Checking vital signs. Administering medication and insulin shots. Feeding with a gastrostomy tube. Wednesday night clinical shifts at Tewksbury Hospital, all in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic, assured Denise Solis nursing is right for her.
From UMass Lowell’s frontcourt to the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, the 6-foot-1 forward is making an impact. On the court, she’s perhaps the River Hawks’ most valuable player. Off it, the Windsor, Conn. native is deep into clinical rotations as part of her nursing major.
“Working in a pandemic is hard, and having to bring that to your families if you get infected with it … It makes me respect nurses a lot more,” Solis said. “It makes me want to be a nurse more to help. I just see the hard work they’re putting in, they want to help people. That’s all I want to do.”
Although it’s her first year as UMass Lowell’s head coach, Denise King and Solis have a longstanding relationship. An assistant under former UMass Lowell head coach Tom Garrick, for three years, King helped recruit Solis, the staff’s first commit.
“He kind of did the first heavy hit, making the contact and throwing out the offer,” King said. “We literally got her to campus a couple weeks later because we really wanted her, we all had our hand in there making calls and building relationships.”
She decided to pursue nursing, specifically, a nurse anesthetist role, as a junior in high school.
With knowledge of Solis’s nursing interest, the coaching staff made sure a trip to UMass Lowell’s Solomont School of Nursing highlighted the recruiting visit.
That, Solis said, stuck out.
“It made me more interested in nursing seeing that,” Solis said. “UMass Lowell was the only official visit I went on… one of the only schools that gave me an offer, and nursing played a lot into it because that’s what I want to do in the future.”
A fixture in the starting lineup from the outset of her UMass Lowell career, Solis parlayed a strong freshman campaign into an America East All-Conference First Team and league all-defensive team performance as a sophomore last year.
On the rare occasion Solis leaves practice early or misses practice because of her clinical schedule, she’s dedicated to making up for what she missed on her own time. Whether it’s watching film, getting extra shots up, or additional conditioning, Solis “has taken accountability,” King said, in her career both on and off the court.
“Just her getting excited about learning different things she’s learned in the classroom and how she gets to put those into actions in the field is extremely exciting for her,” King said. “And the amount of time she has to be on her feet between the rotations and practice … I think her spirits have been really good.”
Solis’s first-semester clinical schedule included the Tewksbury Hospital shift on Wednesdays from 3-11 p.m. focused on gerontology and psychology. The spring semester, with an emphasis on maternity and pediatrics, includes a Sunday clinical from 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. Balancing clinicals with basketball is “very difficult,” Solis said, but she’s glad it’s worked out. Solis hopes to play professional basketball overseas before settling into her nursing career.
Selected third in the conference’s preseason poll, Solis and the River Hawks (5-7, 2-1 America East) hope to exceed their consecutive America East conference semifinals appearances with a trip to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first at the Division I level.
“We’ve been saying since we got here that our goal is to get to the championship and win it,” said Solis, who averages 10 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. “We’ve been working towards it and that’s what we expect.”
Kaba sticks with UCF
Leaving the University of Central Florida never crossed Masseny Kaba’s mind.
A record number of student-athletes transferred last year, but Kaba, of Dorchester, stuck with the Knights for her COVID-19 pandemic-granted fifth year of eligibility.
“UCF is home for me,” Kaba said. “I didn’t even think about transferring.”
A two-time MIAA Division 4 state champion at Cathedral High School, Kaba played with current Division 1 players Mackenzie Daleba (Fairfield), Dejah Jenkins (Central Connecticut), and Ariana Vanderhoop (Monmouth) in addition to a handful of college players at other levels.
The 6-3 forward, who started the majority of her appearances every year but her sophomore season, played a key role in UCF’s NCAA Tournament runs in 2019 and 2021. UCF has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game, a feat Kaba looks to accomplish before her college career ends with a 12-2 UCF team that received votes in the Top 25 poll on multiple occasions this season.
“I’d put my team against anybody,” said Kaba, who recently eclipsed the career 1000 point mark and averages 7.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1 block per game. “I think we have a great team and a lot to still prove.”
She earned an undergraduate degree in kinesiology and will graduate with a master’s in the same subject this year.