Olivia Vezaldenos' road to fulfilling a lifelong goal of hoopin' at the NCAA Division I level has included some unexpected turns.
This adventure, which began in semi-retirement from basketball, has brought her to New Rochelle, N.Y., where she is settling in for her senior year at Iona College.
“If somebody four years ago laid out this journey I've been on, I would have said you're insane,” she said in a phone interview with the Bulletin on Thursday. “There's no way I'm moving around like that.”
Not this California girl, who never intended to leave the Golden State for college.
Vezaldenos graduated from East Union High in 2016 as its second all-time leading scorer behind Danelle (Liles) Bishop, a 1994 alumna who incidentally is the last Lancer from the girls basketball program to compete in Division I with Florida and Tarleton State. Bishop is now carving out a successful coaching career and is entering her 11th season at Cal Poly Pomona.
Vezaldenos' journey is similar to Bishop's 20-plus years ago, as both bounced around from coast to coast after high school. They also returned home one year after graduating to shine in the community college ranks.
Vezaldenos, however, was content with focusing on her studies and enjoying the beaches while enrolled at UC Irvine. The gym rat at heart couldn't stay away for long, reversing course on her initial Division-I-or-bust stance coming out of high school.
She came back to Manteca and enrolled at Chabot College in Hayward. There was little rust to her game despite the year off, as she led the Gladiators to the second round of the California Community College Athletic Association Regionals. The scoring guard was named to the all-state team after averaging 19.2 points and draining 40.8 percent of her 3s.
This helped Vezaldenos land a full-ride scholarship Concordia University in Portland, where she spent the last two years.
In 2018-19, the Cavaliers had their best season since becoming a NCAA Division II member, finishing 16-13. Vezaldenos was an immediate contributor, leading the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game while setting a new school record with 83 made 3-pointers. She was named Newcomer of the Year in the Great Northwestern Athletic Conference and made the All-GNAC second team.
Concordia lost much of its talent to graduation and began rebuilding this past winter. Vezaldenos averaged 10 points per game and earned all-conference honorable mention.
Vezaldenos was denied one final year with coach Sean Kelly and the Cavaliers. In February, late in their season, school officials informed students and faculty that the campus was shutting down at the end of the spring semester because of mounting financial difficulties.
Vezaldenos was devastated.
“Everybody was blindsided,” she said. “It was really, really tough for us, really emotional.”
Kelly placed his players in the transfer portal, and it didn't take long for suitors to come after his once-prized recruit. A handful of their GNAC rivals were interested, as were Division I University of Missouri-Kansas City of the Summit League and Iona of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
She finally decided to leave the West Coast, even though Vezaldenos didn't get a chance to visit campuses. A month after Concordia announced its shutdown, the country began its response to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.
Vezaldenos got to visit Iona virtually and met with her soon-to-be coach Billi Chambers via video conferencing. She was most impressed by their pitch and ability to adjust their recruiting style to the times.
She was ready to leave the West Coast.
“I really enjoyed my time there (at Concordia) and met cool people I consider lifelong friends,” Vezaldenos said. “California will always be there, my family is there and that's where, I want to end up and raise a family. But living in Portland gave me a new perspective. It's important for me to be able to do all this stuff and see what I can while I'm young.
“I took that and ran with it, so I completely moved all the way across the country. It was a little bit intimidating, for sure, but there great opportunities for education, work and career-wise. I do miss the weather in California.”
Vezaldenos completed her undergraduate work at Concordia and is pursuing a Master in Business Administration at Iona. She recently got to finally meet her teammates and coach Chambers in person, as they were previously restricted by COVID-19 protocols.
Chambers and the Gaels have a young team but are hoping their new veteran sharpshooter can be an anchor in a run to their first MAAC championship since 2016.
“It's definitely an interesting position to be in,” Vezaldenos said of joining the team as a one-year player. “I don't have the luxury of time to adjust to the coaching and playing style. It has made me work harder and I feel like I have something to prove all over again, but our coaches are really great and invested in us. Coach Chambers believes in me a lot and it's nice to have that support.”
Vezaldenos is aware this could be her last year of playing competitively but is open to making the jump professionally, if the opportunity arises domestically or abroad. For now, she's living out her dream as a Division-I athlete.
“This is really rewarding,” she said. “They take very good care of us, from the gear, to the meal money and living facilities. I was just thinking about the time going to JUCO (junior college) and commuting an hour and a half. I went from taking BART and city buses just to get to class while bringing a lunch pail every day to having easy access to these nice facilities.
“It has been a roller-coaster ride to get here.”