Today: Apr 23, 2024

Makenzie Helms talks about her basketball journey

Dillon Flanigan- Sports Editor

In a basketball career spanning so much adversity and uncertainty, from the Connecticut shoreline to the cornfields of Nebraska and back, Makenzie Helms, a graduate, has climbed mountains, grasping a wealth of experience and knowledge along her journey. 

This past August, the university women’s basketball team welcomed a transfer into their backcourt. In the last ride of her collegiate basketball career, Helms has taken flight to redefine her new purpose, a question she has been asking herself for years: 

Why does she love basketball? 

“I’m very spiritual and have a sense of just connecting with what I think the universe is,” Helms said. “I think that that’s really kept me grounded. It’s has also shown me how when I do push through adversity.” 

Her journey does not start in college but commences in her youth with her dad on the court. As years passed by, East Haven native Helms knew she wanted to continue to play basketball. Her father, Lance Helms, a star athlete in high school, worked with Helms to pursue her passion. 

“My dad was always a huge role model for me,” Helms said. “Growing up, I was always just able to be with my dad in the backyard, or he would bring me to work outs almost every day.” 

Entering high school, basketball was the only thing on her mind. Looking towards a potential collegiate basketball career, she attended Loomis Chaffee high school in Windsor, Connecticut. 

Helms’s tenure at Loomis laid a foundation for her future endeavors. She found immediate success at East Haven. It was fast and furious.  

After two years of constant training for a future in basketball, her talent spoke volumes. Local offers across Division I flowed in from University of Penn, Quinnipiac University, Rutgers University, Syracuse University and Yale University. Other institutions that showed interest included Georgia Insitute of Technology, Iowa State University, University of Kentucky, Wake Forest University, and the University of Wisconsin. 

In January of 2018, she committed to Nebraska. A few months later, Helms and the Yellow Jackets defeated Southern Connecticut Conference, SCC, foe Career Magnet in the 2018 CIAC Class M State Championship game. 

Throughout high school, not a moment went by when her daily grind did not go without bouts of leg pain. It was not until her senior year that she was diagnosed with chronic compartment syndrome, a dreadful buildup of pressure around her lower leg muscles, forcing a surgical procedure. 

“I barely got any time to recover because we had to go right into basketball season,” Helms said. “As soon as I could walk, I was back in the gym. I didn’t really give myself any time to recover.” 

As we age in society, we learn, we build and we grow. Through the blood, sweat, tears and grit Helms chose not to falter. 

Helms said, “I have one of my first tattoos and says, ‘through hardships to the stars.’ That was for my legs. It’s kind of just showed me that when I do push through my adversity and fight through my injury, I’m able to alchemize the pain into passion and the anger into confidence.” 

In her final season, despite the Yellow Jackets ending their playoff run in the CIAC Class L quarterfinals, she seized the Gatorade Connecticut High School Player –of –the Year honors, averaging 26.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 4.3 steals per game.  

But before she could play for the Cornhuskers, Helms earned herself multiple accolades. She was named in the USA Today First Team All Connecticut in 2018 and 2019, and the latter year was also named the Southern Connecticut Conference, SCC, Player of the Year while being ranked the No. 27 point guard in the nation by ESPN. 

Helms gave every school a chance but fell in love with the spirit of Cornhusker fans.  

“Their fans were insane. It was like there’s nothing else to do out there but go watch the university’s games,” Helms said. “Being at a women’s basketball game and seeing all the support they received lit something else inside of me, and it made me excited. I just wanted to be somewhere where we truly were supported by a community, and it was somewhere that I felt the most loved.” 

If you do not know already, basketball is Helms’s heart and soul. In her transition to college, a second surgical procedure was needed to suppress her pain again. She had to learn how to run and flex her feet in a different manner that provided her with comfort. 

As a true freshman, it was not an easy landing for her. Although cleared to play, she was still dealing with the recovery of her surgery.  

Helms appeared in thirteen games off the bench in her freshman year and two games in her sophomore campaign. Though she only spent a brief time in the mid-west, irreconcilable differences in conjunction with personal notions began to take a toll on Helms.  

“Being in Nebraska and being away from my dad, who was honestly my most motivating factor. I never really took into account how being so far away from him and not being able to have him with me in the gym, how much that was going to affect me,” Helms said. “So, I kind of lost my spark. I lost my love for the game.” 

Shortly into the 2021 season, Helms transferred to the nearby Division I Quinnipiac Bobcats, where she spent her junior and senior seasons closer to home, attempting to rectify one problem.  

Completing her degree in the law enforcement field, she combined two seasons and appeared in 62 of 63 games, starting in 11 her junior season. She averaged lower numbers in both seasons, yet sustained an average of 14-16 minutes per game in each season while being named to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All Academic team twice. 

After four years, Helms contemplated what would come next. Late in August, on a mission to solve her quest, she jumped at the opportunity when multiple calls and emails produced mutual interest between Helms and the university’s women’s basketball Head Coach Kate Lynch. 

“It was an opportunity to keep one of Connecticut’s best talents close to home,” Lynch said. “So, it was a home run on our end, and we just want to make sure that she felt that same way. It’s not often that a player like Makenzie Helms comes knocking on your door.” 

Guard Jillian Martin, a senior, attended Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, an SCC school, faced off against Helms in four games across two seasons. 

“We played in the SCC Conference, and every single time we played East Haven, obviously it was a very big matchup,” Martin said. “Kenz was always like an amazing, amazing player and just definitely a tough player to play against.” 

East Haven won all four games, as both Helms and Martin respectively swapped to blue, bringing the once conference rivals on the court as teammates. 

“It was cool to finally reconnect after not seeing her since high school,” Martin said. “We honestly talk about it a lot, how it’s so weird how it works out that we just ended up on the same team. It all works out, and its fun being able to play on the court with her.” 

On the hardwood, it is always favorable for a coach to have a player that is trusted and relied upon that also brings the wealth of knowledge and experience that Helms does. It is crucial to lean on them to control situations and lead younger players by example. 

“Having that level of IQ on the court really helps me out as a head coach. I trust her in a lot of different situations and trust the decisions that she’s going to make,” Lynch said. “She has been a great teacher for our underclassmen, our younger players, a great model.” 

Helms’s history and record has proved to her coaches what she could bring to the team, but what separated her was her precise preparation and intensity. In fact, the aura around Helms rubbed off on her teammates, instructing them from an individual perspective. 

“Always just working hard, she’s dealt with a lot of adversity, injuries, and every day she shows up and just competes,” guard Hope Fox, a sophomore, said. “She just taught me a lot about the game. The ins and outs. She’s taught me to be confident in myself a lot, and she instills confidence in a lot of other people. And that’s because she’s confident in herself, and she builds other people up.” 

Fox idolizes Helms and has been impacted in more ways than one. 

“The bottom line: you must show up, work hard and be a great teammate,” Fox said. “Those are the things that I hope to do next year and be a great leader like her.” 

When the women’s basketball team turns the calendar page next year, Helms hopes to leave behind a legacy of love, unity and mindfulness. Instead of looking in the rearview mirror, look in the windshield, and look for what is next.  

This past season has been one to remember on many levels. 

“My biggest, if any regrets that I do have throughout college, would be just limiting myself because of the perceptions of others,” Helms said. “Having coaches and amazing teammates who do trust me to put them in their best positions, I think that that has really brought my spark back.” 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog