HEAD COACH TJ HARDEMAN PRESS CONFERENCE AT THE BOTTOM
When Azusa Pacific held up the 2011 NAIA National Championship banner in Oman Arena last year, it was the conclusion of a story that was three years in the making.
It began when a young team lost in the second round of the NAIA tournament, and continued a year later when the Cougars reached the first NAIA title game in program history only to lose 65-73 to Union (Tenn.). In 2011 that same group, still growing together, took the lessons of tough season-ending defeats and turned in a championship performance, culminating a long-term process of reaching the pinnacle of NAIA basketball.
The story of the 2011-12 Azusa Pacific women’s basketball team won’t be quite as long, but the Cougars, ranked No. 1 in the NAIA preseason poll, are hoping for a similar ending.
With returning All-American Briana Hall and one of the NAIA’s best centers, Amber Williams, the Cougars have the ability to bring back another banner, but with four new starters and a slew of new faces they’ll need to speed things up, both on the court and in the locker room, to have any shot at a repeat.
“We say that talent will get you in the door, but to finish you have to play as a team and execute as a team,” said Head Coach TJ Hardeman.
“Every day we focus on how we can get better and what it is we’re doing well. We have certain things that we think are our strengths, but we’re in constant evaluation about what we’re doing and if it’s best for our group.”
With Hall pushing the ball, and a bench that can go 10-deep, a clear strong-suit for Azusa Pacific will be its ability to run the floor.
“We’ve engineered our team to be a little faster. We want to get up and down the court,” said Hardeman. “We have a number of players we’d like to get in and out. [Defensively] we’ll press and try to orchestrate confusion. We’d like to see what happens when other teams try to match that.”
And while the Cougars may have the bodies to compete with anybody, there are still questions about how they’ll mesh as the season progresses. The team returns two potential first team All-Americans in Hall and Williams, yet brings back just two other players who notched significant time during the championship run.
How they and the other five newcomers adjust to the system and style of play will be the focus early in the season, but in the meantime the coaching staff will rely on what it knows.
“In years past we knew who was going to be the person that will ask for the ball in crunch time,” said Hardeman. “This year we feel confident putting the ball in [Hall’s] hands. She’s been the starting guard for the last three years…there’s a bit of a security blanket [with her]. But we’ve got a number of solid players looking to step up.”
One of which is Williams.
Last year the center played in all 38 games for the Cougars, starting six times, as she led the team with 259 rebounds (6.8 per game). This year, she’ll be Azusa Pacific’s main post threat and should be a perfect complement to Hall’s perimeter game.
“Hall and Williams are going to be as good as anyone in the NAIA,” said Hardeman. “Amber is relentless, and has been working really hard in practice. She’s an integral part of the team and she’s been committed and conscientious about her role.”
Azusa Pacific will kick off the regular season with a home game on November 17 against a Lubbock Christian team that they handled in the NAIA quarterfinals last season. On the next night the team welcomes Wayland Baptist to the Felix Event Center as they begin their defense of the NAIA crown.
Throughout the season, but especially in the beginning, the Cougars will hope to carry over the good vibes from 2011, and that starts with returning players such as Hannah Kenny, Jasmyn Reed, and Cherie Hughes. Hughes, who is one of the captains, is as hard a working player as there is on the team, while Kenny’s and Reed’s athleticism and length give the Cougars a lift on the defensive end.
“Hannah will step in and do well for us, and Jasmyn should be solid defensively; on top of knowing what APU basketball is all about,” said Hardeman.
The Cougars also return the likes of Annie Fredrickson, Whitley Brown, Cara Bomar, and Calli Jackson, all of whom bring back knowledge and understanding of what it takes to win it all as the Cougars prepare to play with an even bigger target on their back.
“We’re always Goliath. We talk about controlling things we can control. We can’t worry about what other teams are doing,” said Hardeman about playing the season as the reigning champs. “But we’re so competitive that it doesn’t matter if it’s our first or last [title]. We want to win regardless.”
But it doesn’t hurt that much of this year’s roster, which has no memory of the 2011 championship, will be hungry to write a new chapter in the program’s final season in the NAIA and GSAC.
Highlighting the 2011 class are the aforementioned Sims and Jones, who each bring something different to the table.
“Amanda has a great work ethic. She’s first on the court and the last off,” said Hardeman. “Tianna might be the quickest player I’ve had since being here. She gives us the ability to control where the ball goes defensively.”
“Maddy is explosive and energetic. I think she’ll be a fan-favorite with the way she dives on the floor. Katie has been solid, and to be honest, much better than we thought. She’s tough, controlled, and makes good decisions,” said Hardeman.
But the class doesn’t end there as the Cougars found not one, but two diamonds in the rough. Rebecca Roehrkasse and Camille Harris each were playing intramural basketball before being spotted by the coaching staff. Now Roehrkasse is in line to log significant minutes, while Harris gives the team depth in the back court.
“God brought Rebecca and set her in our lap,” said Hardeman about the 6-1 forward that grew up in Germany. “She brings a euro flavor, being a big that can play inside and outside.”
If the players can acclimate together, then the Cougars have a chance at another very successful season. And while success last year turned out to be a championship, Hardeman doesn’t want to limit it to winning.
“For us success is us playing at our best ability with the five players out there,” said Hardeman. “Winning championships are our goals, but they’re unspoken goals.
And with one of the toughest schedules in the country, which includes a road trip to play No. 14 Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), and No. 8 Campbellsville (Ky.), Azusa Pacific will be tested early and often as they run the NAIA and GSAC gamut for the last time.
"We hope to go out on top," said Hardeman. "We plan to win, but God is in control of what happens. Everything we can prepare for we’re preparing for; like taking care of details, supporting each other, and using the talent God has given us.”
And whether that results in another championship is still to be determined, but either way the Cougars are hoping the sequel to their 2011 title can stand on its own.