There is no “I” in team. It’s a maxim in sports that has been repeated by players and coaches for years and years at every level of competition. It preaches selflessness from players, and challenges them to put the success of the team above individual success. At UVA Wise, every time freshman Caitlyn Ross steps onto the court, she becomes the embodiment of that mantra.
“I came in just wanting to make an impact for the team, I wasn’t really thinking about all these accomplishments that I’ve done,” Ross said. “I think we can do better, and I just want to help the team get further and make the tournament. I’m not really all about myself. I just want to do whatever I can do for the team to make it better.”
It’s that mentality of selflessness that has allowed Ross to quietly move up the rankings to become one of the leaders in NCAA Division II in assists. With four assists in the Cavaliers’ season finale at Coker University, Ross ended her first year at UVA Wise with 161 assists to finish 10th in the nation in total assists and 10th in the nation with 5.8 assists per game. Shepherd University guard Abby Beeman was the only freshman in Division II with higher marks than Ross, as she finished with 194 assists while averaging 6.9 per game.
Ross’ 161 assists are also a Division II-era record for the Cavaliers and the most since junior Amber Carter recorded 171 assists during the 2010-11 season.
“She’s a special player, and we tried to tell everyone what kind of player we were getting, but I don’t think people really understood until they actually saw her take the floor for the first time,” UVA Wise women’s basketball coach Jamie Cluesman said. “I mean, I’m glad she’s here in a UVA Wise uniform, but I think she’s a (Division I) player. I think lack of height hurt her in recruiting a little bit, but the basketball IQ and the talent is there. So we’ve got a really special player, and you don’t come by those very often.”
Her “pass-first” style of play is something Ross said she’s been working on and developing ever since she first stepped onto a court.
“I’ve always been small as a player, so growing up I wasn’t the biggest one out there, so you’d get your shot blocked,” Ross said. “I just tried to find the open player that would be taller and could make the shot. Growing up I did have good ball handling, so teams would double team me so I would find the open player that could score for the team.”
Her assists total is not the only thing that garnered attention for Ross this season. On Feb. 1 against No. 18 Catawba College, Ross scored 14 points with 12 rebounds and 10 assists to become just the second Cavalier in the Division II era to record a triple-double. She was one of only three freshmen at any level of the NCAA to record a triple-double in 2019-20, and she was the only freshman to do so at Division II.
“Yeah in the game I had no idea I was even close to that,” Ross said. “I didn’t know until we got in the locker room and (Ashley) Cullen said it while (making a video) for social media and I was just kind of in shock at first because I was like, ‘Wow. Only the second one in school history’. I think it was awesome and I hope to get more in the future.”
While her focus is on the success of the team, personal success is nothing new to Ross who reached the 1,000 career point milestone and was twice named the District 3-A MVP during her varsity career at Midway High School. As a senior she helped lead Midway to their first ever state tournament appearance where they made it all the way to the state semifinals. Midway head coach Mike Hayes attributed much of the team’s success to Ross’ versatility and willingness to put the team first.
“She can play anywhere on the floor, I know she’s small for college, but we played her at post a lot. She was my best post player for two years. When we really needed to score we’d just put her in at post and she could handle it,” Hayes said. “She’s very versatile, so she can handle the ball, she can jump and she just understands the game very well. She’s one of the best I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached for about 30-something years.”
Sean Armes was Ross’ coach during her time playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball from when she was in fifth grade through high school, and he said that the level of success she has seen in her first year of college is not at all surprising to him.
“It’s not a surprise to me, and it’s probably not a surprise to anyone who played against her (in AAU),” Armes said. “A lot of us thought she was very underrated because of her size, and I’m relishing in the fact she has over-exceeded expectations. We all knew she could do it, now everyone is getting to see that she could do it.”
Her team-first attitude on the court was one of the major qualities that Armes would witness every time she played.
“I think the biggest thing with Caitlyn is she’s always been able to do what’s needed of her,” Armes said. “Whether it’s giving the ball to her teammates for them to score (or)…when you needed points, she’d get you points. If you need a steal, she’ll go get you a steal.”
When Cluesman and her staff watched Ross play during the recruitment process, Cluesman said that not only were they impressed by her putting the team ahead of herself, but also by the emotional investment into the team’s success that Ross put into every minute of every game.
“She’s a competitor, you can tell she gets frustrated when her team would lose. We watched her in AAU more than high school, and a lot of kids these days they don’t care if they win or lose when it comes to AAU because they know they’re guaranteed another game,” Cluesman said. “It was different with her. They rarely lost, but when they did you could see that it affected her and that’s the type of kids that we want in our program. It needs to mean something to them whether we win or lose, and that’s something that jumped out at us.”
Whether it was on the court or on the bench, Ross would demonstrate that investment in every game with the Cavaliers as a freshman amidst a season that saw injuries and struggles plague the team. Now with the season over, Ross will soon begin to prepare for her sophomore season where she will continue to focus on helping the team grow and improve. When asked about Ross’ future, senior Cynita Webb said she feels big things lie ahead for Ross and the team.
“On the court she’s a great teammate. She always makes sure we’re held accountable. She’s just a very good person,” Webb said. “I think she’s going to do great. I think she’s going to do really big things for this program and I can’t wait to see what more there is to come.”