Venessannah Itugbu wasn’t recruited out of Mesa Ridge and certainly didn’t define herself as a basketball player.
In fact, she wasn’t even a starter for the Class 4A team in southern Colorado Springs.
And yet on Saturday, Itubgu will stand as Air Force’s lone honoree on Senior Day and as an improbable four-year contributor and team captain who grew into a role she never expected to seek.
“My love for the game grew so much, starting here,” Itugbu said. “In high school I enjoyed it and I put a lot of time into it, but it was like a hobby, something I did for fun and I worked hard for. But here, every year, every season I just started to love the game so much more than when I was in high school.”
Itugbu’s high school coach, Jeff Beatty, said the 5-foot-9 forward would have started for nearly any team in the state. But the Grizzlies that year had a McDonald’s All-American in center Kylee Shook and another post standout in Sami Rudd, who received college offers for basketball and wound up as a rower at Kansas State.
“We were so loaded that year that that’s just kind of how it worked out,” said Beatty, who guided Mesa Ridge to the state title during Itugbu’s senior year. “She was a stellar defender. She could cover so much ground because she was so fast and so long that she helped us the most on defense.”
Itugbu’s basketball story was set to end there.
Her father, Peter, served 21 years in the Army after enlisting. Her mother, Hannah, joined later as an officer. Venessannah wanted to follow them into service, but didn’t want to sacrifice her education in that pursuit. So she filled out applications to just two schools: Air Force and West Point.
She was accepted into the prep schools at both academies and opted to stay local. Once at the prep school, someone suggested she try out for the basketball team. She figured, “Why not? I’ll give it a try.”
Itugbu’s freshman year at Air Force coincided with the arrival of women’s basketball coach Chris Gobrecht. Surveying the thin options available to the long-downtrodden program, the defensive-minded Gobrecht wasn’t going to let this skilled defender get away.
“As soon as I saw her play, I knew she was a good match for me,” Gobrecht said. “She was good for me, and I was good for her. I think that’s why it has had such a happy ending. I’m really glad she was here. She’s been nothing but a plus since she got here.
“She’s relentless. When you’re trying to build a culture around effort and tenacity and commitment to doing all the dirty work and you’re trying to instill that culture into your program, she just shows up every day and does those things. … She just knows what floats my boat.”
And so Itugbu settled in as a defensive stopper. She has never averaged more than 2.2 points, and her career high through 109 games is eight. But she has been told to help the offense by creating more possessions with blocks, steals and rebounds.
She ranks second all-time for Air Force (in its Division I era, dating back to 1996) in blocks, is tied for 10th in steals and has amassed 311 rebounds.
Ironically enough, the 57 career starts for this high school sixth man is four away from Air Force’s top 10.
“When I’m on ball (as a defender), I’m always like, ‘Hey, this is the only thing that’s getting me on the court,’” Itugbu said. “I’m not, offensively, a threat, really, so I’m like, ‘This is my one job.’”
Actually, she’s added another job.
As a captain, Gobrecht demanded that Itugbu step out of her comfort zone as a perpetually nice person to add some fire to the team.
This hasn’t been an easy transition for Itugbu, who said at first she couldn’t sleep because of the stress of being hard on teammates.
“I never heard her say a cross word to anybody the whole time I knew her,” Beatty recalled. “She’s always trying to the right thing and is just nice to everybody. She’s just a wonderful young lady.”
Even as a cadre and flight commander for basic training, Itugbu said she would simply act the part. She would berate an incoming freshman, but as soon as they were out of sight she would giggle about it.
But for a team desperately trying to build, this was different. She had to embrace it.
“I’m still that soft person,” Itugbu said. “But now if I’m not the person to bring down that hammer, no one else will. I sort of got forced into the role. It wasn’t easy. We’re at a good place now. Finally I realized if I don’t say it, no one else is going to say it.”
Said Gobrecht, “She’s come as far in her leadership skills as she has in her basketball. Not even the same person.”
Itugbu has pulled from her training as a behavioral science major in making the transition into a full-fledged leader. She also uses that to counsel players who aren’t receiving much playing time, encouraging them to see the big picture.
For her, the big picture has allowed her to accept her role in the building of a program that has gradually improved, but remains at least a year from being able to legitimately compete in the conference.
“Somebody has to be the one digging the ground up and putting the seeds in, even though you don’t get to be the pretty flower above ground,” Gobrecht said. “Somebody has to do that.”
Itugbu will report this summer to Travis Air Force Base in California as an acquisitions officer, though that could change if she’s accepted into a graduate program for clinical psychology. If that were the case, she would attend school for 18 months and return to Air Force as an instructor.
“You’re just not going to find a better representative of an academy,” Gobrecht said. “Tremendous character. I’m a big believer that few qualities will take you further than just great tenacity — just sticking with stuff. That’s her. That’s why she’s going to be successful in anything she does. Her perseverance is tremendous.”
This was the big picture she always wanted — education and service in the military. The basketball part of things wasn’t planned, yet has become key to making other parts happen.
“Without basketball I probably wouldn’t have made it through the academy,” Itugbu said. “Basketball has kind of been my safe place where I can be myself and I can work off a lot of steam from up there. It didn’t bring me here, but surprisingly, without basketball I don’t know if I would have stayed here.”