Cochise ready to challenge for ACCAC supremacy
By Matt Hickman
Wick News Service
Cochise College basketball players Yvonte Neal, left, from San Diego, and Jasmine Lemon from Seattle. Beatrice Richardson/Wick News Service
Fortunately, expectations weren’t terribly high, and they were even lower after the team’s top playmaker, point guard Justina Prairie Chief from Gallup, the New Mexico Gatorade High School Player of the Year, went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first week of December.
But with tenacious defense and a gritty style, the Apaches scraped together 18 wins and advanced to the NJCAA Region I playoffs, where they held a 10-point halftime lead at Arizona Western before coming up short.
With seven returning sophomores, this season figured to be full of promise for Cochise, but Hughes wasn’t about to stand pat. She hit the recruiting trail hard, and brought in a trio of highly lauded six-footers to help the undersized frontcourt tandem of Ashley Mitchell and Johnishia Welles. But her biggest acquisition may have been a backcourt tandem with Division I experience.
Jasmine Lemon starred at Kennedy High School in Seattle before playing one unrewarding season at Division I Seattle University. Yvonte Neal, a 20-point-a-game scorer at Mount Miguel High School in San Diego, signed with Cal State Fullerton before grade troubles kept her from ever taking the floor as a Titan.
Neal took a year off after Fullerton, and was working at an L.A. Fitness in San Diego when she was re-discovered by Hughes.
“(Hughes) originally came to see somebody else from my old high school. She talked to my high school coach and it kind of went from there,” Neal said. “It’s been really hard to get back into school and basketball.”
Lemon played some her freshman year at Seattle, but quickly found it wasn’t where she belonged.
“It just wasn’t the right fit for me,” said Lemon, who was referred by then Seattle assistant Joy Hollingsworth, a contact of Hughes’. “I wanted to get re-recruited and I heard Cochise had a great program.”
Hughes discovered in her first full season as a head coach, that exercising the connections she made as a player at Santa Clara and as an assistant coach at Arizona State, were the key to good recruiting.
“I just tried to network a lot more and find kids who have D-I talent who couldn’t go D-I now. I made a lot of coaching contacts and spent a lot of time on the road, especially in California,” Hughes said. “The first year for me was a learning experience, learning what kind of player I need to recruit to compete in this conference.”
Hughes also brought in 6-foot-1 center Tianna Brown from Montini Catholic in Chicago, 6-foot-2 Donae Moguel from Pallisades High School in Los Angeles, and Madison Lopez, a versatile 5-foot-11 player from El Dorado High School in Albuquerque by way of Adams State College in Colorado.
That size is bound to help an interior, which was made up of undersized all-conference selections a year ago in Mitchell, 5-10 from Window Rock and Welles, 6-feet from Goldwater High in Phoenix, as well as Mia Williams, a 6-footer from Aptos, Calif.
“It’s kind of a load off of me,” Mitchell said. “Last year, we really didn’t have much help with scoring, but now we’e got new talent that can help. Rebounding, we’ve improved a lot.”
Mitchell believes the Apaches have the talent to match up right away with perennial power Central Arizona and the league’s other top teams.
“I think we’ll be able to compete with Central,” she said. “We just need to improve our communication on the court. Off the court, it’s great.”
And then of course there’s Prairie Chief, who underwent surgery on Dec. 14 and was only cleared to practice last month. She’s still working her way into playing shape, but if she can return at full strength, the Apaches will have an embarrassment of riches in the backcourt with returning guard C.C. Rode, who carried the load at the point last season after Prairie Chief went down.
“I think sitting out, I’ve seen the game from a different perspective,” Prairie Chief said. “I’d sit with the coaches and they’d point out things I didn’t see when I was playing. I got more mature when I sat out and I’m eager to apply it to the game.”
Being able to go 8, 9, 10 deep with players who could start on most ACCAC rosters is great, but only five can be on the court at once, which makes competition over finite playing time a fierce.
“It’s been tough because (the returners) know their style of play,” Neal said. “But they’re going to be my teammates regardless. If I end up taking somebody’s spot, it goes like that, but it should be a good level of competition.”
Lemon said the heightened competition in practice has stayed on the hardwood.
“Basketball has always been competitive to me,” she said. “We’re on the court to compete, but off the court, we’re friends.”
Prairie Chief doesn’t see a problem, either.
“We have a really deep bench. If one player gets tired, there’s someone else to step up,” she said. “Once we get our chemistry down together, and just learn how each other plays, we’ve definitely got a good chance at beating Central… We have a lot of talent, it’s just a matter of working together as a team.”