From Stanford to Notre Dame: Inside Maya Dodson's winding journey to the No. 22 Irish

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame's Maya Dodson (0) during an NCAA basketball game against Ohio on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

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SOUTH BEND — If all Maya Dodson cared about was winning a national title, she could probably kick herself into the Purcell Pavilion rafters in one swift boot.

In theory at least, the Notre Dame grad-student forward has come achingly, teasingly close to two college basketball crowns — with each miss a product of her own decisions.

What Dodson owns in place of a championship, though, is a set of priorities she doesn’t sound willing to trade.

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“My dad had COVID early, and while he’s OK now, it just kind of put into perspective that there’s more things out there than basketball,” Dodson shared this past week as she discussed her winding road to Notre Dame and why she chose not to play her senior season at Stanford last winter.

“I took the opportunity to opt out and kind of get myself grounded, and I think it helped me being with my family a lot,” Dodson said. “I kind of learned how to love the game of basketball again, which I was kind of going away from, and being able to do that helped me come here and transition very smoothly back into the game.”

Michigan State's Nia Clouden, left, shoots as Notre Dame's Maya Dodson defends during the third quarter on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

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Dodson says her father Darryl’s illness was not the only development that went into her “difficult decision” in September 2020 to forgo last season with the Cardinal.

Calling George Floyd’s death that May an event that “woke me up” concerning racism, Dodson participated in multiple protest events with her twin brother, Trent, a realtor in Atlanta.

She also became a founding member of a campus organization designed to support Black student-athletes at Stanford.

As it turned out, the Cardinal went on to win the 2021 national title without her.

“It’s bittersweet,” Dodson conceded with a smile last week of not being a part of that championship. “I think everyone wants to win a championship — I hope we win one this year — but I think the biggest thing for me is just knowing that there’s more to basketball (than just showing up), and what I needed to sacrifice to get there wasn’t what I wanted to do, so that’s a big reason why I’m happy for my teammates. I love them to death, they’ll always be my teammates, but I knew it wasn’t for me, and there was something better for me out there.”

Dodson says Notre Dame has felt like something better.

Ironically, she could’ve been here all along.

First Irish flirtation

Dodson says the Irish wound up her “pretty close second choice” when she was being recruited out of Alpharetta, Ga., by then-coach Muffet McGraw and then-assistant Niele Ivey. She was ranked the nation’s No. 11 prospect in the high school class of 2017 by ESPN.

If she had chosen ND originally, Dodson might well have been part of the team that went on to win the 2018 national title.

“The biggest reason I went to Stanford was for the education,” said Dodson, who was attracted to the California school’s engineering program and created her own engineering/ethics major. “Education’s always been first in my family and basketball was always second, so once I got that degree, it made me kind of think about my values in a different way, and I thought it was the best idea to come to Notre Dame, that it was the best place for me to grow as a person and as a basketball player.”

Dodson says she still wants to up her stock as a pro prospect, and that she transferred to ND because she felt like Ivey and her staff would provide her a strong chance at that.

Further, Notre Dame maintained a piece of her heart even after she landed at Stanford.

Apr 1, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Stanford Cardinal forward Maya Dodson (15) goes to the basket against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first half in the championship game of the Chicago regional in the women's 2019 NCAA Tournament at Wintrust Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

“When we lost to them in the (2019) Elite Eight, I remember Coach McGraw and the players all gave me a hug,” Dodson said of ND’s 84-68 victory in Chicago. “I felt like I didn’t play that well, but just knowing they still cared about me even though I didn’t go there just showed how much love they had for me, and made it easy for me to come here.”

Not that Dodson didn’t do some other due diligence as well.

In joining the Irish, she followed the path of ex-Stanford teammate Marta Sniezek, who played for ND in 2019-20.

“Marta and I are very close friends, and for a long time we were both injured when I was at Stanford,” Dodson said. “Of course I made sure to contact her just to see how things are, just kind of know her transition, how she felt, and she said it was a great place, that she loved it here. That just made it a lot easier for me.”

Better health, better numbers

With the Cardinal, the 6-foot-3 Dodson averaged 6.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 20.2 minutes per outing over her final two seasons while playing 35 games and missing 34 others due to a recurring left foot injury.

With the No. 22 Irish (7-2), the foot’s been healthy and Dodson is at 10.7 points to go with team-leading figures of 8.1 rebounds and 3.0 blocks while playing 29.6 minutes per game. Her blocks rank ninth in the nation.

As much as she’s had a presence in the middle, though, Dodson’s also had one with teammates.

“I think our players, especially our younger players, I would say (fellow forwards) Natalija (Marshall) and Maddy (Westbeld) really look up to her,” Ivey said this past week. “They follow what she does. She’s always the same. She has a heart of gold, she works so hard and I think they just respect that about her.”

Dodson doesn’t set her example in rah-rah fashion, but through steadiness.

“She has a quiet confidence,” Ivey said. “She doesn’t have to say too much. I think her performance speaks for itself. Her actions, the way she prepares for every game, her leadership, are kind of routine.”

For Dodson, the lessons have worked both ways with her new team.

“Usually, when you’re the oldest (player), you know everything,” Dodson said, “but I was in for a wake-up call. There’s certain things basketball-wise you’re always going to know, but there’s always different things for different programs, so just learning from my younger teammates, they help me so much. Especially in the summer, learning how things work here and then trying to emulate stuff ... I think that’s made the difference.”

Under the NCAA’s pandemic-related guidelines granting nearly all players an extra year of eligibility, Dodson might be back with Notre Dame next season.

“I’m trying to see if I can come back,” Dodson said. “Hopefully, I will, but right now, I’m just focusing on what I can control, and what I can do is just be the best leader, best teammate, best player I can be right now and not take anything for granted. I think COVID showed us that most importantly.”