UCLA recruits recall room with a view
In late August, six of the top girls' basketball prospects in the country were feasting on shrimp, spaghetti, tacos, enchiladas and ice cream sundaes at the home of UCLA coach Cori Close.
The lineup at the table included Jordin Canada, a 5-foot-6 point guard and the No. 6 prospect in the nation; Lajahna Drummer, a 6-2 forward and the No. 8 prospect in the nation; Recee' Caldwell a 5-9 point guard and the No. 9 prospect in the nation; Kelli Hayes, a 6-1 wing and the No. 26 prospect; Monique Billings, a 6-2 forward and the No. 37 prospect; and Jaime Nared, a 6-1 wing and the No. 5 prospect.
Five of the six -- all but Nared, who is headed to Tennessee -- decided to keep their seat at the Bruins' table, giving Close the ingredients for the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation.
Billings, a senior at Santiago (Corona, Calif.), said the view of downtown L.A. from Close's home was incredible.
But she saw something else: "National championship."
"I think we are an incredible class," Billings said. "I'm not being biased -- well, maybe just a little -- but we're classy, respectful and humble. We know we have game, but we don't have to brag."
Billings said she was impressed at how UCLA's veteran players, who also were present at the feast, looked different from each other and had unique personalities but still seemed to get along -- no cliques.
"We were welcomed," Billings said. "It felt like we were already on the team.
"All five of us [2014 recruits] text each other often," said Billings, who envisions scissors, a ladder and a net in her future. "We are determined to do the unthinkable. It's going to be an awesome four years."
Hayes, a senior at Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.), said she, too, looks forward to making history at UCLA.
"I'm really confident in this class," said Hayes, who plans on studying communications. "We all come from winning programs, and we want to create our legacies at UCLA."
Hayes has never been to a game at the recently renovated Pauley Pavilion, but she has been inside the legendary gym where 11 men's basketball national championship banners hang from the rafters and where the men's team once won 88 consecutive games before the streak ended in 1974.
There is just one women's basketball banner in Pauley -- for the 1978 AIAW national title.
"Being inside Pauley Pavilion, even without a game being played, is an amazing feeling," Hayes said. "That's one of the reasons I chose UCLA -- that history.
"I love [former UCLA coach] John Wooden's 'Pyramid of Success.' I value those steps to success. I know women's basketball hasn't made it [big] there yet, but I think we will be well thought of in future years."
Canada, who led Windward (Los Angeles) to a 32-1 record and a berth in the state title game last season as a junior, committed to UCLA last March during an unofficial visit to the campus, which is just 15 minutes from her home.
A dazzling ball handler with a 3.3 GPA, Canada said a trip to the Bruins' "Hall of Fame" room sealed her fate.
"There were 109 trophies, and not one was for women's basketball," said Canada, who wants to become a nurse to help care for sick children. "I think with this recruiting class we can help to change that."
Drummer, a senior on a loaded Long Beach Poly (Calif.) squad, lives about 45 minutes from the UCLA campus and said she has been to numerous Bruins football and women's basketball games.
"I've been to so many games," she said, "I've lost track."
Drummer added that she is eager to see what she and her fellow Bruins recruits can accomplish at UCLA.
"We're all good players," said Drummer, who wants to study communications and fashion. "We all have something different to bring.
"I'm very excited. I can't wait to play for Coach Close and get started."
Close has impressed her recruits with more than just a meal and a view.
Hayes, for example, said she "studied" Close last season when UCLA played at Cal.
"I really paid attention to her coaching style," Hayes said. "She made adjustments when needed and really communicated well with her players."
Caldwell, a senior at Lady Bird Johnson (San Antonio), said she loves how Close focuses on her players as people first.
A Southern California native who moved to San Antonio when she was in fifth grade, Caldwell said she called Close in November 2012, ready to commit to the Bruins.
"She put me on hold three times because she's really busy," said Caldwell, who has a 3.7 GPA and plans to study economics. "Finally, when she got back to me, she said: 'How's life, Recee?'
"I told her, 'Coach, I want to come.' She said, 'Right now?' And I said 'Yeah.' But that's how she is -- she's always asking how your life is going because she wants our relationship to be strong.
"Other coaches say they don't care what you do off the court as long as you get it done on the court. But [Close's] mission is to make us better women."