Former Maine West Standout Van Fleet Walking Her Own Path
Dylan Van Fleet delayed her D-I basketball career to hike the Appalachian Trail and raise money for cancer research.
Dylan Van Fleet will always set her own course, even as others follow in her footsteps. The Morton College (Cicero) freshman is quiet in nature, doing much of her talking through her actions.
Some of that nature is by design, the rest by consequence of her lived experiences.
Van Fleet’s Chi Hoops Express AAU coach Jerald Davis, who she affectionately refers to as “JD,” describes her as quiet toward adults, but said she has always gotten along well with teammates — dating all the way back to when he first saw her play with the program around fifth grade and continuing as he began coaching her directly in eighth grade.
“Dylan was quiet in the sense of, she was more non-verbal, but she was very, very physical, very aggressive, very tough-minded and highly competitive,” Davis said. “To be honest with you, I think that [her actions] was how she spoke.”
An all-state performer at Maine West in Des Plaines as a senior in 2019-20, Van Fleet had plenty of options for her athletic and scholastic futures. She originally planned to walk on with the Marquette women’s basketball team. Instead, she chose to defer a year from college with the blessing and a guaranteed spot at the school.
Van Fleet had numerous chances to still play collegiate basketball at a smaller school, or even soccer, where she was also a standout performer. Instead, she initially planned to take online courses through Oakton Community College to prepare for Marquette.
Her plans changed again when current Morton College and former longtime Moninti Catholic coach Jason Nichols got wind of Van Fleet’s deferral from Marquette, giving him the chance to nab an athlete he’d long admired.
“I used to rave about her when we were getting ready to prep for her,” Nichols said of Montini-Maine West matchups. “Obviously, you rave about (current Oregon Duck) Angela Dugalic, but I loved everything about this kid (Van Fleet) because she did everything you needed to win games. She’s the type of kid you may look at her and say, ‘Hey, she doesn’t look the part, but she plays it.’ Know what I mean? Everything she does is what a team needs to be successful, whether it’s at the high school or college level.”
That raving left a lasting impression on his Broncos players.
“I used to be like, ‘I would die to coach that kid. I’d love to have her in our program,” Nichols said. “So when she actually committed to Morton after deciding not to go to Marquette, like five of my Montini girls texted me and were like, ‘Oh you finally got your girl, you get to coach her.’ They were sending me crap because they knew how much I admired her from afar.”
But before even making the decision to play at Morton, Van Fleet had something more pressing on her mind.
A future date with destiny awaited, a mountainous challenge that still looms.
For months, Van Fleet has had her mind set on hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail, a decision she intends to undertake for a number of reasons.
The Van Fleet family walked a short distance of the Appalachian Trail — a stretch in the Smokey Mountains — when Van Fleet was in seventh grade. That trip has long stuck in her mind, as she vividly recalled how much she enjoyed the trails.
Though her late middle-school years bring to mind those happy memories, they’re also associated with a more difficult time. That age, and the years since, have been connected to her mother Lisa Nicholson’s diagnosis and the battles that followed.
“She first was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in seventh grade, and she went through all that stuff fighting it,” Van Fleet said. “Then sophomore year — metastatic breast cancer is where it spreads — sophomore year is where it became metastatic. Ever since sophomore year she’s been on chemo pills. Lately it’s been a little bit worse, so she’s had to go through some radiation and chemotherapy again. … She’s been fighting for a while, but still trooping.”
The idea of returning to the Appalachian Trail — which runs approximately 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia — had stuck in Van Fleet’s mind. When she brought it up to her mother as a substitute to a normal first year out of high school, she was surprised by the response.
“I told my mom about it like, “I wish I could do this this year,’ like jokingly, not as serious,” Van Fleet said. “She was like, ‘Well why don’t you?’ And I was like, ‘You’d be OK with that?’ And she was like ‘Yeah!’”
Just like that, the early planning stages began. And when Van Fleet starts her trip, she’ll be walking for more than just herself.
On the basketball court, Van Fleet has always gotten the most out of her 5-6 frame, even if she had begged Maine West coach Kim deMarigny to list her as 5-9.
“She has the heart of a lion,” deMarigny said. “To see a player that has that kind of tenacity and that kind of heart for the game really sets her apart.”
Between her fast hands, desire to watch film and competitive drive, Van Fleet became a collegiate prospect coming out of high school.
“She leads by example,” Nichols said. “She gets tip deflections, she grabs rebounds you don’t expect her to get, she makes baskets when you don’t expect her to get it.”
As her AAU coach of five years, Davis speaks fondly of time spent watching her grow on the basketball court and in other sports.
Van Fleet’s path was different than fellow Maine West and Chi Hoops Express teammate Angela Dugalic, who Davis said joined the program largely because of Van Fleet. In the AAU program, Van Fleet led the 15U team while some teammates her age moved up to 17U. And in high school, she didn’t play big minutes as an underclassman.
“The dynamics at Maine West were, her freshman year she was on the JV team playing some varsity, and even her sophomore year she didn’t play a lot of minutes,” Davis said. “But Dylan was never here to complain. She always was a team-first kid. With us, Dylan was always a starter, but she played on her level.”
Dugalic — now a freshman for the national powerhouse Oregon Ducks — might not even be playing basketball if it weren’t for Van Fleet. The duo became fast friends when they realized they were born on the exact same day: Oct. 29, 2001.
A less-than-thrilling middle school AAU experience left Dugalic wondering if she should turn her attention elsewhere.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Maybe I’m playing the wrong sport. Maybe it’s me,'” Dugalic said. “I was debating if I should go into volleyball and have that be my sport. And Dylan came up to me and her mom and was like, ‘Just come and try out, it’s noting serious, if you don’t want to, it’s fine.’ I talked to my parents and so we decided to go. I remember that day so clearly. I was so scared, but I had Dylan by my side.”
Dugalic made that Chi Hoops Express squad, and the rest was history as the pair made their impact on Maine West and in AAU.
In an unconventional college season, Van Fleet has been excited just to get on the floor again for Morton, playing alongside teammates that she both played with and against during her prep years.
In a scrimmage against Triton, Van Fleet nearly put up a triple-double with points, rebounds and steals according to Nichols, garnering her praise from a well-respected basketball talent scout.
“It’s been unnatural but it’s been so refreshing to be able to play again and be able to get out there,” Van Fleet said. “I forgot how it felt to be honest, after having time in quarantine and stuff during the COVID months.”
Dan Olson, owner and director of Collegiate Girls Basketball report and a well-known evaluator of girls basketball talent, raved about Van Fleet’s potential after the scrimmage, according to Nichols.
“First thing he said after that Triton game was, ‘Wow, that Dylan Van Fleet kid, if she hones in some of her fundamentals and cleans it up, that’s a pretty big-time kid,'” Nichols said, echoing Olsen’s words.
Those who know Van Fleet say she lets her actions speak for her, and that the trait is something passed down from her mother. Though their family is far from alone in bearing the burden of the viciousness of cancer, managing that silently is just part of who Van Fleet is, those around her say, and an extension of Nicholson.
“[Nicholson] and Dylan [Van Fleet] are very determined people, and they do handle a lot of things internally, deMarigny said. “So they put on that strong face and say, ‘Hey we’re going to get through this. I see Dylan doing a lot of the same things that her mom does, just with that quiet strength that she has.”
When Van Fleet helped Maine West to a 4A state title in 2019 — the second in school history — she was also following in her mother’s footsteps. Nicholson helped the program win its first-ever state title in 1988. Nicholson went on to play college hoops at University of Chicago, and Van Fleet’s father, Jeff, played college soccer.
Nicholson and deMarigny developed a relationship during Van Fleet’s time in the program, jointly helping set up the Cancer Couch fundraiser game against Fremd to start the 2019-20 season. But they weren’t alone, as loving teammates were also behind the idea and execution.
“We thought, ‘What would be a good fundraiser that we could support that would be meaningful?'” Dugalic said. “And my teammate Lena Albo, she was like, ‘Why don’t we do something for Lisa?’ … and we all thought that was a great idea. Then the fact we won that game against a really good team, it just meant so much more. I just remember looking at Lisa and Dylan, it was such heartfelt moment. I can’t get that picture out of my head just those two. Dylan is literally a mini-Lisa.”
Having coached her the longest of any head coach, Davis has been a witness to Van Fleet’s quiet nature about her mother’s disease. He has still been able to lend emotional support coming from a place of relatable personal experience.
“When Dylan first came to play for me, when she transitioned to me, her mom shared [her experience],” Davis said. “I shared with her that my mom is now a 12-year, stage-4 lung cancer survivor. For us personally, that connected her mom and I to the point that her mom and I constantly communicated. So whenever something would be wrong, her mom would always call and tell me. This is how I was able to lock in on Dylan.”
Davis said that often when Van Fleet seemed quiet or distant, those timeframes matched up with when her mother would let him know she was having more difficult times with her health.
“I think Dylan internalized what was going on with her mom a lot, but again, Dylan never really talked about it. We never talked about it,” Davis said. “She knew I knew, and I would give her encouraging words. And she would just simply say, ‘I’ll let you know if I need anything.’ That’s how that went.”
Dugalic added perspective similar to Davis’.
“She’s always been pretty quiet about that stuff,” Dugalic said. “She’s never asked for help or anything. … Everybody I knew, we always asked her if (she needed) any help and she’s like, ‘No, I’m fine.’
“She’s just very independent in that situation,” Dugalic continued. “I think that the fact that has happened to her mom, it has impacted their life so much and has created such a great woman.”
Those closest to Van Fleet say her actions have always represented her mindset and personality best.
“She plays with such heart,” Dugalic said. “Honestly I’ve never seen someone like that. With every sport she plays and every person she meets, her heart is into it no matter what.”
At Morton, Van Fleet greets her new coach coach with sly smiles and a, “Hey, bro,” which he returns. In just a few months of coaching her, Nichols said its evident how much she cares about others.
He noted that one day in practice, Van Fleet approached him and encouraged Nichols to put a teammate into the action because she hadn’t gotten repetitions. A flabbergasted Nichols was taken aback: With the intensity of his practices, he said girls from his Montini squads would have been too intimidated to do the same. Van Fleet, instead, only looked out for her new teammate.
Among Van Fleet’s reasons for hiking the Appalachian Trail is raising money for Cancer Couch, the same organization Maine West partnered with. Cancer Couch raises funds and awareness for research into metastatic breast cancer, a non-treatable spread of breast cancer that the organization’s Paula Cunningham said affects approximately 20 percent of those with a breast cancer diagnosis.
Cunningham, the sister of Cancer Couch founder Rebecca Timlin-Scalera, PhD, told Illinois-Basketball.com about how athletics provides a high number of the foundation’s fundraising options, of which 100 percent of funding goes directly to research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Every dollar donated to the foundation is also matched by a private donor Timlin-Scalera partners with. Timlin-Scalera is passionate about the cause because of her own experiences: She had mammograms conducted every year and her cancer was still missed.
“We need to solve the problem,” Cunningham said.
The organization’s cause and current circumstances led Van Fleet to continue fighting for the cause. Since the start of the pandemic, many of Cancer Couch’s opportunities for fundraising at high school and collegiate athletic events have been lost. New avenues of fundraising and awareness, like Van Fleet’s, excite Cunningham.
“It’s kids like her that can go out and make those things happen,” Cunningham said.
In early December 2020, Van Fleet said she didn’t didn’t have all the details of her trip lined up, intending to plan more intensely after the holiday season.
From the outset, Nicholson had been firm that her daughter not make the trip alone. While other details might not be in order, finding a hiking partner proved easier than expected.
While attending a high school graduation get-together over the summer, she ran into Liam Blackburn, a fellow classmate whom she’s been close friends with since kindergarten.
“I asked him, ‘Yo, want to go on the Appalachian Trail with me?’” Van Fleet said. “‘He was like, ‘Sure.’ And I was like, ‘Seriously? You know I’m serious.’
“‘And he was like, ‘Yeah. Give give me a couple days to ask. I’d be happy to,'” Van Fleet recalled.
Blackburn had deferred his first year of college in California and was quick to accommodate one of his best friends.
Before joining the Morton program, Nichols gave Van Fleet the green light to take the trip. Once this pandemic-modified season comes to an end, Van Fleet will be ready to take off.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail will take between four and four-and-one-half months. Van Fleet will follow the trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. She’ll carry a large pack of supplies, and make stops along the way: in towns to pick up necessary items. There are some locations where she will have mailed herself necessities ahead of time with the help of The Cancer Couch Foundation’s funding.
Van Fleet said she may blog about her trip, encouraging more people to take notice of what she is doing with the hike: honoring her mother while awareness of metastatic breast cancer.
“It’s not talked about as much [as other forms of cancer], so I’d like to bring more attention to it,” she said.
“She’s my best friend,” Van Fleet said of her mom. “Just having to see her go through everything, she’s the strongest person I know. Just being able to get out there and do something like the hike I feel like doesn’t even light a candle to everything she’s had to go through (over) the years. Just being able to help her in my own little way makes me feel good.”
She’s hopeful to begin in early March and finish by the middle of July.
“So many people out of high school, you just go straight into life,” Van Fleet said. “College, working and all that stuff, I wanted to find a way to break that apart a bit. Still do stuff I want to do while I’m young, while still doing it for a good cause.”
Relentless, helpful, selfless. Those are words that come up time and again when Van Fleet is the topic of conversation.
“Dylan’s personality is, ‘I have to help, I have to find a way to make this better,'” deMarigny said. “She always is in that position. She doesn’t really care if she’s the star, she’s in the helping position. Even in her trail walk that’s coming up, she wants to help. She wants to raise awareness, raise money and do whatever she can to help not only her mom, but also other people who are struggling and suffering with that same kind of cancer.”
Always active, seemingly only stopping to lend a hand or a pleasant word, Van Fleet has set her sights on that path and is ready to take it. She laughed, noting that 2,200 miles of hiking will hopefully keep her in shape as she intends to head to Marquette next year, finally walking on to the women’s basketball team if the opportunity is still available.
Regardless, a journey awaits.
“I just think it’s going to be a whole other experience that I can’t even imagine yet,” she said.