Fairfield-native Elliott finds growth at University of Hartford
There, atop a banner displaying the Hawks' 2012-13 women's basketball schedule is a larger-than-life image of Fairfield-native Daphne Elliott.
The 2009-Fairfield Warde graduate is one of Hartford's four captains, and the senior guard has started all 10 games this season, helping the Hawks to an 8-2 record.
"I'm blessed," Elliott said after a practice last week.
"I never thought I would be named a captain. I never thought I had the leadership qualities coach (Jen Rizzotti) wanted a captain to have ... It feels good," she said.
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Her three-plus years at Hartford have brought challenges, but Elliott has matured as both a player and person. She is the team's third-leading scorer heading into the Hawks first-ever home game with UConn Saturday at 1 p.m. at Reich Pavilion. And she's proud of how far she's come.
Though Elliott's oversized image is on display for all to see, Rizzotti will not let her get a big head about it. Right now, Hartford's coach is looking for more consistency from her combo-guard.
"Her focus will allow her to be consistent," Rizzotti said. "When she lacks focus, she just is not ready to get done what I've needed her to. I've already kicked her out of practice once this year."
Still, Rizzotti has seen maturity.
When her shot isn't falling, Elliott this year is "less likely to let it affect other parts of her game," Rizzotti said. She is averaging seven points a game, and Elliott's leadership is a positive factor.
"She has a very strong voice on our team," the coach said.
In maturing as a player, Elliott has faced the same struggles most Division I athletes encounter.
"It's different than high school basketball," Elliott said. "Mentally, it's so much tougher ... and you realize a lot about yourself. Things you think you were good at in high school, you're not good at here. It's
been a long three-and-a-half years."
Elliott also has gained the perspective to persevere, in part by playing a key role in a friend and former teammate's battle with cancer.
Maturing as a player
Elliott recalls the last time UConn and Hartford met in the regular season three years ago. She was a wide-eyed freshman playing in the 16,000-seat XL Center and scored three points in an 80-45 loss.
The loss to the nation's No. 1 team was a rare hiccup in the Hawks' impressive 2009-10 campaign. Hartford went 27-5, 16-0 in the America East Conference's regular season, earning a No. 10-seed in the NCAA tournament.
Although the Hawks fell to seventh-seeded LSU in the tournament's first round, Elliott could see a program on the rise.
"Coming into a program that gets a lot of press as a mid-major school, it feels good," Elliott said. "It's something we got used to ... I know my class and the juniors that are here now got used to making the NCAA Tournament."
But Hartford's subsequent two seasons did not meet that expectation.
A 17-15 season in 2010-11 still netted the Hawks an NCAA Tournament bid -- as a No. 16 seed. In 2011-12, the Hawks entered conference play 9-5 but failed to even score 50 points in three of their final four games -- including a season-ending, 59-42 loss to Syracuse in the opening-round of the Women's NIT.
"Last year we were good," Elliott said. "But we never got over that hump to be great."
Elliott and the Hawks still recall the 0-3 finish to their season, vowing to work harder and not take the NCAA Tournament for granted.
"We've been to the NCAAs two out of our three years here,:" Elliott said, "it was something we kind of took for granted ... that was the attitude we had. But I think we've learned from it ... we can't just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk."
Elliott has toggled between shooting guard and point-guard but still fashions herself a scorer. The 5-6 guard is now finding other ways to contribute when her shots are not falling.
"Freshman and sophomore years were all about scoring for me," she said. "If I was in a rut scoring, I wouldn't do anything on defense. I think I've learned, it's not all about offense."
Elliott's struggled scoring so far this year, shooting just 35 percent from the field. She has been challenged by Rizzotti to play with more consistency, and her coach has noticed Elliott's struggle; but also that it hasn't impacted her whole game.
"She's been a little inconsistent, mostly because she's not shooting the ball well," Rizotti said. "I feel like she's more consistent with her overall game. In the past, she'd allow her offense to affect her defense in a negative or positive way."
Elliott -- and Hartford's entire program -- also received a rude awakening about keeping basketball in proper perspective this past spring.
A Worthy Cause
Amanda Weaver was the University of Hartford's sixth-man in 2010-11. The 6-1 forward from York, Pa. started just two games between her junior and senior seasons but still was a team captain her senior campaign.
When Elliott officially visited Hartford, Weaver was there to serve as the Warde senior's host.
"[Weaver] was a big reason why I went to Hartford," Elliott said.
Weaver and Elliott were teammates for two seasons, growing as better friends as they played together. They kept in touch even as Weaver graduated and entered the work force last summer.
So when Weaver was diagnosed with colon cancer in May, Elliott and the rest of Hartford's team decided to help their ill -- and debt-stricken -- teammate.
More than 13 former Hawks returned for September's "Walk for Weaver." The school raised more than $45,000 for Weaver's various medical expenses, with Elliott among the current players to get involved.
Weaver still fights the disease, but manages to speak with Elliott weekly -- often via Skype. Elliott's found inspiration from her former-teammate.
"It's eye-opening," Elliott said. "Having someone that close to me sick and facing what she's facing, it really touched me. Honestly, since I heard that she got cancer, I haven't had a bad day."
Elliott also got the "Walk for Weaver" logo tattooed on her wrist. It "serves as a daily reminder," that whatever Elliott is going through, it's nothing compared to Weaver's battle.
"I'm here complaining about school ... or my knees hurt," she said, "but I'm not in the hospital getting shots or getting my next chemo treatment."
Elliott's excited to see what Reich will look like Saturday, when the nation's No. 2 team treks to West Hartford for the first time.
"I think it's going to be an awesome atmosphere," she said. "Playing UConn is always a show. They're always top-five in the country. I think it means a lot to us ... definitely a lot of respect for them to recognize us and actually come here."
She's also excited for her coach, the former All-American UConn guard, Rizzotti.
"I think she's going to be excited, but she's going to try to hide it from us," Elliott said. "She's been wanting this for so long ... it's always cool seeing her interact with Geno."
But after Saturday, Elliott has just 17 regular-season college games left and perhaps a few more in the postseason. And that could spell the end of her hoops career.
A future in pro basketball would likely involve playing overseas, and, although the prospect of pro basketball excites Elliott, she feels complled to listen to her body especially her balky knees.
"I've been playing basketball since the fifth grade," she said. "If my knees were working, I would try to play overseas, but my whole body is just breaking down."
Though an unfamiliar work-load is calling, Elliott believes she is ready for it.
"I'm looking forward to [being an adult]," Elliott said. "It'll be interesting and exciting to start making your own money and doing things for yourself. I'm really excited to start working."