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Herald Player of Year Mitchell verbals to East Tennessee State

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

CUTHBERT -- Somewhere out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean last week during a cruise to the Bahamas with her senior class, Randolph-Clay superstar girls basketball player Destiny Mitchell did her best to soak up the sunlight, forget about school and enjoy one final hurrah with her friends.

But no matter what, basketball -- and her future on the court -- never left her mind.

"I just tried to enjoy it, clear my mind and relax," she told The Herald on Tuesday just hours after announcing she had verbally committed to Division I East Tennessee State in Johnson City, Tenn. "I just kicked back -- but I was thinking about (my decision)."

The decision, as it turns out, came down to ETSU and St. John's in New York -- a destination that would've been a far cry from the small town of Cuthbert where Mitchell grew up.

"Oh, my -- I would've loved for her to go to New York. That would've been so cool to go visit her there," Mitchell's mother, Monica Reynolds, said. "But I was also a little skeptical about her going to such a big city starting off, seeing as how she's always been a small-town country girl. So I just left the decision completely up to her and I think, overall, she made a great one (in ETSU)."

Mitchell, The Herald's co-Player of the Year with Bainbridge star and Illinois signee, Alexis Burke, joins a program in the Lady Buccaneers that has reached the women's NCAA Tournament three years in a row and are two-time defending Atlantic Sun champs under coach Karen Kemp, who coincidentally also received a three-year contract extension Tuesday.

The Herald first learned about the commitment in a text message from Mitchell's AAU coach with the Georgia Blazers, Joe Foster, who the Randolph-Clay star has played under since she was in the eighth grade.

Foster said he was not only proud of Mitchell, but looked forward to watching her grow and mature at the college level the same why she did during her five years with him.

"We never influence these kids on where to go, we just try to develop them and get them ready for that next-level jump," said Foster, whose AAU program is based in Columbus. "That being said, I think East Tennessee is a good place for her. I've really watched her game mature and her basketball IQ grow and grow. And she's going to a team that's not only Division I, but has made the NCAA Tournament three straight years. I think it's a great pickup for East Tennessee and a great choice for Destiny."

Most times during her Randolph-Clay career, Mitchell made it look almost too easy, running the floor, rebounding and shooting 3s and driving while leading the Lady Devils in rebounding. She finished the season averaging 29.7 points a game. But that is only part of what she brought to the court. Mitchell also grabbed 14 rebounds a game while blocking four shots and swiping six steals. And it was common to see Mitchell block a shot or make a steal at one end of the court, drive the length of the court, stop, spin and hit a jumper.

She led Randolph-Clay to three straight GHSA Class A Final Fours, but the Lady Red Devils fell short this season when they were stunned in the second round of state by Savannah Christian.

But Mitchell said Tuesday she has no regrets about her playing career. Instead, she prefers to think about the highlights.

So what's No. 1?

"When I scored the 53," said Mitchell, referring to the early season game against Burke and Bainbridge in which she dropped a school-record 53 points, although it came in a losing effort. "That's my favorite for sure."

After that game, Randolph-Clay coach Jennifer Acree started getting calls left and right about Mitchell from as close as home to Georgia and South Carolina, to as far away as Rutgers.

Reynolds said she always knew her daughter would play Division I basketball -- and to her, it didn't matter where.

"I just told her, 'It's your decision and you do what's best for you. Because no matter where you go, I'm come find you and watch you,'" she said.

Mitchell says she ultimately chose East Tennessee State over St. Johns because it's been her lifelong goal to one day work as a physical therapist when her basketball career comes to a close, and ETSU had one of the best programs around for her major.

"They've got a good basketball program and a good physical therapy program," she said. "That's really how I made my decision."

Added Reynolds: "I work in the nursing field and ever since Destiny was very little, she's always wanted to be a physical therapist."

Mitchell said in talking to the ETSU coaches, she's been told she'll have a chance to come in a compete for a starting job right away, likely at the 3-guard spot.

"That's the goal," she said. "I plan to work hard to I can start."

And when she finally takes the court in the fall in a Lady Bucs uniform, you can be certain Reynolds will be close by cheering her on.

"That's going to be the hardest thing," began Reynolds, "letting her go."

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Herald sports writer Mike Phillips contributed to this report