Every weekday, Janae Henderson jumps into her black 1995 Cadillac Seville and, bumping J Cole along the way, she drives down Highway 101.
For 31 miles, Cole tickles her ears as she makes her way to Mission College in Santa Clara. It may seem like a lot of trouble to go back-and-forth everyday from her home in San Bruno to study and play basketball, but for Henderson it’s always been about the journey — 62 daily miles is nothing when you’re final destination is greatness.
Those who saw Henderson play as a Capuchino Mustang can tell you that the 5-foot-9 guard (then post) had a lot of raw, untapped potential. Whenever she took the court against the Peninsula Athletic League’s Lake Division, Henderson was easily one of the best players on the floor.
But getting her on the court was the problem.
"Janae’s questions in high school were always academics,” said Mission coach Corey Cafferata.
Henderson missed out on playing basketball at Cap her sophomore and junior years because she was academically ineligible.
"I think it was me not being able to focus as well as I should have,” Henderson said of her academic struggles. "(I was) letting high school activities get to me.”
Local schools were interested in her talents, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter with Cafferata after a loss to Oceana that Henderson would get the support she really needed. Cafferata expressed his interest in Henderson and her talent immediately as he focused his attention on turning a bad Mission College program into a contender. He knew she had the skill to help turn the program around.
"I just came up to her and I was for real with her and said, ‘Hey, you’d fit in really good with my program.’ It was just a really good situation,” Cafferata said, "she’s a really good player. She’s the most improved player on our team. She’s very physical, very strong and I’m glad to have her at Mission.”
So for Henderson and Cafferata, the task became re-learning how to be a successful student all over again.
"The one thing for Janae, commuting every day from San Bruno, she struggled a bit academically. She had to pass 24 units and 18 of those had to be academic. So what we had to do was find classes that she wanted to learn from and you kind of become a student. And she’s grown up, she’s matured.”
"I like the college scene better,” Henderson said. "There’s more freedom. I like the teachers a lot better at Mission. They’re really willing to help you. It was like that at Cap, but, it just isn’t the same. I enjoy the freedom of college more. It’s more independent and that’s how I’ve always been. College is something I really want to do so I know I really have to apply myself.”
It’s this application and dedication, to the program and to her life, that has put Henderson on the right track. And it’s kept on the basketball court.
"She can play any position she wants,” Cafferata said, "Janae’s biggest strength is second-chance baskets — she has the ultimate green light with me. If she wants to sink the 3, if she wants to take someone off the dribble and get us in the right situation, she can do that. Janae feels very comfortable playing down low, posting up, getting rebounds — she’s done pretty well.”
Henderson averaged seven points and seven boards on a team that likes to push it on the floor. With a Mission squad full of scorers, it took Henderson time to find her niche. Near the end of the season, Cafferata said Henderson shined — averaging a double-double down the stretch as Mission tried to make the playoffs for only the second time in school history.
They did so and then some: winning their first postseason game ever.
Henderson was a big part of that success. And Cafferata will lean on her even more as she’ll be the only starter returning to the Mission lineup next year. But the key for Henderson, who possesses so much ability on the court, will always be hitting the books.
"For someone like Janae to be academically eligible, it’s the biggest accomplishment of her life,” Cafferata said. "At the community college level, there are no freebies and she has done very good.”
"He can be a hassle,” Henderson jokes about her coach and mentor. "He always calls, checks up and makes sure everything is going right. But he’s been the reason why I’ve been on top of my game. He’s constantly there for me. It can be a bit much because I’ve never had a coach who cared as much for me to succeed, but I like that about him. He’s like my dad on the court.”
"I was on her so much I think she hated me,” Cafferata said. "I told her, ‘OK, you have two choices: you come back to Mission, you do stuff better and we make a run at this or you know what? I’m going to call my friend up at the mall and see if I can get you a job at Metro PCS or Footlocker.’ I think she got it. And believe me, her and I have battled over how important school is.”
School and basketball look to be in Henderson’s future. She said there are schools who have expressed interest in her talents after her sophomore season — schools like Bethany College, which have recruited her heavily.
"I don’t believe in two chances, I believe you should get as many chances as you need to make the right decision,” Cafferata said. "With Janae, I have an extreme amount of loyalty. A lot of players will tell their coaches, ‘Thank you for the opportunity.’ I’m more of thanking my players, especially Janae — I’m telling you, 60 miles a day, spending $35 of gas, her loyalty to me right there when she says, ‘I’m coming to Mission College to play for you Corey.’ We have a bond. I appreciate her coming to play for me, believing in me.”