From A Rough Start And A Tiny Town, Jensen Caretti Is Now The Cat's Meow

Jensen Caretti was unknown to big-time college coaches until recently. Funny thing is, they were unknown to Caretti as well. Courtesy Joseph Howley

When Jensen Caretti was about 5 years old, she would arrange several of her family's cats in the driveway in strategic locations so she could dribble around them.

"I would put food down in front of each cat to make them stay, and it worked," Caretti said. "But if I got too close, they would freak out and run away."

A year later, when Caretti began playing organized basketball, her coaches were bewildered. She refused to participate in drills, choosing instead to sit in the middle of the court and watch.

When Caretti, who had learned basketball by playing Xbox, was asked by her adoptive parents, Daniel and Sharon, why she didn't take part, the 6-year-old had a simple answer.

"I already know how to do all that stuff," she said.

At the first game later that week, she proved her point. As soon as the opposing point guard crossed half court, Caretti stole the ball and went in for a layup. She finished with 15 points and her team won 17-2.

A dozen years later, Caretti is still a quick study. She is now a 6-foot-1 shooting guard with a 76-inch wingspan, outstanding leaping ability and numerous scholarship offers. She averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks last season.

Caretti, now a senior at River (Hannibal, Ohio), is shooting up the espnW HoopGurlz Recruiting Rankings for the 2016 class and is projected to be in the top 20 when new rankings are released next month.

But she was a virtual unknown three months ago. The way she was "discovered" by an AAU coach was amazing, but it was nowhere near as astonishing as how she managed to survive a tragic situation with her birth mother.

Caretti nearly died on more than one occasion, and the fact that she can walk -- much less run and dribble around cats and tip-dunk on a 10-foot rim -- is practically miraculous.

Early struggles

When Daniel Caretti began dating Sharon, she quickly told him how she envisioned her life. She had been taken in by caring adoptive parents, and she wanted to give back and do the same thing for other children.

"I asked him if he liked kids," Sharon said. "I told him I wanted to adopt, and if that wasn't something he wanted, then we're wasting our time."

Daniel said yes, and the couple, starting in the early 1990s, brought in 92 children through foster care, and they ultimately adopted 11.

Jensen is the ninth oldest of the 11. She is one of just three remaining in the four-bedroom house in tiny Clarington, Ohio, population 300.

She came into Daniel and Sharon's lives as a foster child when she was just 10 weeks old. Her father, who was 6-foot-11, disappeared. Her mother, who had issues with drugs, would come to the Caretti home, ordered by the court.

"The judge wanted me to teach her how to be a mom," Sharon said. "The birth mom was just 17 when she had Jen, and she didn't have anyone she could turn to for help."

That experiment did not go well.

On one occasion, the birth mom was given the task of bathing Jensen. Sharon said that when she went to check on them, the birth mom had left the bathroom to play a video game, and the water had started to reach Jensen's face.

Another scary situation occurred when Jensen was just 2 months old. Her birth mother dragged her across the carpet in an attempt to change her diaper, Sharon said. The rough handling of such a young child left Jensen with a dislocated hip, and doctors wondered if she would ever walk normally.

"None of that was done maliciously," Sharon said. "[She] just didn't know any better."

Ultimately, as with the other 10 kids the Caretti's adopted, the state terminated the birth parents' rights, and Jensen was officially adopted at age 2.

Jensen, now 18, said she hasn't seen her birth mom in seven years.

"I don't really think about it," she said.

Jensen looks at her childhood with "happiness," adding: "God wouldn't have done all this if he wouldn't want it to happen."

Asked about her siblings, some of whom slept in the big basement when there was a full house, Jensen said she keeps in touch as often as possible.

"They're pretty awesome," she said. "With all those kids ... it was pretty busy."

A hidden gem

Clarington spans just 1.2 square miles and overlooks the Ohio River. It's about as far east as you can go in Ohio -- just three more miles and you're in West Virginia.

There's a gas station and a post office in Clarington but no stoplights, and the Caretti's have to travel 20 minutes to get to a grocery store.

Given the size and remote nature of the town, it's understandable why Jensen's talent was a virtual secret for so long.

But that changed in June, when AAU coach Kirk Perry, who runs the Cleveland-based Next Level program, traveled to Wheeling, West Virginia, for a tournament.

Perry, whose program has produced former college standouts such as Shay Selby (Duke), Nirra Fields (UCLA) and Karisma Penn (Illinois), normally wouldn't go to such a low-level tournament except that he wanted to get his younger players experience.

Next Level made it to overtime of the championship game in Wheeling, but that's when something highly unusual happened.

Perry left his team.

Right there, while his girls were competing in OT, he told assistant coach Reginald Floyd to take over.

"He was looking at me like I was crazy," Perry said. "He said, 'Coach, we're in overtime!'"

There was a method to Perry's madness, however. He had seen Caretti out of the corner of his eye, over on the adjacent court, playing in a consolation game with her high school team.

"I was trying to figure out whether to win this championship or go find out who this kid is," Perry said. "When I got over there, I was shocked. She was the tallest kid on the court but she was 22 feet away from the basket.

"After she made seven straight 3-pointers, I understood why."

When the game ended, Perry introduced himself to Caretti and told her he wanted her on his AAU team.

"She asked me, 'Coach, do you think I'm good enough?'" Perry said. "I told her: 'Good enough? You're going to be my whole team.'"

After that conversation, Perry tried to find Caretti online but to no avail. It was as if she didn't exist because she wasn't in any of the rankings, and her high school has never so much as won a district title.

"I spoke to her parents," Perry said. "I said, 'I've been doing this for 20 years and this kid is as good as I've ever seen.'

"She has springs like I've never seen. She will block shots and pin them against the backboard -- things you rarely see girls do."

Sharon said she was "excited and surprised" when she got the call from Perry.

"I always thought she was good," Sharon said. "But I thought maybe I was biased because I'm her mom."

Caretti's first tournament with Next Level was in July in Cincinnati. At first, just a few college coaches watched Next Level. But by the third game, there were 60 coaches focused on Caretti.

Rick Isaly, who has coached Caretti at River High since she was a freshman starting on varsity, said his star player had just a few mid-major scholarship offers as of May -- from Kent State, Xavier, Buffalo and Western Michigan.

But after she joined Next Level, Perry said she is now considering Ohio State, South Carolina, Rutgers, Purdue, Louisville, Florida State, Tennessee, Michigan and Dayton, in no particular order.

Caretti, who is interested in studying sports management and might become a coach after she's done playing, has a 3.4 GPA and hopes to pick a school by October.

She said she would prefer to venture away from home and was impressed with New York when the family took a vacation recently, passing through the city on the way to Niagara Falls.

"We went around the same block 16 times [in New York City] because we couldn't find parking," Caretti said. "There were so many types of people, different races -- it was pretty awesome."

Caretti has every September day except one taken up by either a volleyball game or a home visit by a college coach. But since she rarely watches TV, she admits she didn't know any of the coaches, even some of the bigger names in the sport.

"It was weird," Caretti said. "Dawn Staley was a three-time Olympic gold medalist, and I didn't even hear about it."

She's learned quickly, and now it's time for the coaches recruiting her to find out how to get to Clarington.

"You have to take back roads to get there," said Perry, who made the four-hour drive from Cleveland in July to meet her family. "You lose GPS service because it's a hilly area, and there are no streetlights.

"I would have turned around and gone home except that I was going there for Jensen."