UConn women Class of 2021 signees Caroline Ducharme, Azzi Fudd navigate COVID-disrupted end to high school careers

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Alexa Philippou, Hartford Courant
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When UConn women’s basketball 2021 signees Caroline Ducharme and Azzi Fudd envisioned their final years of high school and their senior seasons, they certainly could not have imagined anything close to this.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ducharme is finishing out high school at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., with limited in-person instruction. Fudd is attending St. John’s College High entirely virtually from her home in northern Virginia. Basketball games — technically scrimmages as their schools don’t have official schedules — are added one week at a time and postseason play is scrapped. Special events like the McDonald’s All-American Game area already canceled. For awhile, no one was sure they’d be able to play at all.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Ducharme, Fudd and their fellow soon-to-be-Husky Amari DeBerry. In a few short months, they’ll begin their collegiate careers at UConn and between now and then, they can only do the best they can to make the most of things and prepare for the next chapters of their basketball and academic lives.

“It’s hard,” Ducharme told The Courant, “but I think just focusing on my ultimate goal of being ready to play at UConn and doing the little things on my own to get myself ready for that, it’s been nice to be able to focus on that.”

Watching from a distance, they will be both be paying attention as this year’s UConn team, ranked No. 1 in the country, returns to the court Saturday at 3 p.m. to take on Xavier in Cincinnati. The Huskies enter the game 17-1 and 14-0 in the Big East Conference.

Fudd and Ducharme, the No. 1 and No. 5 players in the country per espnW, comprise half of UConn’s coveted 2021 recruiting class. DeBerry (No. 15) and Saylor Poffenbarger (No. 30) round out what espnW considers the second-best recruiting class in the country, only behind South Carolina’s. Poffenbarger is already at UConn, joining the team in January.

It wasn’t in the cards for Ducharme or Fudd to follow Poffenbarger and get to Storrs early. Ducharme ended up wanting to finish out her last season and get her Nobles diploma, while there wasn’t a path for Fudd to graduate early.

“I decided I want to be able to finish out my high school career and get to finish with my teammates,” Fudd said.

Fudd has opted for entirely virtual instruction since the beginning of the school year, which eliminates a one-hour round-trip commute and helps her more easily shift back and forth from schoolwork to basketball. But with D.C. completely shut down, her team has scrambled to find courts in Virginia or Maryland where they can practice and play games. So far, Fudd says her team has played around 15 games, and she is crossing her fingers that GEICO Nationals won’t be canceled.

“Some of my friends that live in the South, or one of my friend is in Ohio, they have completely normal seasons,” Fudd said. “I am very jealous of them.”

Meanwhile, Ducharme’s school implemented a hybrid instruction model, meaning she has in-person classes Thursdays, Fridays and every other Wednesday. Her basketball team can only practice Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Similarly to Fudd’s situation, games are determined on a week-by-week basis. Nobles has only been playing in-state, non-boarding school teams that are getting tested for COVID-19, and has had nine games so far.

There have been silver linings, though. Since she’s not in school most days of the week, Ducharme is able to work out and has had more time with family, including her sister, Ashley, a basketball player at Brown who’s been home more often with the Ivy League canceling its season.

“I think we’re lucky that we get to practice three times a week even because I know a lot of schools aren’t doing anything,” she said. “We’re taking advantage of the opportunities that we do get to play.”

Fudd and Ducharme, close friends, they have each other to talk to about their disappointing senior years while looking forward to what’s to come once they both get to Storrs. Fudd didn’t make her decision until signing day last November, while Ducharme committed to UConn in April 2020.

“We’ve talked about playing together,” Ducharme said. “Through her process, I never wanted to pressure her or anything, but I always secretly really wanted her to commit [to UConn] just so we’d have time to play together. We’re really excited to finally be in the same state off the court and also get to play together on the court.”

And though they’re watching from afar, Ducharme and Fudd are already taking in everything they can so they know what to expect at UConn. It helps to get an insider perspective from the current players, such as Poffenbarger and Paige Bueckers, another close friend.

“[Bueckers] said that you think you know they’re going to pay attention to detail, but it’s nothing like it was in high school,” Ducharme said. “You know that you’re not going to get away with the things you did in high school there, but it’s just a whole different feeling when you get there. And just how everything’s so fast and you always have to be ready in practice.”

Before they know it, they’ll be right there with the rest of the Huskies. The best part? “I think getting to be with them and play with them,” Fudd said, “and just get to play good basketball 24/7.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com