The recruiting process can be a burden for any high school athlete.
Ridley’s Dakota McCaughan was cognizant of the pressure surrounding her choice for a college destination. The All-Delco basketball player had offers before her senior season, her first at Ridley High after a three-year stint at Bonner-Prendergast, but she decided to wait and play the long game.
That was OK with McCaughan.
She never announced her up-to-the-minute college offers or invitations for official campus visits. A quiet, down to earth sort, McCaughan kept her business to herself.
Ultimately, McCaughan, who led Ridley to its first Central League championship in decades, kept coming back to one school in particular. In late April, she signed with the University of South Carolina-Upstate.
Her somewhat belated signing had nothing to do with her academic prowess. McCaughan is a model student taking three advanced placement courses during her final semester of high school – psychology,statistics and literature. She is handling the heavy workload while being forced to complete her schoolwork at home due to the conronavirus pandemic.
McCaughan was relieved to finally to put her college decision behind her so she can focus entirely on finishing her intense course work at Ridley. While she admits her studies have been overwhelming, she credits Ridley “because they aren’t allowing any type of academic letdown during this school closure.”
Regarding USC-Upstate, McCaughan said it was the perfect fit.
“I cannot tell you the hours I spent contemplating and evaluating all factors leading up to this decision. For me, I didn’t wish to rush into anything,” McCaughan said. “Some kept asking about my choices, but I’m a private person when it comes to such topics, especially since some (recruiters) will often try to sway a player one way or another. To avoid that from occurring, I remained low-key.
“I had offers, but Upstate was there for me in the beginning. … I just wanted to keep things quiet and make sure that I made the best decision for me, which is why I only told my parents and Coach Roe (Falcone), really. I did an unofficial visit during the basketball season. I really loved the campus, I thought it was really nice and pretty. And, you know, just the scenery of it. I was supposed to take an official visit, but the whole COVID(-19) thing happened so I wasn’t able to do that.”
Upstate, a Division I program and member of the Big South Conference, gives McCaughan the chance to flourish right away. The Spartans are coached by Tammy George, the all-time wins leader in program history, who is in her 18th season at the helm.
“I chose Upstate because it provided me with the opportunity to come into a program and have an immediate impact as a freshman, which is what I wanted,” McCaughan said. “I also felt that the coaches were genuine and the relationship I’ve built with them, the bond, that’s something I’ve been looking forward to. It just felt right. It seemed like the right fit to me.
“They watched me during AAU season, so before my senior season they were in contact with me. And what’s great is they were patient with me. They knew that I was debating other offers and contemplating my choices, so they were really patient. They were here before my senior year and waited the whole time, which I really appreciated.”
McCaughan was an All-Catholic League player her last two years at Bonner-Prendie and the unofficial MVP of the Central League season in 2019-20. She earned All-Delco third-and second-team honors her sophomore and junior years before being selected to the first team as a senior. A tremendously gifted, unique player with a schoolyard swagger, McCaughan gave the Green Raiders immediate credibility when she joined the program her senior year. With McCaughan leading the way, the Green Raiders went from a Central League afterthought to one of the best teams in Delco, winning 21 games under first-year head coach Falcone. It’s not surprising to learn that McCaughan, a 1,000-point scorer in high school career, has famous Ridley bloodlines. On her dad’s side she is related to Matt Blundin, the All-Delco quarterback who spent three seasons in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions.
“Something I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up, is the impact she and the team had on the community,” Falcone said. “It’s pretty great that there are little girls in Ridley, aspiring to be like Dakota. I can only hope that they work as hard.”
McCaughan wants to pursue a dual major in psychology and criminal justice.
“My parents have been a big influence,” she said. “My dad works in law enforcement and my mom is a counselor, so I think I just wanted to combine the two.”
McCaughan recently celebrated her 18th birthday. That was a pretty weird experience, as she was forced to stay at home and maintain social distancing from her friends and relatives as they drove by her house, honking their horns and sending well wishes.
“My friends all surprised me and I had no idea they were doing it,” she said. “It was really nice to see their faces, even if it was from a distance. It’s so different, but I value safety and at this time I think it’s very important that we stay away from each other.”
McCaughan couldn’t have asked for a better senior experience at Ridley, her hometown school, playing alongside longtime friends.
“Honestly, if in the first two weeks of me coming back to Ridley you would have told me that this would have been the greatest year of high school that I had, I would have thought that you were insane,” McCaughan said, laughing. “It was a great to come back, even if it wasn’t the ideal decision at first, but I didn’t really have a choice. In the end, though, it was really worth it. Being able to get so far and to win the Central League championship, that’s something I’ll never forget. And the bonds that I rekindled and the new friendships, it’s something I’m grateful for.”
Note: This story originally appeared in the May 9, 2020 edition of the Delco Daily Times