Mikayla Vaughn demonstrates her skills on her home court//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
The smile comes so easily—it always has. It’s accompanied by a kindness that seemingly can’t be conquered by a coach’s exhortations to get mean. You want this pleasant, intelligent girl to start throwing elbows? To growl at some overmatched opponent?
It can’t happen.
Mikayla Vaughn has a new attitude—at least, when she steps onto a basketball court. It’s not just about the 6-foot-3 (and growing) frame, or the smooth moves in the post. That only takes you so far. Those who want to be the best need to be mean—ruthless even.
As for that girl lined up across from Mikayla, she’s about to be hit with the fury of the fourth-best junior power forward in America. Vaughn wants to block every shot and grab every rebound. She wants to score 25 points a game while leaving the opposition in a quivering heap. Only when it’s done, and the final horn has sounded, will she smile.
At least, that’s the plan—and it seems to be working.
“It’s hard to turn it on and off, but I’m working on it,” says Vaughn. “I wasn’t good at being mean, but I’m becoming really good at it. Before, I wanted people to like me. Now, I don’t care.”
Even so, Vaughn hasn’t hardened into some competitive monster with a flat affect and a superstar’s insouciance. At her family’s Wynnewood home, she folds her lithe frame into a leather chair, a screaming pair of pink-and-black socks accenting her T-shirt and black leggings. She’s the sweet girl with the ready smile she’s always been. College coaches don’t keep coming around if you’re that way when the game begins, though. It’s snarls—not smiles—that keep those scholarship offers coming in.
And, boy, are they coming. Just that morning, the coach from George Mason University was in their living room, and the head of Wisconsin’s program was due to arrive that afternoon.
From the time the bell sounded on Sept. 9, and coaches were allowed to make home visits, there’s been a steady stream. Saint Joseph’s was first. Notre Dame, Duke, Princeton, Penn State, Virginia and Wake Forest followed. Maryland has been recruiting Vaughn for nearly two years. All the letters are displayed on a chair in a corner, and the logos are all from top-shelf programs.
It’s no wonder. There aren’t too many players around with her height who play at an elite level and carry a 3.9 average at a premier institution like Friends’ Central. Vaughn is the perfect recruit.
“There’s been a parade of coaches coming through here,” FCS coach Phil Annas says. “It’s a procession of people watching her work out. It’s almost a full-time job keeping up with the process.”
Four years ago, the Vaughns weren’t anticipating such attention. Mikayla didn’t even pick up a basketball until fifth grade. At that time, she was a point guard, thanks to her relatively modest size. But during the summer between seventh and eighth grades, she grew six inches, and her coaches stationed her closer to the basket. “All of a sudden, basketball meant something different,” says Mikayla’s mom, Terri.
Although she played some soccer and softball early on and was a member of the FCS lacrosse team as a freshman, it
became clear that the roundball had to be a year-round pursuit. She joined the Philadelphia Belles, a select Amateur Athletic Union team, and began filling the time around her FCS seasons with workouts and tournaments. This past summer, the Belles played in Las Vegas, Chicago, Tennessee and Augusta, Ga. At the Nike Nationals in Augusta, the team reached the final four of the elite junior class division.
Vaughn and teammates Kimi Evans and Jaala Henry form a mountainous front line that makes the Belles particularly formidable. Vaughn’s AAU participation has brought her considerable attention, but it’s a big commitment. She was still playing in tournaments in late September and will most likely miss her junior prom this spring because of games scheduled in Virginia.
“I love AAU basketball,” Vaughn says. “I’ll be friends with the girls on the team forever. High school basketball is not as intense as AAU. It’s not a case of everybody trying to get a scholarship.”
Tony Lee, who’s in his fifth year with the Belles, has also been on the staffs of boys’ teams at Abington Friends and Penn Charter. He was in charge of the Allen Iverson-funded Reebok Raiders AAU team that won the 2004 national title. He believes Vaughn has the opportunity to do big things, and he expects that, with continued strength development and two more seasons of prep and AAU play, she’ll be able to contribute as a freshman at a top college program.
Lee appreciates Vaughn’s physical gifts—especially as she works to diversify her offensive game, adding jump shooting and ball-handling to her low-post moves. She has quickness, the ability to jump for rebounds and block shots, and a rare dexterity with both hands.
Lee is as impressed with Vaughn’s personality as he is with her considerable basketball skills. “Her leadership intangibles stick out,” he says. “She’s always positive and caring for others. She’s the true definition of accountability.”
LIVING LARGE: A 6-foot-3 frame makes Mikayla Vaughn an imposing presence on the court//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Terri Vaughn laughs when asked if her athletic prowess has contributed to her daughter’s success. “I try to rebound for Mikayla, and it’s comical,” she says.
Husband Marty, however, was a standout quarterback at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1970s. He captained the ’74 Quakers team and graduated as the program’s all-time passer. His school records have been broken, but his talents have been passed down.
Terri and her daughter laugh when Marty’s exploits are mentioned, since “No. 17” might bring them up when he’s around the house every now and then. But there’s no denying that one elite athlete has helped produce another.
As the college basketball world takes notice, Mikayla is trying to preserve a sense of normalcy within the whirlwind. She doesn’t communicate with coaches during the day and has established windows for contact after school. She’s busy preparing for her college boards and working through the rigorous curriculum at FCS that she has mastered since first grade.
Granted, her basketball aspirations—college, professional, Olympic—are substantial. But so is her desire to be a normal teenager.
“I’ve been around some people at FCS for 10 or 11 years,” says Mikayla. “We’ve gone through all of these rites of passage together.”
It’s not easy to be a typical high school student when you’re 6-foot-3. Mikayla admits that even adults come up to her and mention her height. One man at a supermarket yelled, “You just have to play basketball! You just have to play!”
Needless to say, Vaughn was embarrassed. “Everybody in the store turned around to look at me,” she says.
Though her basketball talent looms large, that isn’t all Mikayla Vaughn is. She’s a smart, friendly 16-year-old who likes photography and hanging out with friends. She’s navigating the recruiting waters with the help of a strong family unit and looking forward to big things.
With all that in mind, it seems odd to coax her to get mean—but that’s just what it takes.
“When I play, I realize that I can’t be friends with the people I play against,” she says. “It’s becoming a lot easier to do that.”
Vaughn may scowl on the court, but there’s nothing that can steer her—and her incandescent smile—away from basketball. Whatever college she lands with, that may be the most important quality they get.