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January 8, 2010

Like father, like daughter - Utahya Drye's loving relationship with her father has driven her basketball career

By: Matt Kovatch

Utahya Drye enters the postgame media session after every game still sweaty, still in uniform and still catching her breath from the game that ended no more than five minutes earlier. But without fail, she always shows up wearing a pair of her patented dangly earrings, rarely sporting the same pair twice.

“I love my earrings,” Drye said. “That’s the first thing I definitely do after every game. I feel like I’m missing something if I don’t have them in.”

Five minutes after the media session, odds are that Drye will call her father, Felix. That’s something that is even more routine than putting in her earrings.

“I’ve got to talk to my dad,” she said. “I will sometimes call him 10 times a day – when I wake up, after class, whenever. It doesn’t feel right if I don’t.”

That’s how it’s been since Utahya arrived at Virginia Tech almost four years ago from Durham, N.C., where Felix works as a physical education teacher at Durham Technical Community College.

And the reason why is pretty simple.

“He’s my heart,” Utahya said. “My dad is my best friend.”

Twenty-one years ago, while Utahya’s mother was pregnant with the future Hokie, she spent time with Felix in San Diego, where he was stationed while serving in the Navy and living on Utah Street (hence the derivation of Utahya’s unique name, pronounced you-tie-uh). Felix was due to be out at sea around the time of Utahya’s expected birth, so he decided it was best to send her mother back home to Albemarle, N.C., where she could be around family and friends.

Felix and Utahya’s mother ended up separating early in Utahya’s life, and when Felix got out of the military in 1991, he relocated to Durham, where he met his current wife, Doretha. Utahya continued living with her mother outside of Charlotte, but her father was far from absent.

“I’d see my dad every weekend,” Utahya remembered. “It wasn’t like I was with one parent more than the other. I spent time with both of them. It wasn’t like one of them wasn’t in my life.”

It was during one of those weekends when the two were fooling around with a basketball outside, and 11-year-old Utahya displayed some quickness, piquing her dad’s interest.

“She could handle the ball pretty well and she could also steal the ball from me and a few of my nephews,” Felix said in his soft-spoken tone. “So I thought to myself, ‘She might be pretty good at this.’”

Utahya was participating in cheerleading and track at the time, but Felix entered her into some recreational leagues over the summer and she quickly excelled at her new sport.

“Some kids start playing when they’re like, 4 years old, but I started pretty late,” Utahya said. “ I guess it kind of came natural to me, and I got serious with basketball around eighth grade.”

While Utahya continued to stay with her mother near Charlotte, she began playing AAU ball for the Chapel Hill Shooting Stars near Durham. For those without a map, the two cities are approximately 150 miles apart, and of course, Utahya was not yet old enough to drive.

Cue Felix and his trusty car. In addition to continuing to pick Utahya up for her weekend visits, Felix began making the round trip from Durham to Charlotte two to three times per week – depending on the Shooting Stars’ practice schedule – to make sure she was there on time.

“My dad would drive all the way to Charlotte to pick me up after school, drive me all the way to Durham for my 7 o’clock practice, and then drive me all the way back to Charlotte so I could go to school the next day,” Utahya recalled.

Felix would have to work some evenings, so Doretha would occasionally chip in with the driving and take Utahya back after practice. Regardless, it’s not hard to see how Utahya and Felix became so close after spending so much time in a car together. Did all that driving ever wear on Felix?

“Not really, because I saw that she had a chance to do something,” Felix said with a smile. “I didn’t mind it at all.”

“He’s done so much and made so many sacrifices for me,” Utahya added. “He’s been there through thick and thin.”

Utahya Drye has a shot to finish her career ranked among Tech's top 10 in points, rebounds and steals

Though she now stands 6-foot-1, Utahya was rather short as a high school freshman, where she started at Albemarle High School as a 5-7 point guard. But Albemarle was a small Class A school, and if Utahya wanted to face tougher competition and get some more exposure, a change needed to be made. So she moved to Durham to be with Felix prior to her sophomore year. A four-inch growth spurt coincided with the move, and Utahya soon became a dominating forward for Class AAAA Northern Durham High School.

Sure enough, mail from universities interested in recruiting Utahya started rolling in. Felix had been sending Utahya to camps all the while, and one in particular got him excited. A die-hard Tar Heel fan, Felix regularly went with his son, Quincy, to UNC’s Eric Montross father-son camp. But Utahya often tagged along and eventually drew the attention of former Tar Heel Ivory Latta, who talked to head women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell and convinced her to get Utahya on her radar.

Though Felix had to be stoked, he laid down some rules for Utahya.

“Her junior year, I said, ‘OK, you need to pick three camps at schools that you’re interested in attending,’” he recalled. “That way, the coaches would get a chance to see her, and then we could go from there as far as to what school she would go.”

Naturally, Utahya chose UNC, as well as N.C. State, a school from which she had also been getting a lot of mail. But the third one happened to be Virginia Tech, the school from which she got her very first letter as a freshman.

Utahya went to the camp in Blacksburg and loved it. She was scheduled to go the N.C. State camp the next weekend (“I had paid the money and everything,” Felix said.), but she never bothered to go. That’s because Tech head coach Beth Dunkenberger liked what she saw and offered Utahya a scholarship on the spot.

Tech wasn’t Felix’s dream choice of UNC, nor was it as close to home as N.C. State, but like all good fathers, he let Utahya make the decision.

“I told her she needed to make her own choice because she’s the one who would have to deal with it,” Felix said. “So after we got home from Tech – I think about a couple of hours later – she called Coach back and told her that she accepted.”

Luckily, Felix was accustomed to driving because he was about to be doing a lot more of it. Blacksburg is nearly 200 miles from Durham, and to his credit, Felix has made the round trip in one night for nearly all of Utahya’s home games.

“He puts the time and effort into me, along with my brother,” Utahya said. “His schedule is pretty tight, but he always finds time for his children. I appreciate my dad, so I’m trying to make him proud and do something big so that I can repay him.”

Utahya was just 27 points shy of 1,000 in her Tech career at press time, and she’s still debating what she’ll do once she graduates in May with a degree in psychology. She wants to attend the WNBA pre-draft camp in early April to see if she can go pro. Playing overseas is an option, though not one she’s fond of – “I don’t know if I could be away from my family and friends for that long,” she said. She’s also planning on applying to some graduate schools to get a master’s in psychology.

Wherever she ends up, one thing’s for sure. Those phone calls to her dad aren’t likely to stop.

“She calls me frequently, but if I don’t hear from her, I’ll give her a call to make sure she’s alright,” Felix said. “Sometimes I’ll go to bed early, but the phone will ring at 11:30. She’ll say ‘Dad, whatcha doin?’ I’ll say, ‘I was sleeping.’”

And who can blame him? He needs to rest up. There’s always another long road trip waiting to be had.