Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: UC Davis center Neal Monson balances school, basketball, looming parenthood

UC Davis center Neal Monson (22) is introduced to the crowd at a game between the Aggies and Air Force at the Pavilion on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Davis, Calif.
UC Davis center Neal Monson (22) is introduced to the crowd at a game between the Aggies and Air Force at the Pavilion on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Davis, Calif. aseng@sacbee.com

Several months ago, in a pause between classes and practices, UC Davis center Neal Monson studied the Big West tournament schedule and discovered the mother of all conflicts. His wife, Mimi, is expecting the couple’s first child March 10, the first day of the tournament in Anaheim.

Since it’s too late to punt – or otherwise dictate a more convenient due date for “Scarlett’s” arrival – Monson simply smiles and accepts the inevitable. This is not his call. And this is his life.

“I wish (the baby) would come in April or May, but what are you going to do?” said Monson, who could miss tournament games as UC Davis likely will qualify.

Monson is majoring in philosophy, appropriate given his inquisitive mind and expansive list of life experiences. He is not your typical college student, or your prototypical college center. The 6-foot-10, 245-pound Utah native leads the conference with 8.5 rebounds per game, but he is not particularly long or athletic and is perhaps best known as the Aggies’ frontcourt player who does all the little things.

He sets screens, moves the ball, shoots an occasional jump hook and, at the behest of his coach, once in a while attempts and converts mid-range jumpers.

Unlike a year ago, when the Big West regular-season champions featured the prolific scoring of Corey Hawkins, these Aggies (8-11) are more of an ensemble act. With prized recruit Nolan Berry sidelined because of another injury, the victory over Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday that evened their conference record at 3-3 was emblematic of the season. Josh Fox drove inside for most of his team-high 19 points and seven rebounds. Brynton Lemar made consecutive late-game three-pointers, Darius Graham stole a pass and converted a critical layup, and carrot-topped freshman Siler Schneider tossed in 15 points, mostly on feathery jumpers from deep.

Monson picked up two quick fouls and initially appeared overmatched by the Titans’ thicker, more athletic defenders, but he muscled for six rebounds and eight points, including one of those 15-footers coach Jim Les keeps talking about.

“Neal’s a little bit of a throwback,” Les said. “He’s got a variety of moves with his back to the basket, is a rock-solid rebounder, a solid defender. And his maturity and IQ bring a great sense of calm to this team.”

Neal’s a little bit of a throwback. He’s got a variety of moves with his back to the basket, is a rock-solid rebounder, a solid defender. And his maturity and IQ bring a great sense of calm to this team.

Jim Les, UC Davis coach

There are a number of reasons for this. At 24, Monson is older and presumably wiser than his teammates, and he has experience adapting to different cultures and circumstances. A two-time All-Utah selection at prestigious Waterford High School near Salt Lake City, he accepted a scholarship to Utah but instead redshirted and went on a two-year Mormon mission to Oaxaca, Mexico.

By the time he returned, fluent in Spanish and eager to pursue both basketball and academic interests, the Utes had changed coaches, and his scholarship was no longer available. He enrolled at Salt Lake City College, where he averaged 14.4 points and 8.4 rebounds, led his team to the national championship game and caught Les’ attention.

That was also about the time he started courting Mimi Nielsen, a first-grade teacher he knew “was the one” after their first date. The couple married less than five months later.

“The hard thing was that Neal didn’t have time to help me get anything ready for the wedding,” Mimi said, grinning. “He didn’t even get to see the venue beforehand. But it all worked out. He is very easy to please.”

Within months, Neal was at UC Davis, and Mimi was hired at Willett Elementary School in Davis. The plan is to work two more weeks before preparing for Scarlett’s arrival, while trying to coax a few more days out of her pregnancy to accommodate her husband’s basketball schedule.

Besides adjusting to becoming parents, the Monsons are mulling their future. Neal has applied to 10 law schools, including Stanford and Cal. If he is accepted at Davis, he can return for his final season of basketball eligibility and receive a year’s free tuition. Another alternative is to attend a law school closer to his family in Salt Lake City or Mimi’s relatives in Phoenix.

“I’m keeping my options open,” Monson said. “I love Spanish, and I developed such a love for the Mexican people during my mission that I could see myself practicing immigration or international law. So we’ll see.”

Les is gently urging Monson to return.

I’m keeping my options open. I love Spanish, and I developed such a love for the Mexican people during my mission that I could see myself practicing immigration or international law. So we’ll see.

Neal Monson on where he plans to attend law school

“Who he is, is who we need to be,” the coach continued. “Academics are important. He wanted a good community. She got a teaching job. So it’s been a unique experience for all of us. We’ve laid out the facts and opportunity, introduced him to people at our law school, and we’re going to support him. They as a family have to make the decision that’s right for them. But we’d love to have him come back. He’s an exceptional young man.”

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