When each player on the Valparaiso University women’s basketball team was asked to share a favorite moment of the season at a recent team meeting, senior captain Dani Franklin ‘18 welled up with tears.
These were tears of joy from Dani, who told a story that combines two groups of people who mean the world to her — her Crusader teammates and the second-grade students in the class she is student teaching at Heavilin Elementary School in Valpo.
The Valpo women’s basketball team has always served as pen pals for local elementary school students. But never before have they had a player in the classroom on a daily basis, getting a first-hand feel for what those letters mean to those students.
“When I told the class that their pen pals had written back, their faces lit up and they cheered,” Dani says. “They really enjoyed reading them and writing back. It’s special for me to see the type of impact our players have on the kids and vice versa.”
Every student-athlete faces the challenge of juggling academics and athletics, but few take on the task that Dani has faced this semester — student teaching while playing Division I basketball. But like everything else during her four-year career as one of Valpo’s most accomplished student-athletes, Dani has faced every obstacle without complaint.
“When I first heard she was going to student teach while continuing to play her sport, I wondered how she was going to do it,” says Sheryl DeMik, Ph.D., assistant professor of education at Valpo. “Student teaching is a full-time job. But she’s doing really well, and I don’t know how she does it. She does a great job communicating with her coaches, her professors, and her cooperating teacher. She’s a pro at everything she does.”
Although there is little time for relaxation in Dani’s schedule as she juggles two time-demanding endeavors, none of it feels like work for the elementary education major, who has a passion for both basketball and teaching.
“My whole life I’ve wanted to be a teacher, that’s part of who I am,” Dani says. “I love being there with the kids, so the days just fly by. It hasn’t been easy planning-wise, but this is how it was in high school with early-bird gyms at 6:30 a.m., class until 3 in the afternoon and a game at night. Obviously it’s been an adjustment since the last three years my schedule has been a little different, but I love it.”
The students in Mrs. Heather Treece’s second-grade class look up to Dani and frequently ask her questions about basketball. Several students have attended games at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
“There are all kinds of things that are involved in working with children that most people don’t think about,” Mrs. Treece says. “They get sick, they get hurt, they can’t tie their shoes and they need help. You have to put on all kinds of different hats throughout the day as a mom, nurse, friend, and helper. She does a great job connecting with the kids and helping each one be successful. She is very warm and welcoming and the kids are comfortable with her. I can see that the leadership she’s gained from basketball spills into the classroom.”
Few exemplify the term student-athlete better than Dani Franklin.
In addition to reaching accomplishment after accomplishment on the basketball court, Dani has been consistently strong in the classroom during her time at Valpo. She owns a 3.57 grade point average, and last year she was the president of Valpo’s student organization for education.
“She is very well-rounded,” Professor DeMik says. “She’s good at everything she does. She is not only good at basketball, but she’s a very good student. She often completes her assignments ahead of time because she’s always looking ahead to what’s coming up with her basketball schedule. She’s thorough and does her assignments well. She is very bright.”
For head women’s basketball coach Tracey Dorow, Dani is the perfect leader for a program that prides itself on taking care of business in the classroom.
“It takes a special person to come to school at Valpo and to be a part of our program,” Coach Dorow says. “I don’t have to worry much about the academic side with our young ladies. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep tabs on them and check in, but it’s nice to be able to focus on basketball because we know that they take enough pride in their academics that we don’t have to worry about that. Players like Dani make it easy.”
Flash back to summer 2017, and Dani was practically living in the gym.
That’s no surprise to anyone familiar with her work ethic, but in this case it’s not only her own game she was working on improving. During the summer, players are scheduled to come in at various times for individual workouts or to work with their position groups. Dani and fellow senior Georgi Donchetz ‘18 attended every one of those workouts.
“We can’t make that mandatory, and we don’t make that mandatory,” Coach Dorow says. “They were there to support, listen, and learn. They were able to back up the things the coaches were teaching, and it wasn’t at our direction. They knew that if they showed they cared about the incoming players and the freshmen and sophomores, those players were going to understand more about how we’re trying to do things around here. Dani is 100 percent invested in her teammates. That’s the first time in all my years of coaching I’ve seen players come to every individual workout.”
No matter what question Dani is asked, her answer seems to always come back to her teammates rather than herself.
“This year’s team chemistry has been amazing,” she says. “It’s been like no other year at Valpo. We’re so close on and off the court. We communicate so well together and that’s helped us on the court. These teammates are my lifelong friends.”
That team-oriented mindset shows through in the classroom as well.
“In our classes, when she gets attention for her accomplishments on the basketball court, she’s not the one that is going to tell us,” Professor DeMik says. “She doesn’t toot her own horn or seek attention. She’s very polite when somebody compliments her or praises her. She smiles, but she doesn’t gloat, that’s not who she is. Because of that, her peers really like her; they respect everything about her. She’s definitely a team player, not only in basketball, but also among her peers in education.”
The example she sets across all areas of her life — in the classroom, on the court and in the community — is about as good as it gets.
“She does the right thing and makes good choices,” Coach Dorow says. “Nobody expects perfection, but they don’t come any better than Dani Franklin. One of the best things about Dani is that she has a level of trust in all authority. She knows we’re looking out for her and she’s never questioned that. Think about how she responded when she didn’t start the first two years. She has never quit on anything in her life. When things get tough, she works harder.”
The same traits that have helped Dani succeed in other areas of her life have served her well on the court, turning her into the second player in program history to surpass 1,500 career points.
Dani finished in the Top 10 in program history in 13 different statistical categories. She was also named to the All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team, becoming the first Valpo player since 2009 to garner first-team all-conference recognition, and to the MVC Scholar-Athlete First Team. That didn’t happen by accident and it didn’t happen overnight.
“From the moment I met her, Dani’s work ethic and dedication to the game has been the same,” says assistant coach Justin Rees, who works with Valpo’s post players and is Dani’s position coach. “Her skills set has improved over time, but her work ethic is the main quality that helped her become the player that she is now. I’m sure everyone who did or didn’t recruit her out of high school is shocked to see how far she’s come along, and that’s because of her work ethic and intelligence.”
Coach Dorow has looked on with pride as Dani has blossomed on the court during her time at Valpo. She burst onto the scene as a freshman, winning the Horizon League’s Freshman of the Year and Sixth Player of the Year awards, and has continued to get better and better ever since.
“She’s always been a 3-point shooter, and when she came in she wanted to take all face-up shots,” Coach Dorow says. “She’s expanded her game to being able to post up and score from anywhere. She’s become an exceptional communicator. Everything she has to say is usually important. She’s mature beyond her years, and she’ll do well regardless of what she decides to do in life. She’s starting to see many doors open up for her because of her hard work and perseverance.”
When Coach Rees was hired as Valpo’s recruiting coordinator, top assistant, and post players coach, he inherited Dani, who had already been recruited to come to Valpo and was an incoming freshman. Dani and Coach Rees didn’t choose each other, but her coachable nature showed through right away.
“She had no prior experience with me before she walked on campus, and she really had no reason to listen to me,” Coach Rees says. “She didn’t know anything about me, but she took me at my word and tried what I said. Fortunately for our team, some of those things paid off, and you can see where she’s taken them. It’s gone to a whole new level. Her willingness to accept coaching and trust coaching is one thing that stands out about Dani as a player.”
Dani is everything outlined above, and so much more. She’s not only a teacher, a student, and an athlete, but also a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, and a friend.
“She takes so much pride in representing more than just herself,” Coach Dorow says. “I can’t think of a time in four years where I’ve seen her in another school’s gear — she’s always in Valpo gear. That gives me goose bumps to think about because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We want the student-athletes to have that sense of pride.”
And it’s that sense of pride in everything she does that has pushed her to new heights during her time at Valpo.
“In my coaching career, she’s easily one of the top three kids I’ve ever coached,” Coach Rees says. “It’s not just about the talent, it’s all of those other details. She wants to win. If she gets 30 or she gets three, she wants to win. There’s no better student-athlete in terms of representing what this University stands for than Dani Franklin.”