Lions’ Lee commits to DI Hartford

Darby Lee likes to travel, and one day she’d like to visit Rome and Ireland.

Since the eighth grade, she knew the way she played basketball could take her places, too. She has had her eye on a college scholarship.

“I can’t wait to go and play at that next level,” Lee said.

Lee isn’t kidding about that either. The 6-foot tall Altoona Area High School all-state forward and Mirror first-team all-star was so eager to get a jump on things that she gave a verbal commitment on Saturday to the Division I University of Hartford during an unofficial visit on Saturday with more than a month still remaining in her junior year.

“It just felt right,” Lee said. “I wasn’t planning on going up there and verballing. I just went up there and fell in love with the campus and the coaching staff.”

Lee also was being recruited by Niagara, Bucknell, Mount St. Mary’s, Dartmouth, Penn and Colorado state. Hartford was the first school to offer Lee a scholarship.

The Hawks are coming off a 21-12 season in which they made it to the America East Conference championship game and the Women’s NIT. A big part of the draw for Lee was the Hawks’ coach, former UConn star and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame member Jennifer Rizzotti, who has taken Hartford to six NCAA tournaments in 13 years.

“I felt it would be a great opportunity and a pleasure to play for someone that accomplished,” Lee said. “I was thrilled to meet her and just the fact that she was recruiting me. I didn’t know what to expect. She is one of the nicest people.”

Rizzotti actually was on hand at the AAHS Fieldhouse to watch Lee score 26 points in a game against Central Mountain this season.

Verbal commitments aren’t binding, and there’s reason to believe that the Lady Lions’ 2012-13 leading scorer will have schools continue to recruit her and might have bigger programs take interest in the coming months. Lee, though, doesn’t see herself changing her mind.

“I am absolutely 100 percent committed to them at this point,” Lee said.

Already a known quantity since junior high, Lee was a big part of the Lady Lions’ run to the PIAA Class AAAA tournament as a sophomore when she typically was the team’s first player off the bench. However, she showed she was ready to step into the starting lineup this season and responded by averaging 18.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Blessed with a soft shooting touch out to 15-to-17 feet, Lee made around 48 percent of her field goal attempts.

Although a coach might be tempted to try to turn her into a wing forward in college, Lee said Rizzotti’s plan is continue to play her at the four (power forward) or five (center) positions, which are largely interchangeable in Hartford’s offense and require a lot of quickness and versatility.

“She fits perfectly into their game plan,” Altoona coach Jill Helsel said. “It’s not like high school where the four plays most of the time with her back to the basket. She’s going to spend a lot of the time at the high post, at the foul line, and she’s very good at getting to the basket from that area. She has a perfect midrange shot, and she’s only going to get better.”

Lee had several big games this season, scoring 28 in the regular season and 29 in the District 6 Class AAAA finals against Hollidaysburg. Her biggest game, though, came when she scored a Lady Lion record 40 in a loss to Cumberland Valley. She considers that her biggest career accomplishment so far – outside of her Division I scholarship – even picking it above making third team all-state last month.

“To be completely honest, I did not really know that I was that close [to the record] because we were losing. Three of the starters were on the bench with foul trouble,” Lee said.

Helsel herself being no stranger to Division I recruiting, having played at George Mason, said she wasn’t surprised Lee picked Hartford, even if it was extremely early in the process.

“They are going to base the rest of their recruiting on her,” Helsel said. “What better place to go than with a Hall of Fame coach as their number one recruit.”

Lee credited her coaches – especially Helsel and her dad, Daryl – with helping make this possible by helping her develop her game since the third grade. She thinks ending her recruiting this early will only let her spend more time focusing on honing her skills further.

Lee was the only underclassman on the Mirror first team for 2012-13, making her the front-runner for area player of the year in 2013-14.

“It definitely takes a lot of pressure off this summer and this upcoming school year, but I am going to work just as hard if not harder,” Lee said of making the early college decision. “I’m going to work on my outside shooting more. I want to improve that a lot. Beyond that, I just want to get stronger and work on my all-around game.”

Lee, who likes snowboarding, trying new things and being outside or with her family in addition to seeing different places, said she’d like to major in biology or something in the health care field – her mother is an X-ray and CT scan technician.

Lee’s partner in crime near the basket, senior shot-blocker extraordinaire and 2012 all-state selection Kayla Grimme also has made a Division I verbal commitment to Manhattan over the weekend, according to Helsel. Grimme is expected to sign her letter-of-intent at a school ceremony in the next couple of weeks.

“It’s good. She’d gotten hurt last summer, which slowed the recruiting for her, but this is a perfect fit for her,” Helsel said.