Chelsea Mitchell had just arrived in South Carolina, the final step of her transfer to Lander University, and the only thing she could think was that she had made a mistake.
I shouldn’t be here, she thought. She wanted to be back at Morgan State, where she had spent the first two seasons of her college basketball career. And now with no car and living by herself for the first time, all she wanted to do was go back to her comfort zone.
“I immediately regretted my decision,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t think I was ready for the big move.”
But it was already done; the transfer was official, and Mitchell had to stay in South Carolina for the 2017-18 season. The 5-foot-9 guard returned to Morgan State after one year, redshirting with the Bears in 2018-19. But the old Mitchell never came back.
Instead, a more mature and developed player came back to Morgan State, and that is apparent in everything she does from her play on the court to her leadership skills.
“I feel like I needed it,” Mitchell said of her time at Division II Lander. “I grew up a lot when I was down there by myself.”
A native of Columbia, Md., Mitchell initially came to Morgan State after graduating from Atholton High School in 2015. After starting in only six games her freshman year, she became a staple of the Bears’ lineup as a sophomore, starting 28 of 30 games. She averaged 6.1 points and 4.7 rebounds and finished the year with 47 steals and 24 assists.
But her family felt something was missing from Mitchell’s game; they didn’t feel like she could develop as a player at Morgan State, so she eventually decided to transfer to Lander after her sophomore season.
“I listened to them because I’m a family-oriented person,” Mitchell said.
For Mitchell’s teammates like senior Jihayah Chavis, it was a challenge to see one of their friends leave, but they had to find a way to keep going.
“We couldn’t dwell on the past,” Chavis said. “You just have to play through it.”
Mitchell experienced a lot of emotions because of her transfer — most of them involving regret — but Mitchell also felt like she had run away from her problems. Shortly after she arrived at Lander, she called her Morgan State coaches.
“I was actually going to go back in August , but I had already participated in a certain amount of games during the preseason, so I couldn’t come back,” Mitchell said.
So Mitchell decided to make the best of her situation. The Lander coaching staff made her the team captain, which surprised her since she had only been with the team for a limited amount of time. The new role forced her to do things that were out of her comfort zone, including becoming a vocal leader.
“It kind of forced me to come out of my shell,” Mitchell said. “That was the biggest thing I learned from being there. I learned how to be a leader for a group of girls that I had never met before.”
Mitchell said she would not have become that person by herself, so she’s thankful she was put in that situation.
“I needed that push,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell didn’t just grow as a person at Lander; she blossomed into a better player. She averaged 15.3 points and 8.2 rebounds in 31 games and was named to the Division II Conference Commissioners Association All-Southeast Region Second Team.
With the year finished, it was time for Mitchell to return to Morgan State. She was a different person and player, and she felt like it was simply time to come back and do big things in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
“I felt like I really grew as an individual and I could help Morgan State for the first time in a long time,” Mitchell said. “So I really thought it was time for me to come back and lead this team to a championship.”
When Chavis heard Mitchell was coming back, she was excited to have one of her closest friends back at Morgan State.
“We had conversations about what we could do, what we’re going to do when she came back,” Chavis said. “We talked about the season before it even started.”
But that would have to wait. Mitchell had to fulfill academic requirements before she could rejoin her team, so she had to sit out her first year back. It was one of the biggest challenges Mitchell had to face in her career.
“I’m very energetic and I love competing,” Mitchell said. “So sitting on the bench and not being able to play and just watch was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I have such a passion for the game. … It was definitely hard to watch.”
Mitchell is finally able to play this season, but there was also the challenge of playing with an almost completely new team again. It was similar to the situation she faced at Lander, and now a senior, she was once again expected to lead. So, while she adjusted to playing with a new group of teammates, she focused on the smaller things like working hard.
“You kind of have to earn their respect,” Mitchell said of her teammates. “So I’ve been trying to do the little tangible things.”
Chavis said the growth in Mitchell’s game and leadership is apparent.
“She matured very well,” Chavis said. “She’s the most vocal person on the team. On defense, you can really hear her.”
Mitchell made her first start since transferring back to Morgan State in a road game against Marquette in November.
“It was amazing,” Mitchell said. “The energy, the environment, even putting on the uniform was the greatest feeling in the world.”
Mitchell has flourished since rejoining head coach Ed Davis Jr.’s lineup. She averaged 12.2 points and 8.0 rebounds in her first nine games and earned MEAC Defensive Player of the Week honors twice during the first month of the season.
“She’s just everywhere,” Chavis said. “I can count on her to do anything. She can pick you up when you’re feeling down. She can play defense. She has my back, and she makes up for the things that I don’t do.”
If she had the chance to go back in time and talk to herself before making the decision to transfer, she would offer one piece of advice: stay true to yourself.
“I should have stuck with my gut and fought through the challenges and adversity,” Mitchell said. “So stay true to yourself and remember why you went [to Morgan State] in the first place. It was to make history.”
Photo Credit: Lawrence Johnson