The life of a student athlete can be potentially stressful, as those who compete on a field, court or ice rink are tasked with the responsibilities of maintaining a good grade point average (GPA) and the highest level of proficiency in the sport they play. Early alarm clocks, lengthy study sessions, and strenuous practices and pre-season training sessions are just some of the many obligations for the school's athletic population.
For Danielle Oakley, however, the process of being a member of Kean's women's basketball team is nothing short of a daily grind, a grind in which Oakley has proudly and gratuitously undertaken, all for the love of the game.
A junior majoring in elementary education, Oakley has been the spark on the team as the Small Forward for the women's team this season, all with the help of her exceptional coaching staff who have prepared her to assist in leading the young team since her first season as a Cougar three years ago.
"Coming into my freshman year, our pre-season started in the summer with summer workouts. We had to fill out grind sheets every week. I feel like as though those helped me, personally, and everyone on the team, strength-wise," Oakley mentioned. "In the fall coming in, we had to do workouts from Monday through Thursday for two hours on the track. Those got us faster. Overall, as a team, I think we were very young and although we did not have much height, our speed helped us."
In her freshman year, Oakley played in all 26 games as a freshman. While playing an average of 13.8 minutes per game (MPG) at the time, Oakley's presence was felt on the defensive end of the ball as she would pick up a total of 27 steals against all of Kean's opponents that year.
"Playing in that many games as a freshman and basically being the sixth man off of the bench helped me with the experience, because coming into the collegiate level, especially in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) is a very tough conference," Oakley said. "I think that got me ready for my sophomore season and my junior season as well that just started. It also helped me in building a lot of chemistry with my teammates."
Head Coach Mandy King and assistant coaches Brian Erickson and Dana Peterson have not only helped Oakley be the best scorer, or facilitator, defender or overall captain, but also in becoming a reliable figure on and off the court. Through coaching her for her three seasons as a Cougar, Coach King and Coach Erickson have always been very trustworthy in her coming off of the bench.
"[Coach King] never doubted me and never thought that I did not have the talent or the intensity to come off the bench. Over the years, Coach Dana did as well," the junior said. "They have always pushed me to rise to any position that I needed to play. Originally, I was never a small forward, yet I have grown to play any position besides the center on the court, and they have always trusted me in that."
After playing in 23 games her sophomore season while averaging 5.3 points per game (PPG), Oakley saw a bump in her minutes per game, as she was gifted in playing an extra 7 minutes. Fast forward to the 2017-2018 season, Oakley has become a resonant voice in the locker room, at practice, and off of the court. She is one of the four juniors and tenured leaders on this year's team.
"I think a lot of the younger teammates have grown a lot of trust in me and they know that, if I am on the court, I am going to do whatever it takes to help the team out and get the 'W.' So, I think, them having the trust in me has helped me to have more of a voice on the team and be able to tell my teammates if they are doing something wrong without them taking any criticism. They really believe in me," Oakley commented.
Hailing from Brick Township, basketball was a family affair to Oakley growing up with five other siblings who equally loved the game.
"When I was younger, I grew up with five siblings and two of them were boys. The girls played too, but it was not as serious as the boys. Me being their little sister, they always wanted me to follow in their footsteps. My parents were very big on it as well. I started basketball during my recreational league days and played until I was in the eighth grade as I made my middle school team."
A graduate of Brick Memorial High School in 2015, Oakley averaged over 11 points, seven rebounds per game and over five steals a game on defense her senior year as a Mustang.
"Coming in as a freshman [at Brick Memorial Township High School], I played on the junior varsity team, and as a sophomore, I started on the varsity team. My team could have been more successful in high school, but we were also a very young team that lacked height. We had to use our speed as well as this team. I really think that helped me get ready for college."
Basketball has always been a love of Oakley's, and on defense is where the junior elementary education major has thrived throughout her years of playing. Oakley's determination on every defensive possession drives her to focus on getting as many steals as possible while doing anything she can to help her peers win as much as possible.
Sitting at 6-3 this season, the Cougars currently sit at 3-2 in the NJAC with a lengthy road trip approaching on their schedule. The standard to uphold a championship mentality, persistence and a commitment to excellence is a major point of emphasis for the junior leader.
"Our coaches hold us to a very high standard, so I try to stand up to those, and I believe that I want to give the same intensity as I did in practice to every game. I will do that for the whole 40 minutes of a game because I am never going to give up," Oakley said. "As much as I am tired, I am not going to stop running and doing whatever it takes.
Head Coach Mandy King, Danielle's confidant, praises Oakley on her toughness and persistence in being the team's igniter off of the bench. A tenured coach who is entering her sixth season, King's belief in her Junior Sixth man has never faltered, due to Oakley's work ethic and her desire to win.
"Dani is a coach's dream. She is hard working, competitive, intelligent and brings the same energy every single day! She understand the game and what it takes to be successful. She is just such a positive person," Coach King said. "I love that she has been getting more recognition this season because of the great plays she has made under pressure but she has been this same tough team player for us her whole career."
Oakley believes that the team's chemistry and ball movement is going to be key in finishing out her junior season on a good note. Improving the team's ball movement due to a lack of vertical size will be a challenging but possible task for Oakley and her teammates. While fighting for as many rebounds as a team through playing unselfish, inclusive team basketball, winning is necessary for the Cougars cutting down the nets late in the postseason.
In addition to being a basketball aficionado, Oakley has aspirations to become a kindergarten teacher, after switching her major to accommodate her desires to lead young children in the classroom.
"I love kids.I have a bunch of nieces and nephews, and having them in my life has been important because I love being around them. I wish to eventually be a student teacher my senior year and get into any school that I can, either at kindergarten or as a third-grade teacher," Oakley said.
Oakley's plans to lead off the court do not end there. The junior also wants to continue with the sport of basketball, not as a player, but as a coach. "I might look into being a graduate assistant here, or at another school. That, however, is going to depend on how teaching turns out," Oakley said.
Oakley firmly believes that being a leader and a captain on this team will help her because, in being a captain, having a resounding and credible voice is a prerequisite for success. "You have to be able to talk in front of your team and coach them, in a sense. That will be very helpful with teaching because every day, I am going to have to get in front of the kids and teach them and coach them too because they are so young."
Danielle Oakley's future aspirations, whether they be in basketball or in a children's classroom, will surpass even the highest of expectations. Until then, she continues to bring energy off the bench as she embraces the role of being the sixth woman, as well as a leader to turn to when challenges for the team arise.