By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When one of your older “sisters” is a 6-foot tall basketball star from Jamaica who is now playing professionally in Spain, you don’t win too many one-on-one games in the back yard. But going up against an athlete like Shereesha Richards on a daily basis when you’re a kid pays dividends when you get into high school.
Dakota Hitchner, a senior three-sport star at Atlantic Christian School in Egg Harbor Township, took her lumps against Richards in pick-up game growing up but now is one of the most prolific scorers in South Jersey. Richards played her high school ball at Atlantic Christian after coming over from Jamaica and staying with the Hitchners, her host family. She went on to star at the University of Albany, becoming one of the top players in NCAA women’s basketball last year. And Dakota’s two other older sisters, Carly and Casey, were outstanding athletes in their own right.
Sports is quite the family affair for the Hitchners, of Upper Township. Casey was an athlete at Ocean City High School and Carly was a standout soccer player at Atlantic Christian. She was Dakota’s soccer coach this fall, as Dakota helped lead the Cougars to a league championship. And Dakota’s mother, Pam, has been the girls basketball coach at ACS for the past 10 years.
“I never really thought of going to a different school. I’ve gone here since first grade. One of my sisters, Carly, came here. My other sister, Casey, went to Ocean City and Shereesha came here. Shereesha went Division I and is now playing in Spain, so I kind of wanted to follow in her footsteps,” Dakota said. “We got along right away. We were best friends right from the start, outside playing one-on-one, the whole bit. I practiced with my mom’s team even when I was really little because I’ve always wanted to make myself better. When I was in eighth grade, I played on varsity and I got my 1000th point during my sophomore year. Ever since I was little, when I saw Shereesha score her 1000th point, I knew that’s what I wanted to do and it was going to be a goal of mine during my high school career.”
Dakota came into this basketball season with more than 1,800 points, and has a shot at finishing her career with more than 2,000 points and 500 rebounds. She doesn’t get a whole lot of attention playing in the Tri-State Christian Athletic Conference, but still did well enough to earn a scholarship to King University in Bristol, Tenn. She’s also played a lot of AAU basketball with teams such as the Panthers and Atlantic Cape Wildcats, going up against some of the best competition in the area.
“You have to make your mark when you’re at a small Christian school, so we play a lot of the bigger public schools. Not a lot of college coaches are like, ‘let’s go see Atlantic Christian School.’ But they want to see the schools we’re playing. And that also gets us better,” Dakota said. “I was on the Panthers for a little while, too, so I played with girls like (Ocean City’s) Grace Sacco, Ayanna (Jones) from Holy Spirit, some girls from EHT. So I’ve played with a lot of people around here. Grace and I have played against each other growing up and we’ve played on all-star teams. It’s cool playing against that kind of competition.”
Dakota is a three-sport athlete because, well, there aren’t that many students at Atlantic Christian and it’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck mentality when it comes to sports.
“At Atlantic Christian, you play everything. If you’re an athlete, you play every sport. We have basically the same girls for every sport. The soccer team is the basketball team, and the basketball team is the softball team. We’re all playing everything,” she said. “Sometimes you want to focus on the sport (you want to play in college) but it also gives you a variety and different strengths. The different workouts you do strengthen your body for different sports. Soccer gets me in shape for basketball and makes my legs stronger so I don’t have knee injuries. A lot of things are similar, too. The defenses in soccer and basketball are pretty similar in terms of the stances you are in and how to contain someone. I enjoy the variety because it doesn’t burn you out in one sport.”
Having Richards as a role model and workout partner certainly has helped Dakota develop into an outstanding athlete.
“Having Shereesha has helped a lot in terms of pushing me and making me better. When you have sisters who are older, you want to do better than them and out-do each other. So that’s made me push harder — not only for them and my family, but for myself,” Dakota said. “I want to be the best I can be. Carly and Casey were more of the soccer players, while Shereesha and I were more into basketball. I still haven’t beaten Shereesha in a game of one-on-one.”
Dakota has been attending Atlantic Christian since she was in first grade, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s loved the school for as long as she can remember, and enjoys now being a role model to a whole new generation of Cougars.
“It’s a family here. At this school, people have each other’s backs. You know everyone and everyone knows you. Everyone in my class, we’ve pretty much all been together since first grade, so we’re a tight-knit group. You get to really be an influence and a role model to the younger kids, too. They really look up to you. They all know you, and you don’t really realize how much you influence them. Even just saying hello to a middle schooler, that really brightens up their whole day that a senior said hello to them. It can change everything for them,” Dakota said. “A lot of people think coming from a small Christian school that there aren’t college opportunities, so I think it gives them something to strive for to see that Shereesha and I have made it to a higher level. It gives them something to have hope in, and that’s awesome.”
Dakota also credits her strong faith as playing a big role in her success as an athlete, along with the support system in place at Atlantic Christian.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the Lord giving me these abilities, and I’m really thankful for him keeping me safe and strong and having the integrity of character, and not wanting to give up. I never want to give up,” she said.
Dakota said she knows that next fall her life will change dramatically. She’ll be leaving the comforts of home to embark on a college sports career, and while she said she’s nervous about the next phase of her life, she’s ready for the challenge. And having her college choice all settled now will allow her to concentrate simply on having fun on the basketball court this winter, and softball field in the spring.
“I’ll definitely be homesick, but anywhere you go it’s going to be all basketball. That’s the commitment I chose, so I can’t really worry about my social life or being far away. Even if I went to a school two hours away, it would be the same hard-working commitment. It’s what I chose to do, so I have to accept that. But I think it will be good. I think it will be the same thing where the team is a family, so I don’t think it will be that bad. Your team is your family. It will be different being in different place far away, but that’s life. You’re going to meet different people, it’s the real world,” Dakota said. “It’s so relieving. I was so stressed out all summer long with the application process, but now all that is lifted off my shoulders and I can just have fun. I’ve never really gotten the chance to go out there on the basketball court with no stress and just have fun. So I’m just going to go out there, have fun with the other players, strive for my goals and enjoy my senior year.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN