DeKALB – It will have been after three years of living in Florida, but Ajah Davis is coming home.
The DeKalb native, who transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida after her freshman season at DeKalb High School, committed to play women’s basketball at NIU last week.
“I was born and raised in DeKalb, so it was definitely in my bloodlines,” said Davis, who is getting ready to enter her senior season at Montverde. “That was my first offer. I saw how loyal they were. They were always asking about my family. Other schools, I don’t even think some of them knew I was out of state going to school.”
Davis said she entertained offers from Miami (Ohio) and Cal State-Bakersfield, but the Huskies were the obvious choice. In addition to recruiting her since she was a freshman at DeKalb, her mother, Herilanda “Noopie” Thigpen played for the Huskies. She was NIU’s leading scorer and rebounder in the 1996-97 season.
“It was like, ‘Why would I got to Miami when NIU is right here and they’re both in the MAC?’ ” Davis said. “ ‘I’m home. I’m trying to get to the NCAA tournament. Why not take my home team there?’ ”
Montverde is a private college preparatory school about 20 miles west of Orlando. The school has produced many professional athletes, including Joel Embiid, Francisco Lindor, D’Angelo Russell, Ben Simmons and Devin Williams.
Living on campus has given her an early taste of college life, Davis said.
“I’m definitely getting the college experience because I’m in dorms,” Davis said. “The workouts, from DeKalb compared to Montverde, are completely different. We have a preseason. We start as soon as we’re all back on campus. We play basketball, we run, we lift, just like a college team, throughout the whole school year. We come home three days for Christmas.”
The coach that recruited her to Montverde, E.C. Hill, also is a former NIU standout, playing for the team from 1991 to 1994 and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2004.
Although she pretty much knew NIU was going to be an option for her since she was a freshman, she still decided to go to Montverde to expand her game.
“E.C., who’s also an alumna at Northern, got the coaching job and asked if I would come,” Davis said. “I told her ‘No, I don’t want to leave my friends and family, no.’ But I sat back and realized how good the opportunity was academically and athletically.”
Davis said her first year at Montverde was very difficult.
“I knew I had to adjust – I just didn’t know how to,” Davis said. “We pretty much live on our own but with a dorm parent. ... It was a phone call to my mom every single night after practice. ‘Mama, I want to come home, this is too hard.’ Mom was like ‘This is exactly how college is going to be, so you have to stick it out.’ She did give me the option to come back to DeKalb after my first year, but I did see the opportunity was still there.”
Things became more complicated in May 2017, the end of her sophomore season, when her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She now is cancer-free.
“It was challenging because mom’s never been sick, ever,” Davis said. “To see my mom laying in a hospital bed, she had lost so much blood, so much weight, I just did not want to come back to Montverde. But mom didn’t want to take away my opportunity. It was a challenging year, but both my coaches were definitely there for me. My teammates, every step of the way, too.”
With her offer in hand from the Huskies, she said she thought about a return to the Barbs, but instead decided to finish her career with Montverde.
“Then I just thought how productive could I be going to DeKalb, then NIU,” Davis said. “Where as I know at Montverde, I know I’ll be getting an ice strong workout everyday before I hit the NIU campus.”
Davis will play for Lisa Carlsen, who just wrapped her third year coaching the Huskies – her first year was Davis’ freshman year at DeKalb.
Davis, a 6-foot power forward and center, said she really likes what she’s seen out of the program.
“The players, they are a reflection of the coaches,” Davis said. “I see every one of the players, from me having my official visit to me having my unofficial visit, they’re there for each other. ... When my mom went through cancer last year every time it was ‘How’s your mom, how’s this, how’s that?’ The players, you can see what they do off the court leads to what they do on the court.”