NEWPORT NEWS — Nicole Mitchell carries her parents' athletic ability in her blood.
She also keeps their memories in her heart.
Nicole's mother, Claudia, died after a long illness when Nicole was seven. Her father, Charles, died of a heart attack three months ago, on Sept. 11.
"She's a very, very strong young lady," said Jon Waters, coach of Christopher Newport women's basketball team. "There have not been many easy days for her, but she's working her way through it. She loves the game of basketball like very few others, and I think that's been a great source of peace for her, to really just work on her game.
"I think she's far more comfortable on the court than other places."
Mitchell has played sports since she can remember, following in the footsteps of her brother, Matthew Powers, and her parents.
"My mom was really good at softball, but never had the ability to pursue it in college," Mitchell, 19, said. "My dad played everything, but his main thing was soccer. He was really fast, and I did not inherit that, unfortunately."
What she clearly did inherit was a love for the game.
Mitchell, a sophomore forward, is leading the Captains in scoring with 11.7 points per game and is second on the team with 6.5 rebounds. A lean 5-foot-10, she is all focus on the court, calling for the basketball and pointing out where teammates should be on specific plays.
"Nobody works harder than she does. If she's not eating or sleeping, she's on the basketball court," said Beth Mitchell, Nicole's aunt. "She loves the game, and she understands it. She sees the court better than anyone I've ever seen."
This season, basketball is both a passion and a refuge.
"Some days are harder than others," Nicole Mitchell said.
Sept. 11 was a hard day.
Nicole Mitchell got a phone call from a hospital back home in Falls Church, where she was a second-team all-state performer in both basketball and soccer at George Mason High.
The nurse wouldn't go into specifics, but Mitchell knew something was wrong.
"I guess he had me down as his emergency contact, so the nurses contacted me," Mitchell said. "They wouldn't tell me then. I guess they wanted my family to tell me, but I kind of suspected not all was well."
Charles Mitchell — "Chuck" to his family — had two heart attacks last year, but had apparently recovered from those scares.
"He was taking medicine," Nicole Mitchell said. "Everything seemed to be fine, and then he actually drove himself to the hospital because he was having chest pains. … It was definitely a sudden thing, especially since you thought that phase was over."
Mitchell got the unthinkable news while preparing for a basketball season already filled with uncertainty. CNU's three leading scorers and its longtime coach were gone, leaving the Captains, heavy on underclassmen, and Waters, a former men's assistant turned administrator, feeling out their roles.
"One of the first things we did was to go to her dad's funeral," Waters said. "The group's been very supportive."
Sophomore guard Chantal Thomas played with Mitchell at George Mason and has roomed with her since the friends arrived at CNU. The two have a standing Saturday date at Sweet Frog frozen yogurt shop and goof off like typical college students, with Mitchell usually able to kid Thomas out of a bad mood.
"She's had a lot more go on in her life than I've had in my life, so it's hard to relate to some of the things she's been through," Thomas said. "But when she does need someone to talk to, I've always been there for her."
Thomas is out for the season with a torn knee ligament, which she'll have surgically repaired on Dec. 29.
"I always want to complain, but when I see Nicole's situation, it's like, put her first before my issues, because I know she's dealing with a whole bunch more than I am," Thomas said.
Sophomore guard Tia Perry, averaging 10.8 points and a team-best 7.5 rebounds, also takes inspiration from her teammate.
"She works really hard all the time," Perry said. "I know she's really strong, with everything that she's gone through. I think that inside she does play for her parents. I respect her for that.
"… It shows that she can go through all that and still play, no matter what happens. So we can play for her, too."
Waters both sympathizes and empathizes with Mitchell.
"She and I have both experienced loss in our families," Waters said. "I'm very thankful to still have my father, but my mother passed away in '93 after a long battle with breast cancer, and I lost an older sibling when I was five to leukemia. I can understand some of where she is."
That understanding helps.
"I have a great support system, not only with my family but definitely Coach Waters and all my teammates," Nicole Mitchell said.
Sheila Mitchell doesn't have much time to talk. Seated behind CNU's bench, she's watching her granddaughter warm up, and that commands most of her attention.
"I always come to her games," said Sheila Mitchell, surrounded by a small army of family members: her husband and Nicole's grandfather, Charles Mitchell; Nicole's younger sister, Julia Mitchell; Nicole's aunt, Beth Mitchell; Nicole's other grandmother, Gerry Stewart; and another aunt, Beth Alexander.
"My mother and I are always good for a road trip, so we try to get to every single game we can," Beth Mitchell said. "… Especially since her mother died 12 years ago, we just stepped in and tried to pitch in when we could."
Claudia Mitchell was born with a hole in her heart that wasn't detected until later in life, Beth Mitchell said. She underwent surgery, but her condition worsened.
"I loved (Nicole's) mother very much," Sheila Mitchell said. "We just made sure she did all the thing her mother wanted her to do. Sports and church, Sunday school, choir, acolytes. … Nicole is a lot like her mother. They have the same personality."
Sheila and Nicole Mitchell share a close bond. Nicole said her grandmother is "an angel. Literally. You just can't see her wings yet."
"Nicole always looked to my mother for knowledge on various subjects," Beth Mitchell said. "If she has a question — it doesn't seem to matter what it is — it's 'Grandma, what do you know about blah blah blah?', and my mother will give her a big long dissertation. Or, if she doesn't know the answer, she will look it up for her.
"She tries to go to every single sporting event she has if she can. She's there emotionally as well as financially and spiritually — the whole picture."
Supporting Nicole, though, is obviously a family affair.
Finishing up his pre-game hot dog, Charles Mitchell expresses his approval with the even spread of playing time and points among this year's Captains, off to a 5-1 start. A bleacher behind him, Julia Mitchell shares that Nicole — when not drilling baseline jumpers — is prone to pinch shirts from her closet.
"I have to live with her. I have to have a good relationship with her," Julia, 17, joked, before shedding her little-sister armor. "… I'm very proud of Nicole and all she's accomplished. She's doing so well, despite what has happened."
Julia admits to wondering "Why us?" at times, but said, "My thought process is, you can't really do much about it, so you've got to stay strong and keep a smile on your face."
While cheering for her niece, Beth Mitchell feels the absence of her brother, who was either beside them in the stands or watching online if he couldn't get to a game.
"We have our good and bad times, but we know that Nicole would like for him to be there," she said. "I think she's really missing him right now. And of course we would like for him to be able to be there, too. He'd be very proud."
As it stands, it's up to Nicole's remaining family members to express that pride, and they're more than up to the task.
"She's very inspiring, to do so well in school and be such a great athlete and be a good friend to her friends," Beth Mitchell said. "She also tends to stay humble as well. She gets upset if we brag about her, (but) we brag on her anyway."
Nicole averaged 3.4 points in 13.2 minutes as a freshman as CNU went 30-4 and made the school's first Division III Final Four appearance last season. This year, she and her fellow sophomores are key pieces on a team still finding its identity.
Whether the Captains can repeat last season's success remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: led by Mitchell's example, they're not going to stop working.
"(My parents) had such a hard-work ethic, and I want to pursue that type of work ethic," Nicole Mitchell said. "I just want to work hard for my basketball family, and I know they want to work hard for me."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun