Mia Davis has the reputation of being one of the nicest girls in local basketball. Get into a battle with the St. Frances senior for a rebound, however, and nice won't be the first word that comes to mind.
Aggressive, determined, powerful, overwhelming — all of those descriptions will push "nice" down a few pegs.
"She's always been that way," said her first basketball coach, Michael Whitten. "On the basketball court when the buzzer rings, it's time to go. When the final buzzer goes off, it's back to mellow Mia."
At 5 feet 11, Davis has been a dominant presence on the boards for four seasons — her freshman year at Dunbar and the past three at St. Frances. She helped Dunbar reach the state semifinals in 2014 and last season helped lead the No. 1 Panthers to their first Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship in six years.
Although she can do a lot of things on the court, the two-time All-Metro forward has set herself apart on the boards.
"To me, it's the way she rebounds and rebounding to me is a mentality," Roland Park coach Scott Buckley said. "She has good position but more than that, she likes to go after the ball. There are a lot of rebounders who wait for the ball to come to them, but she doesn't. What makes St. Frances better is that they can take some chances on the offensive end and Mia can make up for some mistakes and give them second and third chances."
Davis, who has signed to play for Temple, has 1,629 career points and more than 1,000 rebounds.
This winter, she averages 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds for the No. 1 Panthers, who are 19-0 and ranked No. 14 nationally in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25. With a balanced team, her stats aren't overwhelming, but she will take over when the game is close. She has been a regular Most Valuable Player or all-tournament team selection from Washington, D.C., to New York as the Panthers have played in several high-caliber tournaments each year.
Davis, who turned 18 earlier this month, didn't even play basketball until fifth grade. Although she's the sixth of seven children and lives in the basketball hotbed of East Baltimore, no one else in her family played. Her brother, Carlos, also a senior and just 10 months younger, is Mervo's quarterback.
Whitten spotted her natural ability in a March Madness one-on-one competition he organized at her school, Dr. Rayner Browne Academy, where he was an administrator and the middle school girls basketball coach.
"She blew everyone out of the water without really knowing how to play," Whitten said. "My middle school team was like, 'Coach, we need to get her,' and that was the start of it."
That summer, Davis joined Whitten's sixth-grade Baltimore Starz Amateur Athletic Union team. Extremely coachable and a quick study, she excelled with and against older players right away — especially at rebounding.
"Back in middle school, I was the tallest thing out there," Davis said with a laugh, "so my first job was to rebound — other than score — so I would only know, 'Rebound, pick the ball back up, rebound, pass it to a guard.' So, rebounding was my first instinct. I always was aggressive."
Her best friend, Roland Park guard Jeydah Johnson, has seen that in Davis since they began playing together for the Starz.
"There is a nice side of Mia, but on the court, she just has so much hunger in her," Johnson said. "Each game is very important to her, so she just works hard to go get it each time. Her goal for each game is to win, win, win."
By the time she was in eighth grade, Davis began to think basketball might pay for college. She started working with a trainer and soaking up all the knowledge and help her coaches could provide.
On a young AAU team after eighth grade, she asked to run the point and Whitten let her. Since then, she has enjoyed adding new dimensions to her game.
"I like being the girl who can dribble, shoot, play the outside, play the inside, bring up the ball," Davis said. "I just like doing everything."
Transitioning from high school to college basketball, those skills will come in handy as she moves to small forward, where she can use all of her inside-outside skills. For the past few summers, she has worked on that transition during AAU season — now with the Maryland Lady Shooting Stars, who don't need her to be the post presence the Panthers do.
St. Frances coach Jerome Shelton has also given her the chance to work more on the outside, but she's so dominant inside that he can't afford to keep her on the wing all the time.
"She's been very flexible in terms of her offensive assignment," Shelton said. "We allow her to take shots, but she's responsible in that regard. We're trying to get her more on the perimeter facing the basket, because we know that at Temple she's going to be playing an inside-out type of game. What I've seen develop over the last couple of years is her mid-range and her 3-point shooting as well as her ball-handling."
Basketball might take Davis a lot further than college. Although she said she'd like to play professionally — in the WNBA or overseas — she mainly wants to use basketball to get an education.
A straight-A student last semester, she wants to be a doctor. Davis signed with Temple because of basketball, but also because of Temple University Hospital just down the street from campus in Philadelphia. She wants to get a good look at her intended profession and all of its specialties.
Her ultimate goal is to return to East Baltimore and practice at Johns Hopkins.
For now, she's concentrating on the means to that end — maintaining her grades and her game.
"Basketball is actually my life," Davis said. "If I'm not doing anything, I'm training, I'm playing basketball. If I'm bored, just go to the gym, like I just surround myself by it daily. If I wasn't playing basketball, I don't know what I would be doing and it helped me go to college for free. It helped out a lot."