Azzi Fudd and Talia von Oelhoffen Navigate Difficult Senior High School Seasons
The COVID-19 pandemic had different impacts on the senior year of two USA U19 World Cup hopefuls.
Among the many challenges that athletes have dealt with during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 14 months has been living with the uncertainty of when, or if, they’ll even get to play.
And, the experience of one athlete may be wildly different from another based on the situations facing their particular institution, as was the case in the basketball careers of two players — Azzi Fudd and Talia von Oelhoffen — who were entering their senior years of high school.
First, the basics. Fudd is the unquestioned No. 1 girls high school player in the nation, called by some a generational talent. The 5-foot-11 guard has played at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., and is signed to play at the University of Connecticut. Von Oelhoffen is a top-15 player and a 5-foot-11 guard coming out of Chiawana High School in Pasco, Washington, and signed with Oregon State University.
Fudd and von Oelhoffen are together for a few days this week as part of the 2021 USA Basketball Women’s U19 World Cup Team trials at Metro State University in Denver. Eventually a 12-player roster will be selected to play this summer in Hungary.
The pandemic treated the sports world brutally, especially at the high school level. While pro leagues and major colleges — with resources to conduct daily testing and enact strict health and safety protocols — eventually resumed or began with restrictions, high school sports were sidelined without a clear path to play again. Decisions varied state to state, school district to school district. Some families moved to a different state to give their kids a chance to play.
Some seniors took the opportunity to graduate high school early and join their college teams after the season started.
For Fudd, the decision was particularly excruciating. Her junior season was delayed after she tore her ACL and MCL in her right knee the previous summer at the 2019 USA 3x3 U18 National Championship, so her senior year should have been a showcase of her tremendous talent.
But her senior season was canceled, leaving Fudd with nowhere to play hoops. So, she weighed her immediate future.
“It was actually pretty difficult,” Fudd said of the process. “Around Christmas time, I had seen a couple of people go to college early, and so my family and I talked about it, and then we started talking to UConn about it and it might be a possibility. I really wanted to do it, just because St. John’s wasn’t really having a season and I was doing school online, so I was like 90-10 percent and I really wanted to do it, and then my school said no.”
The reason, Fudd said, was because St. John’s had never let anyone else graduate mid-year in order to enroll early in college, and the school didn’t want to change despite the unusual circumstances of the pandemic.
Fudd did end up playing some games as a senior, two as a member of St. John’s and about 10 with the D.C. Cadets, basically the same team playing under a different moniker. While disappointed in the St. John’s decision, she said there were a few positives.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” said Fudd, who won gold medals at the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup and 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. “I’m glad that I stayed and was able to graduate from my school. I got to be a McDonald’s All-American, but I still think that if everything went well and I was allowed to, I would have rather gone (to UConn) early, because we didn’t really have a season. D.C. was shut down, and we didn’t get to practice at all at school. The practices that we did have had to be off campus in a different location. We played a couple games, and it was honestly really disappointing and kind of like a letdown, a disappointing way to end my high school career, a disappointing way to go out.”
While the pandemic allowed Fudd more time to bond with her family, especially her two younger brothers, having to stay at St. John’s will provide two more highlights for her. Not only graduation in June, but prom next week.
“I think that’s really special,” Fudd said. “I was kind of talking to one of my friends about this. She didn’t want to go to prom, and I told her, ‘No, this is our last senior event, our last event of high school. You have to go, and I don’t care if you don’t like your dress, I’m forcing you to come with me. We’re gonna go, and we’re gonna have fun.’ It’s our last time being in high school, as weird as that sounds.”
Meanwhile, von Oelhoffen had a completely opposite experience. Living in Washington state, she had heard of a senior leaving school to join the Gonzaga men’s basketball team during the season. She started talking about it with her family, and the Oregon State coaching staff, but didn’t make an immediate decision. A couple weeks passed.
“All of a sudden, it was like I had a week or two to decide,” von Oelhoffen said. “So, we had to figure out the whole academic side of everything, and if I would be able to graduate early.”
The other factor was if there would be a high school season. Nothing had been decided yet, but talk had centered around a spring season that would involve only conference play and no state tournament.
“I just decided that since I wasn’t able to practice or really do anything at home — I was doing workouts by myself on outdoor courts, because nothing was open — that it was just an opportunity to go learn and be playing and working out, and just get an extra six months of college to gain more experience and get ready for my real freshman year,” von Oelhoffen said.
Unlike Fudd and St. John’s, von Oelhoffen and Chiawana worked together to get her to Oregon State early. The only hitch was von Oelhoffen was short two arts classes.
“My school counselor and principal and athletic director were all super hands-on with it, and I definitely couldn’t have done it without them,” said von Oelhoffen, who had to spend 35 hours online each taking art history and photography classes. “We didn’t really have any clue how all of this works with the NCAA and just how fast that had to happen. It’s definitely a group effort for that.”
Von Oelhoffen, who will walk with her high school classmates at graduation in June, said she was welcomed by her new Oregon State teammates at her first practice. She only had two practices before the Beavers’ next game, where she made her college debut Jan. 24 against Washington State.
“It was crazy,” said von Oelhoffen, who hit her first shot, a 3-pointer. “Just even warming up, I was having a moment where I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really here!’ I was just sitting on my couch at home watching them on TV like two weeks ago.”
For high school seniors across the country, the past 14 months have been unlike what any other class has had to deal with. Often filled with disappointment and missed opportunities, sometimes there are a few bright spots.
“I feel like I missed out on a normal senior experience in terms of school, basketball, prom — all that kind of stuff,” von Oelhoffen said. “But I don’t think staying for my senior year would have given me that experience, so I don’t think it was really an option for me to have that full experience. So, I might as well go get an experience that not a lot of people get to have, going to college early and getting an extra half a season and extra NCAA Tournament and just getting able to learn from you know the older players that I wouldn’t have played with.”