Whalers' Uzzle has become the ultimate role player ... and model
New London — She was a freshman in the New London High School girls' basketball program, called up to be a member of the varsity team, and Da'Jah Uzzle can distinctly recall standing on the sideline and watching the starters as they scrimmaged.
"I was memorizing the plays. I'm still memorizing them," Uzzle said.
Uzzle might not have known it at the time, but she was learning more than just basketball.
She learned to be a good teammate, enough so that she refers to her fellow members of New London's roster as her sisters. She learned leadership and poise, enough to be the second-ranked Whalers' co-captain now as a senior. She learned humility, enough so that she has adopted her role as New London's sixth man this season, when, in fact, she grew up dreaming of starting for the green and gold, filling the shoes of her cousin Jada Lucas, the Whalers' former all-state point guard.
"She's one of those kids you have to have on your team," New London coach Holly Misto said of Uzzle. "She's a kid that understands what it means to be part of a team. When you're called upon, you go in, do the best you can. It's not just about basketball. It's about being part of something bigger than yourself.
"I made her captain because she was a good leader. She sets an example when she's in the gym. She sets a good example. She works hard. She listens to the coaches. She understands what being a part of a team really means."
New London (21-2), last week's winners of the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I tournament championship, will embark on its journey in the Class LL state tournament on Monday at 6 p.m. at home against No. 31 Darien.
In Uzzle's career, the Whalers have played in a pair of state championship games at Mohegan Sun Arena, winning the 2017 Class LL title and finishing that season as the state's top-ranked team. Last year, New London, unbeaten to that juncture, fell in the quarterfinals to Enfield.
But back to Uzzle's freshman year for a moment.
"In middle school, I used to not like defense," Uzzle, a 5-foot-7 guard, said with a laugh following a recent practice. "Coach is a defensive person; she always says, 'Defense fuels your offense.' So I came to high school and was like, 'Here we go.'"
This season, Uzzle doesn't deny she was hoping for a starting role before a pair of dazzling underclassmen, sophomore Jayden Burns and freshman Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick, took their respective places in the backcourt.
That meant it was Uzzle's job, once again, to come off the bench — not welcome news, initially.
"It definitely took me a minute to check myself and say, 'This is what's best for the team,'" she said. "I realized coach is looking for me to be that veteran, that older teammate. I'm still going to get my minutes, get my shine, if I work hard and do this every day on the floor. I'm definitely one of the older ones the girls can come to at any time.
"We have that type of energy to push each other to do better. Kudos to Jayden Burns. She's always telling me, 'Keep your head up. It feels good to hear it.'"
Uzzle was named New London's ECC Sportsmanship Award winner.
You have only to listen to her talk about what the team means to her to understand why. Uzzle touched on the subject after the Whalers topped Norwich Free Academy on Feb. 7 to earn their sixth straight ECC divisional championship. She reiterated her point this week.
"Sometimes I have tough days at school, loads of homework," said Uzzle, a high honor student who plans to eventually become a physician's assistant.
"I love each day (at practice) with my sisters. It's a great vibe from everybody. A lot of joking around, the team is full of jokesters. Joniyah, she's always doing something random. We get on her about it. My wing man is sometimes Liv Yard; she's really funny. I like to be the person to make people laugh. But we come into game mode."
As for what she's learned ...
"Coach teaches us punctuality," Uzzle said. "If we have practice at 5, you get there no later than 4:45; 4:46 and you're late. Take responsibility for your actions. Respect your coaches. Respect your teammates. Respect the refs."
'Just be Da'Jah'
During Tuesday night's 54-40 victory over Bacon Academy for the ECC tournament crown, Uzzle was Misto's first pick off the bench, entering with 2 minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the first quarter with the Whalers leading 9-8. Less than a minute into her stint, Uzzle, the guard, sprinted to her left to retrieve an offensive rebound which led to a driving layup by Burns.
She returned early in the second quarter, played a little defense, and came back for the bulk of the fourth, drilling a jump shot that made it 52-32.
"You can always count on her," Misto said. "She knows what she's doing. She understands the offense and the defense. It's nice to have that. I tell her, 'When you're in there, just be Da'Jah. Do what Da'Jah does best.' It helps having a senior out there."
Uzzle has learned to relax more on the court, be more confident.
"I think throughout high school I had this pressure not to mess up," Uzzle said. "I get into the game and I would say, 'I can't mess up. I can't mess up.' Now I'm calm. Not nervous, no anxiety, none of that. Everyone has a role. I realize these guys are looking up to me. That gives me a sense of confidence."
Uzzle shares the captain's duties with fellow seniors Spencer Roman, Tai Pagan and Xaryia Melendez.
Roman said Uzzle has handled her role as sixth man graciously.
"She took that very well," Roman said. "I'm extremely proud of her. She's handling it better than I ever would. Really. She's grown up in front of my eyes. That's my best friend.
"She is a person that's pushing you to do better. She makes jokes that bring our mentality back up. She'll dance around with us to get the team back up. When we grew up, I always wanted to be her friend. She was the cool girl who had the nice clothes."
Uzzle is still pretty cool in that she's now playing for the city that means so much to her, where cousins Lucas and Jevon Elmore wore the Whalers colors before her.
She is trying to help hang another state championship banner in the gymnasium where she's spent so much time playing the sport that she loves.
Said Uzzle: "Being on this team makes you feel important."