December 23, 2022
Mary Ashley Groot’s desire to build takes her to Purdue
With Groot, the Big Ten will only get more competitive
NEW YORK — Mary Ashley Groot, that rarest of things — a Division I, Power 5 women’s basketball prospect at Dalton School, an elite private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — didn’t know why her teammate Izzy Wesley was telling her to sprint. Why did there need to be a sense of urgency?
The Dalton Tigers had a sizable lead over the Riverdale Country Day School Falcons in the third quarter. “I was bringing it back a little bit and not running as hard on one fast break, and she’s like, ‘Mary Ashley, SPRINNNNTTTT,’” Groot told The Next. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m tired. Why is she yelling at me?’”
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With a comfortable lead, why was there a need to aggressively blow out the opponent? It was the official first game of the 2022-23 season for Dalton, and the Tigers had another game the next day against Xaverian, a more talented and much more physical team. The Tigers needed to preserve energy to compete the following afternoon.
But amid the slight confusion, the 6’2 Groot took the directive from her point guard, running the floor to try to corral every leakout pass that she could. On the following offensive possession, the opposition packed the paint, leaving minimal space for Groot to find positioning on the block or the elbow. She took what the defense gave her and stepped out beyond the 3-point line. The ball landed in the net with confidence, the same confidence that Groot had in taking the shot in the first place.
But all of a sudden, the game stopped. Everyone on the bench had gotten up. A celebration was happening unbeknownst to Groot. Wesley approached her and smiled, and shooting guard Suzannah Zimmerman enveloped her in a hug. Groot had just scored her 1,000th point at Dalton, and until then, she had no idea that she was even close.
Following the embrace from her teammates and coaches, she ran across the court and into the stands to hug her parents, getting a squeeze and multiple pats from both. The moment was symbolic of not only what Groot had achieved, but also what the Tigers had as well. Athletics aren’t typically as revered at the school, and Groot’s decision to take her talents to the Big Ten at Purdue University has opened doors for others who are equally passionate about basketball as they are about the learning done in the classroom.
As a daughter of two athletes and the youngest sister to four brothers, Groot was introduced to the game as a fifth grader. Her first coach was Maureen Holohan, a former All-Big Ten player at Northwestern who founded Mo’Motion, a youth basketball training program in New York City. As one of the taller young people in the program, Groot was put in the post. With Holohan’s guidance, Groot mastered the art of footwork, one of the primary tools needed for a successful post player and worked on her shooting form, one of the skills needed to play on the perimeter.
But this wasn’t the first time Groot had scored 1,000 points at the high school level. This was the second time that Groot had reached 1,000 points. Why was there a second time?
Before enrolling at The Dalton School as a ninth grader, Groot played for The Hewett School’s varsity basketball team for two seasons as a middle schooler. During her freshman season at Dalton three years ago, she reached her 1,000th point as a varsity player. So why the reset and why the delay for a player who established herself as a dominant forward in New York State?
“I told [head coach] Sam Bergen as soon as that happened that I wanted it to be a big deal when I score my 1,000th point at Dalton,” Groot said. “This is the place where I feel like, with all the support they’ve poured into me, I want to have that special moment at this special place.”
Groot’s moment with her special place wasn’t achieved without doubt and uncertainty. After a freshman year that helped her realize that basketball could be a part of her future, the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans to play on a big stage at the next level in question. If The Dalton School was going to conduct all schooling virtually and the 2020-21 season was going to be canceled or at best greatly shortened, how could Groot continue to improve and get her name out there? The recruiting rat race continued in the middle of a public health crisis.
Groot and her family decided to move down to South Carolina, not only a place where her mother grew up, but also a place that might allow for a more substantial basketball season to occur. Groot needed to get the reps, and the intense lockdown in New York City wasn’t going to help her case. There was a collective sadness among the Dalton Tigers over Groot’s decision, but there was an understanding of why an unprecedented move had to be made in unprecedented circumstances.
“My thought was she’s never coming back once she leaves Dalton. She’s gonna go to an athletic program in South Carolina and have a better experience,” Zimmerman said once he heard the news of Groot’s departure. “Why would she come back to Dalton a year later? And I understood her move in the first place. She needed to have a season; that sophomore year season was really important with the recruiting process and everything for her.”
At the Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia, South Carolina, Groot achieved exactly what she wanted to. She had a relatively full sophomore season, she got a lot stronger physically with the school’s strength and conditioning personnel, and she played with and against girls who challenged her to improve. She even played alongside Ashlyn Watkins, the 6’3 dunking freshman who is currently playing for Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Groot and Watkins helped Cardinal Newman capture the SCISA 3A state championship.
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But even after winning the state championship, something was missing. Family has been a grounding force in Groot’s life. With the pandemic restrictions loosening around the country, her father was returning to work in the New York metro area and one of her brothers was still going to high school in Connecticut. She was going off to college in around two years. Would she want to continue be separated from her family? And what about Dalton, a place that she hadn’t wanted to leave in the first place?
Senior Aggie Chan, a defensive specialist on the Dalton Tigers who knew Groot outside of basketball first, heard the news straight from the source. Chan had kept in touch over FaceTime with Groot while she was at Cardinal Newman. What’s the first thing Chan did upon hearing the news? The most Gen Z thing possible: She added Groot back to the Dalton High School class of 2023 girls group chat.
Zimmerman and Wesley remembered the day when their dads got the call from Bergen. Both families celebrated the news that Groot was officially coming back. Wesley was shocked but also thankful. “I’m really thankful that she came back because I don’t think I would be the player I am without her being my teammate,” she said.
The collective excitement wasn’t just because Groot, the most talented player, was returning. It was also because Groot, the person who inspired and encouraged everyone around her, was going to be reunited with not only her team but with some of her closest friends.
Prior to the game against the Riverdale Country Day Falcons, Groot ran the Tigers’ pregame warmup. She had a command over how Dalton warmed up, advising her teammates when to switch from drill to drill; it wasn’t hierarchical but rather showed the trust that her teammates have in the 6’2 forward.
In the first quarter, the Tigers gave up a backdoor cut to their opposition. The team defense had fallen asleep. While Groot portrayed a visible frustration on the court during some of those earlier defensive struggles, a light switch went off once her coach took a timeout. The anger and frustration needed to be shoved in a pocket, and it was time to be part of the solution to the team’s issues. In huddles, Groot’s leadership style is one that’s uplifting, constructive and supportive. “She never brings you down and she never gets mad at you,” Zimmerman said. “She’s always pulling you up and telling you that you can be better.”
At 17, Groot understands the principles necessary to lead effectively. It’s hopeful. She doesn’t bark and doesn’t bite, and she wants to make each player on her team feel included and supported. When a player who rarely scores nails a three, Groot is the loudest person in the gym. When a teammate makes a successful pass inside that allows Groot to score, Groot is all about the pass. “She makes me feel proud of that even though it was kind of more her play than mine,” Chan said.
Wesley concurs with Chan and believes that what makes Groot unique from many of the top players in the state is how she treats those around her. Wesley has experienced talent in the AAU circuit, but not all of her peers have the care for others, work ethic and welcoming nature that Groot has. “[She] is someone you would always want to talk to,” Wesley said. “Never someone that you would want to ignore.”
After a successful junior season where Groot was named the 2021-22 New York State Sportswriters Association Class C Player of the Year, it came time for the four-star recruit to figure out where her journey would continue post-Dalton and what place she’d feel the most welcome. While Ivy League schools Princeton and Harvard were very interested in Groot along with Lindsay Gottlieb at USC, what Katie Gearlds was building at Purdue was more appealing to her.
That was part of the key in her decision, what Gearlds was building, which includes having a top-25 recruiting class. A through line in Groot’s story is that she likes to create and leave a legacy. She’s goal-oriented, and her hard work is all worth it when it changes the status quo. If it’s showing young people that a high-academic school like Dalton can compete at a high level in women’s basketball or being a part of Purdue’s quest to be a major player in the Big Ten, that’s what entices her. She has her eyes toward the pros while also wanting to continue nerding out in school. That’s what entices her. She can do both at Purdue.
What’s next for Groot once she graduates and is off to Purdue? She’ll look to try to prove ESPN’s recruiting service, which ranks her 97th in the class of 2023, wrong. Groot’s ceiling is high. She has a plethora of post moves and a strong midrange jumper. She’s a facilitating forward who has been working toward being a threat on the perimeter. She’s been working on her handles and being able to defend multiple positions.
The fact that her 1,000th point at Dalton this month was off a 3-pointer tells a forward-thinking story as well. “I think that really symbolizes my growth as a player,” she said. “Offensively I’ve been working so hard on my versatility because I know that’s a huge part of what I’ll have to bring to college and what makes me valuable in college.”
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.