”
While Washington will be leaving Vanderbilt after four seasons, she’s not quite done hooping. Washington entered the transfer portal after her senior season and will use her final year of eligibility to play at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“I still feel like I haven’t scratched the surface of how good I can be,” said Washington, who will concurrently pursue a master’s degree in education in counseling psychology. “I just love the game so much, more than anything. I love to compete, I love to get better and I think that my new family at Temple’s really going to bring the best out me. That’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Following the NCAA’s recent rule change that allows college athletes to transfer programs without having to sit out a year, the number of players using the transfer portal has skyrocketed. As a graduate transfer, Washington would not have had to sit out a year regardless, but she had some advice for any player who may be considering a transfer.
“I love that we get the option to seek out different opportunities and all that. I think it’s important that girls know what they want when they do go into the portal ’cause it’s scary, it’s crazy out there,” Washington said. “You have to have a good support system too, that can help guide you through it because it’s possible that … the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I feel like that’s another reason too, why I waited till my grad year to seek out something different because I kind of finished what I started and that was a big deal to me.”