How Taja Cole Became First In Foremost Recruiting Class
When she was 8 years old, Taja Cole was so good at defense that her coaches had to ask her to please stop stealing the basketball.
"Parents looked at me like I was a bad person," Cole said with a laugh. "But I was used to playing with boys. The boys didn't take it easy on me, and I didn't take it easy on the girls, either."
Cole, a 5-foot-7 senior at Lloyd C. Bird (Chesterfield, Virginia), can still steal the ball -- she averaged three thefts a game last season as a first-team All-State point guard. She also stole the spotlight from pretty much everyone she went up against, averaging 26 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
In February, Cole, the No. 29 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100, became the first player in the 2015 class to commit to Louisville. Two months later, 5-9 guard Brianna Jones of North Babylon (New York), who is ranked No. 43 nationally, vowed to sign with the Cardinals. Louisville's class went from good to great in September, when the Cardinals got commitments from three more elite players, including 5-10 point guard Asia Durr of St. Pius X (Atlanta), who is ranked No. 2 in the nation. The class, which also includes 6-3 forward Samantha Fuehring of Immaculate Conception (Lodi, New Jersey) and 6-4 center Erin DeGrate of La Vega (Waco, Texas), is No. 1 in the nation. "It's a heck of a recruiting class," said Boo Williams, who coaches Cole in AAU ball. "With Louisville being new in the ACC, they need a class like this to compete with Notre Dame, Duke, North Carolina ... This reminds me of the classes Kentucky has been getting in men's basketball." Kentucky used this type of multi-star class to win the men's national title in 2012, and that's exactly what Cole has in mind for the Cardinals.
The Durr factor
The centerpiece of Louisville's class is Durr, who has led St. Pius X to two straight state titles. Last season, she averaged 24.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
With Durr and Cole in the same backcourt, opponents beware. These are two steals machines who are known to hound offensive players until they get what they want -- the ball.
Some pundits, however, thought Cole might be upset that Louisville went out and got a second point guard in Durr.
If they committed after me, I must be doing something right.Taja Cole
But nothing could be further from the truth, Cole said.
"I don't think basketball is played with positions anymore," Cole said when asked about the potential sharing the backcourt with Durr. "Whoever gets the rebound, I'm running -- I'm gone.
"Asia likes to shoot. My shot is not as consistent as hers. Playing the 2 for her is nothing. She can switch from 2 to 1 and back. It's going to be good.
"As point guards, we have to be the leaders."
Talking about Durr got Cole so hyped, in fact, that she offered the following:
"I'm not a big talker. I'm talking to you because this is information. But you'll see."
Cole is also excited to play alongside Jones in the backcourt.
"When I watch Brianna play, I'm amazed at her ability to rise up and shoot over the top of a defense," Cole said. "I can't wait to play with her."
Chevette Waller, who is Cole's coach at Bird, said having those great guards with Cole at Louisville will relieve some pressure. "Having them around will push Taja and help her maximize her potential," said Waller, a former standout at Virginia Commonwealth. "I would love to see a Louisville practice next year with all those athletes going one-on-one."
Cole took her official visit to Louisville with Jones, but they were not the only star recruits on campus that Labor Day weekend.
Durr arrived one day ahead of them and stuck around to meet them. DeGrate showed up one day after Cole and Jones hit town.
And every time a player committed to the Cardinals, Cole followed them on Instagram. She also asked her coach for their phone numbers.
Periodically, Cole posts something on Instagram and tags her future teammates. Recently, she posted a photo of Louisville's home court, full of fans, and wrote: "Everyday motivation."
Louisville's KFC Yum! Center holds 22,090, and Cole said she expects it to be rocking when the Cardinals play host to North Carolina on Feb. 15.
"Asia and I have been talking about going to that game," said Cole, who has been recruited by Louisville since eighth grade. "Louisville gets 9,000 fans [for women's basketball] on a bad day.
"For that game, it should be sold out. The fans there are crazy. Asia and I want to go there and break it down, see where we fit on the team and see what we have to do to win a national title."
Cole takes pride in being the first Louisville recruit in the historic class.
"If they committed after me, I must be doing something right," Cole said. "If I was a bad player with a bad attitude, they wouldn't be coming."
Cole, who gets A's and B's in school, plans to study sports administration and hopes to someday work for Nike, designing athletic gear for elite athletes.
She already has her own clothing line -- Team Cole 5. She started the business when she was 13 and takes custom orders for shirts and other gear. She even created her own logo, and her success on the court has expanded her brand.
"I can draw," Cole said. "But it's not really about me. If you are humble and work hard, you can be on Team Cole."
Cole said teammates often tease her because she loves to wear bright colors. She might be seen in anything from sweatpants to checkerboard lacrosse shorts.
Tyra Shelton, a 6-2 senior center who joins Cole as the only returning starters at Bird this season, said her friend is a perfectionist on the court and off.
"Taja likes to look good," Shelton said. "In her book bag, she always carries three outfits and at least two pairs of shoes. She will come in one outfit, change to another one to work out and then leave in a third outfit.
"Sometimes, we look at her and say, 'Taja, what are you wearing?' But she doesn't care. She can wear the craziest thing and pull it off.
"Taja can wear sweats, and it looks like she's on the red carpet."