Sometimes to build something great, a team has to start from the ground up.
On the first day of College of the Canyons women’s basketball practice, 13 players showed up. In years past, that number was closer to 19.
To make matters worse, six didn’t make it a full practice before quitting the team.
But as the practices rolled on, students who weren’t originally recruited for the team came out of the COC woodwork to join the Cougars, giving hope to a program that went 23-6 last season, winning the 15th Western State Conference, South Division championship in program history.
“It’s been tough,” said sophomore point guard Marina Rojas. “But they’re all people we can work with. My teammates, they’re all open-minded so we can work with them. It was hard at the beginning, but it’s getting better as we go.”
From the 2016 team, the Cougars lost all-conference first-teamer Cierra O’Brien to a knee injury this fall. The reigning South Division Player of the Year Hannah Green transferred to Illinois State after her sophomore year, and All-WSC first-teamer Monica Friedl transferred to Cal State San Marcos.
Rojas earned first team All-WSC honors last season. This year, in a bigger role, she is averaging 12.7 points and 5.7 assists per game.
“Marina’s leadership is above and beyond,” said freshman guard Morgan Bizzell, who leads the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game. “I’ve never played with anyone as mature as Marina.”
In three games this season, Rojas has averaged 34.7 minutes of playing time, the second highest amount of time on the team.
She’s taken on the job of introducing the Cougars’ fast, energetic playing style to the freshman players.
One player in particular, Jerica Washington, has taken to that playing style rather quickly. She is averaging 12 points per game.
“She’s got physical gifts that most kids don’t have,” said 25-year coach Greg Herrick. “She’s a 6-foot athlete who can jump. She had 20 rebounds in our last game (against Citrus) and that’s in the altitude of some of our better players in history. If she could do that on a regular basis, she’s going to be a really good player here.”
Although Washington is excelling on the court, transitioning to college hoops and academics, in addition to working a part-time job, has added pressure to the forward off the court.
“Me and Marina, we push her because sometimes she wants to give up,” Bizzell said. “She thinks that she can’t do it, so we just push her and tell her she can do it. She needs to be positive. So we’re on her a lot about her work and what she needs to do to get it done.”
COC will need the effort of not just Washington, but from all 12 players on the makeshift roster to redeem themselves from last year’s postseason, where they lost in the first round to Palomar.
“First comes first, we need to be able to finish off with a good record for these tournaments,” Rojas said. “And then going into conference, we really need to come out strong so we can make it past the first round of playoffs. No one likes a little taste.”