Caprice Dennis was just 15, but she knew it was time to make a brutally difficult grown-up decision. It was time to leave home.
She had just finished her freshman year at Detroit Pershing High School, and craved more stability and rules than she was getting at home. Her mother, Gwendolyn Gray, was raising her alone and loved her dearly, but was having trouble getting her to school and staying on top of things. Dennis’ grades were slipping, and she wasn’t spending enough time in the gym.
Seeking more discipline, and a father figure, Dennis reached out to her coach, Shawn Hill. The coach and his wife, Kenya, had nine children of their own, but offered to take Dennis in, so long as she didn’t mind doing chores, and sharing a bathroom and a bedroom.
Dennis wasn’t sure how her mother would react, and was thrilled when Gray gave her blessing. So, the young teen packed her bags and inherited siblings India, Nijzah (a Pershing teammate), Shawn Jr., Brittany, Ron, Paire, Kenya, Tharren, and Paris.
They piled into three bedrooms and a basement equipped with three sets of bunk beds. They shared one bathroom. Kenya Hill, who worked at the Doubletree Hotel, used her hospitality skills to run her house. There were strict schedules for showers, brushing teeth and breakfast. Everyone was out of the house by 6:30a.m. At night, all nine kids did homework and the older ones helped the younger ones.
“The decision was harder for my mom than me, but she realized it was best for me, and I’ve gotten so far based on that decision,” Dennis said. “I really appreciate her letting me go. No knock to my mom, but I just hadn’t had anyone to discipline me or force me to get good grades. It was always like, ‘It’s OK, you’ll do better next time.’ When I moved in with Coach Hill, it was like, ‘No, you’re going to do this or you’re not going to play basketball.’”
A short time later, another teammate, Monique Howard, also moved in, making it 11 kids in the house.
Dennis considers the Hills as surrogate parents.
“I call my high school coach Dad. He said, ‘I’m going to treat you as if you’re one of my children and my children don’t come home with less than 3.5 [GPA].’”
Dennis’ grade point average leaped from 2.0 to 3.3. She became more focused, polished her game, and by the time she was a junior, she was averaging 26 points per game and being recruited by more than a dozen top programs, including Michigan, Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas, Miami and Texas.
She initially committed to Kansas, but then decided to explore more options. She visited UM and fell in love. She especially enjoyed the camaraderie she witnessed during a team dinner at coach Katie Meier’s house and a conversation with Meier over breakfast the next day.
“I loved the atmosphere,” Dennis said. “We had a team dinner at Katie’s house and it was amazing. There were games everywhere, everyone was interacting and smiling. I could just see the team chemistry is what I wanted. I came from a team that was like family, so I wanted that. On the final day, I sat down at breakfast with Katie and it was amazing. It was about how I fit in, how she runs her program, how enthusiastic she is, how she breaks down every little stat. I love that. I immediately knew I wanted to play for her.”
Meier was equally impressed with Dennis. She asked the recruit for her impressions of the practice she watched, and Meier was “stunned” with the high-level observations she made.
“She’s so complex, and that’s a compliment,” Meier said. “She’s got a great mind. She’s got a lot of levels in how she thinks through decisions, a lot of depth, and it shows on the basketball court. She can think very quickly and solve problems.
“She’s got a lot of toughness and a private area you just can’t get to. It’s highly motivating for me to try and figure out what she needs from me. She never asks for anything. She’s a survivor, feels like she can handle things on her own. She’s a very independent young lady, very interesting person.”
The 5-9 sophomore is having a breakout season, leading the Hurricanes (5-3) with an average of 19.6 points per game. She spent her freshman year adjusting to the rigors of the college game, and said it was frustrating at times. She came in at 120 pounds, had never lifted weights, and she now weighs 135 and is much stronger. She remembers taking a charge and being pancaked by a 180-pound opponent.
“Caprice showed flashes of what she could do last year, but she had no stamina, no strength,” Meier said. “It was a big adjustment. This year, totally different. She’s a gamer. When the lights go on, you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ She’s courageous, confident and crafty. Sky’s the limit.”