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Caroline Ducharme, with “huge” chip on shoulder, quietly surprising at UConn

After being overlooked throughout much of the recruiting process, Ducharme is ready to stick it to anyone and everyone who doubted her.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The recruiting process wasn’t easy for Caroline Ducharme.

She missed part of her freshman year after tearing her ACL in April 2017 and then had her entire sophomore campaign knocked out due to a torn shoulder labrum suffered in July 2018. Those injuries limited her exposure as a recruit and as such, she was only rated as the No. 41 player in the class of 2021 by ESPN at one point.

It also didn’t help that Ducharme also played at a prep school — Nobles Academy in Dedham, Massachusetts — that wasn’t exactly known for producing high-end Division I talent. Ducharme faced an uphill battle to draw the attention of top college coaches.

“I think when Caroline was in high school, she didn’t get to go to all these different things (i.e recruiting events) because she had a couple injuries,” Geno Auriemma said. “So a lot of these people who tell you how great everybody is, they forgot all about her. So she was like an afterthought to everybody.”

“It’s not the same as the guys. Like the guys, if you’re a regular high school, you ain’t any good. Or if you’re at one of those prep schools, you must be really good. I think the women’s is just the opposite. So she had that stigma hanging over her,” he added later.

Even when Ducharme started to draw interest from bigger schools, specifically UConn, they didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for her. When Auriemma talked to her, he made it clear that he wanted her at UConn but wasn’t sure if he had the roster spot.

“I had to say to her a couple times, ‘Listen, we have no idea what our situation is. We have no idea what our scholarship situation is or where we are and if you know if you can hang in there with us, I think it’s going to work out great. But if you need to make a decision and go someplace, I truly understand,’” Auriemma said.

Considering all she went through in the process, waiting a little longer didn’t phase Ducharme. She just wanted Auriemma to be open and honest in terms of where she stood.

Once the Huskies finally sorted out their roster questions, Ducharme committed in April 2020. Soon after, she shot up to No. 5 in ESPN’s 2021 rankings and finally began to receive praise as one of the top prospects in the nation. Ducharme earned a spot on the Jordan Brand Classic team and was named a McDonalds, WBCA and Slam High School All-American. She even got a shout-out from Tom Brady on Instagram.

Despite the flurry of attention late in her high school career, Ducharme hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to be an afterthought on the recruiting trail. Even though she ended up at UConn, Ducharme still wants to stick it to anyone and everyone that ever questioned her abilities.

“She’s got a huge chip on her shoulder about a lot of things like that,” Auriemma said. “She’s pissed.”

“Yeah, no, I agree with that,” Ducharme said of Auriemma’s assessment. “I feel like I’ve always been under the radar. I’ve always tried to play with a chip on my shoulder. I’m always trying to prove something. I’m really competitive so I think it just comes out in my play.”

Since Ducharme was mostly a lower-ranked prospect until late and didn’t play for a US youth national team, some of her new teammates admitted they didn’t know much about her. That’s nothing the freshman is used to, though. It didn’t take her long to open their eyes.

“They don’t know how she does it but she beats their ass,” Auriemma said. “But they don’t know how she does it. They just walk away shaking her head.”

Specifically, Ducharme’s 3-point shooting ability along with her size (6-foot-2) and length at the guard position have stood out the most to her teammates.

“She can shoot. Once she gets on a roll, she doesn’t miss. And she’s very deceivingly long. Like, I’ve shot a couple times and she’s blocked it because her arms were so long. Extendo arms,” Christyn Williams said with a laugh. “But yeah, she’s gonna be good.”

It hasn’t all been perfect for Ducharme, though. She admitted the initial adjustment to UConn and college basketball was steeper than she imagined and wasn't prepared for how strong and fast everyone else would be compared to high school.

“I feel like our first workout was like [a welcome-to-UConn moment],” Ducharme said. “We started right away and it was intense and hard. There wasn’t any phasing you into it. It was just starting off right away.”

While she struggled at first, Ducharme just needed some time to get her feet under her. Once she did, the improvement was dramatic. Auriemma went so far as to declare her the most improved player of the summer session.

“If you were to ask [Andrea] Hudy in the weight room and the conditioning and even the coaches on the floor, ‘Who’s the most improved player since June 1?’ They would say Caroline Ducharme,” he said.

At various points, Auriemma has compared Ducharme to the likes of Carla Berube, Amy Duran and Ann Strother. Others have drawn parallels between her and Katie Lou Samuelson — a comp that certainly won’t go away any time soon with Ducharme wearing the same No. 33. But above all, the coach stressed that Ducharme is her own player.

“She’s gonna surprise a lot of people,” Auriemma said. “She’s not afraid. She works on her game constantly. She’s competitive as hell.”

Even though the early returns on Ducharme are promising, she still has a long ways to go before the season tips off on Nov. 14 against Arkansas. With Paige Bueckers, Nika Mühl, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams returning and Azzi Fudd entering the mix as well, minutes in the backcourt will be at the premium. Still, Ducharme isn’t worried about what her potential role might be.

“Honestly, I’m just trying to come in play as hard as I can and see what happens,” she said.

It might’ve taken the rest of the country awhile to catch on to Ducharme’s talent and even Auriemma admitted at first glance, he wasn’t certain she could be a top-level player. But once the coach finally saw her play, he had no doubt about whether or not she’d fit in at UConn and so far, the same has been true for both her new coaches and teammates alike.

“I knew all along that I wanted her to be here,” Auriemma said. “And I’m really, really excited about her coming here.”