Denia Davis-Stewart is used to proving herself.
The former New Mission basketball standout embarked on an ambitious academic curriculum at Merrimack College and is about to see that journey accomplished. Davis-Stewart majored in psychology, but also obtained minors in business administration and women and gender studies.
“It means a lot to me,” said Davis-Stewart, who would have graduated on May 17, but the ceremony has been postponed due to the coronavirus. “It shows that I am more than just an athlete. When I retire as a basketball player, I want to practice my profession and put my degree to good use.”
Cory McCarthy doubled up on his success coaching both girls and boys basketball programs, leading both to state titles. The numbers he values most aren’t wins or points per game — he is more proud of his kids’ grade point averages.
“For me, any time one of our kids gets a degree, it’s like they are getting drafted,” said McCarthy, now director of operations at New Mission. “If you look around my house, the only pictures you’ll see is of our kids getting college degrees. For Denia to accomplish what she’s done given what she’s had to overcome, I don’t know how she did it.”
Greg Berry first met Davis-Stewart in the sixth grade at the Young Achievers School in Boston and was immediate struck by her abilities. He isn’t surprised to see her make her mark both on and off the court.
“She always had the raw talent and she was a taller kid,” said Berry, who coached Davis-Stewart for two years at New Mission. “But you could start to see her coming on as a seventh grader. Off the court, she was a real strong leader even back then. She was always pushing her classmates to do better in class, she was always very academically savvy.”
Davis-Stewart arrived at New Mission in September 2012 and immediately made a difference. As a sophomore, she was part of a Titans squad that reached the Division 4 state final before bowing to Millis.
Her game was evolving on a daily basis. Mitchell Hercule, who coached Davis-Stewart in her senior year, worked with her off the court. As much as he would have loved to predict Davis-Stewart’s emergence, he was pleasantly surprised with her development.
“From the beginning, I had no idea she would blossom into the player she became,” Hercule said. “But once Denia got to her senior year, she started to buckle down and changed her dynamics, she went from a girl to a young woman.”
Hercule also credits Davis-Stewart’s growth to having people encouraging her along the way. He still remembers the scene at senior night when the stands were flocked with family members.
“There had to be at least 30 people for Denia that night,” Hercule recalled. “Denia always had a real good support system, her mother (Latanya Davis) was great. There were a lot of people in her corner pushing her. It really was a beautiful thing to see.”
Davis-Stewart capped off her senior season with a flourish. She helped guide the Titans to an 18-6 season and a Division 4 North sectional title. The game that made the 6-foot-1 forward a household name occurred in a 53-37 sectional semifinal win over archrival Fenway where Davis-Stewart pulled down a mind-boggling 38 rebounds and seven blocked shots to go along with 11 points.
“That even shocked me, I didn’t know I had that many rebounds,” Davis-Stewart said with a laugh. “That game always jumped out at me because it showed me what I was capable of doing every night.”
The basketball court wasn’t the only place New Mission helped Davis-Stewart. She was earning a reputation as one of the better students, something she gives New Mission a great deal of credit for.
“New Mission really helped build my character,” Davis-Stewart said. “They taught me the importance of an education. New Mission helped me prioritize what things should be important in my life.”
Even though Davis-Stewart built up a solid resume both on and off the court, she was not heavily recruited. One school, however, knew all about Davis-Stewart — Merrimack. Head coach Monique LeBlanc had seen her play and felt there was potential.
“Something coaches always talk about is passing the eye test and Denia might have been under-recruited because she was lanky,” said LeBlanc, who recently stepped down at Merrimack to accept the head women’s basketball job at Brown. “But the first thing I noticed was the way she blocked shots. She had great timing and would get up there and just swat it away. She also ran well and had a nice jumper so I thought the building blocks were there.”
Achieving that potential required getting past a personal tragedy. Two months after Davis-Stewart’s breakout tournament effort against Fenway, her older brother David was shot and killed near their Dorchester home.
“It was definitely a tough time and I feel like I became a different person after that,” Davis-Stewart said. “But as I always tell people, I feel like (David) is still here with me. Everything I’ve done is for my brother and my family, it’s not just me graduating and playing basketball.”
Once at Merrimack, Davis-Stewart set out to show schools what they were missing. Playing with what she defined as a chip on her shoulder, Davis-Stewart earned a berth on the Northeast-10 All-Rookie team, leading the league in blocked shots (3.2 per game) and paced her team in rebounding (8.4).
The progress continued in her sophomore year. Davis-Stewart was averaging 9.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and recorded a nation-best 82 blocked shots when her season was cut short after 17 games due to a fracture in her left foot. It was a tough time for Davis-Stewart — she wasn’t accustomed to playing the role of spectator.
“It did allow me to expand my perspective off the court, but not being able to play definitely took its toll on me,” Davis-Stewart said. “Sitting there incapable of doing things, watching and seeing moments in a game where I could have made a difference and not able to was tough.”
Davis-Stewart returned to the court the following year and made up for lost time. The Defensive Player of the Year in the Northeast-10, Davis-Stewart pulled down 11.2 rebounds and blocked 107 shots to go along with 13.4 points a game.
Last year, Merrimack made its move to Division 1 and the moment was clearly not too big for Davis-Stewart. She averaged 18.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and blocked 121 shots in leading the Warriors to a surprising 20-9 record.
“I don’t know if our projection for Denia was different than they ended up, but I am not surprised by her,” LeBlanc said. “Denia always had the athletic ability to play with anybody, but she really worked on her strength and conditioning to become a better player.
“She just really put it together in her last two years. We kept raising her expectations and she responded. There would be games where she would get 18 rebounds and we’d noticed she could have had four more. We pushed her, but she wanted to be pushed and not everyone is like that which is why I am so happy for her.”