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Hard work pays off for Jianni Jackson

Jianni Jackson's main goal for the summer was to stay in shape for the junior college she planned to attend this fall.

After making it to the spring of her senior year without any direct Division I offers in hand, the 6-foot-1 forward from Riverside, Calif., had settled on Fullerton JC, where she would play for a year or two with a few friends from her club team and see what happened from there.

But when her club team of full of 2009 graduates disbanded, she sought another team for July.

"I just wanted to play," Jackson said. "I wasn't expecting to play in front of colleges, I just wanted to play to stay in shape for JC."

Not only did Jackson stay in shape, she ended up with interest from multiple Division I schools before settling on Hampton University (Hampton, Va.), where she heads next week to begin her freshman year of college on a basketball scholarship.

Elbert Kinnebrew never promised Jackson and her family that she would land at a four-year program, but he would have been surprised if she hadn't.

The Cal Sparks coach first met the Riverside Poly graduate in April, when her Swift Basketball club team of unsigned seniors played his Cal Sparks Gold team in a first-round game at the Sparks' tournament.

"I thought it would be a pretty easy game, because you always schedule those easier games in the first round," Kinnebrew said. "But we had a tough time with them and one of the big reasons was this kid. To me, she was clearly a D-I player."

As the two teams walked through the postgame handshake line, the coach's curiosity got the best of him. When she said she was probably going to a junior college, Kinnebrew asked about her grades and learned Jackson carried a 3.4 grade-point average.

Kinnebrew, who was running the tournament, connected with Jackson once more during the tournament, long enough to give her his e-mail address. A couple weeks later, she sent an e-mail, saying that her team of graduating seniors was disbanding and she was looking for a place to play.

With two spots open on his fifth team, Kinnebrew extended the offer, making sure Jackson understood that she would be playing with kids younger than her. She didn't hesitate to accept, asking if she could also bring along a friend.

"She told me, 'Coach, I just want to play,'" Kinnebrew said. "It was so refreshing. ... Most older kids would have an attitude if they were on a younger team, but she just took them under her wing. ... We ended up having a couple of kids on the top team quit and were able to move her up, which briefly made a couple of the parents mad because all the parents on that younger team just loved her."

Jackson drove herself from Riverside to Long Beach for practices, bringing along Swift teammate and good friend Amanda Frost, who was graduating from Riverside's J.W. North, and worked her way up to being a key part of the team.

"It was kind of hard being on that team, because they been together for so long," Jackson said. "I felt out of place. But by the end of the summer, we all got along."

"We went from struggling to just playing great basketball," Kinnebrew said. "Jianni and Amanda were a big part of that. Not just with their skills, but their attitudes were the biggest part."

With the exposure tournaments also came the phone calls, primarily to Kinnebrew. After the first half of July, Southern Utah, Colorado State, Alaska-Anchorage and a couple other schools showed interest, but there wasn't much time to talk in the brief mid-July break. At the end of July, Coppin State, Rhode Island and Hampton were among the interested schools added to Jackson's list.

After some discussions, Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., moved toward the top.

"I'd never heard of them," Jackson said. "I wasn't going to go. I don't like cold weather, I didn't really know anything about the school, but then I talked to one of the players on the phone."

Another helpful factor was Frost, a three-sport athlete in high school. She sandwiched basketball between volleyball and softball at J.W. North and was leaning toward a school in Colorado when Hampton came up. At Hampton, Frost will pick up a softball scholarship, but likely play basketball as well. With a friend from home along for the trip, the two agreed on the Virginia school in early August, with less than a month until the big move.

"Being able to go together and play together so far from home, it is nice to know someone," Jackson said. "I'm getting nervous, but I'm excited, too."

Jackson, with her mother along for the trip, and Frost, accompanied by her father, made the cross-country flight in late August. Kinnebrew wished her the best, happy that Jackson and a four-year program were able to make a connection.

"I've never added a senior to my team who hadn't played for me before," Kinnebrew said. "It's probably something I won't do again, because I like to have time with them to teach and develop the players.

"A lot of club basketball people kind of battle instead of help each other, but I wanted to reach out to this kid. ... It just turned out she helped my team, but it was refreshing to be around somebody who just wanted to play and had that attitude."

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Mindi Rice is a staff writer for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at mindi@hoopgurlz.com.