If there is one word to describe Candace Stephens, it’s “tenacity.”
The 2012 San Mateo High School graduate and current sophomore for the Mission College basketball team has used that drive and pitbull attitude in her personal life, in the classroom and on the basketball court.
Stephens will never be confused with a Division I college player, but she is a great example of, if a player wants to continue to play in college, there is a spot somewhere for them. It’s that tenacity that led Stephens to sign a letter of intent to continue her collegiate career at Philander Smith College, a NAIA, historically black college in Little Rock, Ark.
“No, I never thought I’d be in this position,” Stephens said.
Stephens can and does play nearly every position for the up-tempo Saints, coached by former Westmoor girls’ coach Corey Cafferata. Stephens was not necessarily on Cafferata’s radar during her senior year at San Mateo but, after talking with Stephens’ support group as well as her high school coach, Nancy Dinges, Cafferata invited Stephens to join him in Santa Clara.
“Watching [Stephens in high school] I didn’t see that much of her as a player. But the first time I went to watch her, all the people I was sitting around [were] pulling for her,” Cafferata said. “I thought she would get better. She has become a better basketball player. Just her energy (drew me to her). I’ve never seen anybody play that hard.”
Stephens averaged just over four points per game coming off the bench her freshman year at Mission. This year, she is averaging 17.
“This year, we’re fifth in the state in scoring,” Cafferata said. “Candace is a big reason for that.”
The fact Stephens is even in the position she is now is nothing short of miraculous. Abandoned as a 6-year-old, Stephens spent more than a decade in foster care.
“Honestly, I have mixed emotions about it. I can’t pinpoint one emotion,” Stephens said. “It is what it. Everyone has to get it done, no matter what challenges you had. I had to get it done. I wasn’t going to let that affect me.”
Stephens’ mother is again part of her life, as the two reconnected while she was in high school. She bears no ill will toward her mother.
“[My mother] told me the story about what happened. I completely understand,” Stephens said. “I forgive her. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
On top of that, she has a learning disability which necessitated the need to take special education classes in high school and at Mission. But she does not let that define her.
“I didn’t feel different at all. I felt like a normal kid. I just needed a little more help than most people,” Stephens said. “I get distracted easily. I need more one-on-one teacher type thing. It’s kind of hard for me to learn.
“But that’s just me. That’s just the way I do things.”
Dinges, who taught math to Stephens in eighth grade and later became her high school coach, said Stephens’ “just do it attitude” in the classroom translated to the basketball court.
“She’s a smart kid. She may be special education, but she gets excited about education. She was excited about school when she understood something,” Dinges said. “She has the work ethic, which is something she trained to do. (She is proof) hard work can pay off.
“She’s just one of those player who will get it done. I’d always put her on the (opposing team’s) best players. I would give Candace a job and she would stop (the opponent).”
Now, Stephens will take her tenacity and her game to Arkansas and try to show Philander Smith College what she can do when she puts her mind to something.
“There is just something about Candace that is very special. She has this energy with her that she brings every day. … She will get things done as long as she knows what to do,” Dinges said. “I can not be happier (for Stephens). She’s extremely close to my heart. I was so excited for her (when I heard she got a scholarship). I’ve known this kid since she was 12 years old. I’ve seen her grow as a student, an athlete and a person. That’s really cool to see. It shows just how hard of a worker she truly is.”