AZUSA, Calif.-- In 2009 T.J. Hardeman took over an Azusa Pacific women’s basketball program that was largely irrelevant on the national scene. But after just four seasons at the helm Hardeman transformed the Cougars into a national power, more than quadrupling the school’s all-time playoff win total en route to guiding Azusa pacific to its first NAIA national championship in 2011.
Now, with the school transitioning from the familiar Golden State Athletic Conference to the burgeoning 14-team NCAA division II Pacific West Conference Hardeman will have a new challenge, taking his program into the unknown against in a conference that features six programs that the Cougars have never faced.
“It’ll be exciting. It’ll be a change. We loved where we were at, but something new like this has new challenges,” said Hardeman. “We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to miss the NAIA and GSAC, but they’re some exciting new things that we haven’t experienced yet so it’ll be a good test.”
Quite possibly one of the team’s biggest hurdles will be figuring out a way to move on from losing a pair of All-Americans in Briana Hall and Amber Williams. Last season Williams shattered the Cougars’ single-season rebounding record while collecting NAIA National Player of the Week honors twice. Hall continued her reign as one of the program’s all-time greats, and did it when it mattered most, single handedly leading Azusa Pacific to an improbable comeback overtime win over MidAmerica Nazarene in the opening round of the NAIA tournament with a career-high 32 points.
“We’ve lost good players in the past, maybe not as much in the same year. They had great careers for us, but now new people can step up. You don’t just go out and replace a four-year starter and someone like Amber so it’s a whole new deal. We’re just happy that they aren’t playing on the other team,” said Hardeman.
“As a team it’ll be the closest team we’ve had. The team chemistry and unity will be a very big strength for us. We’re going to be a lot more balanced this year. We could have five players averaging close to double-figures. That has strengths of its own because it causes defense to focus on everyone. We aren’t going to walk on the floor and be more talented, so we will have to be more cohesive as a team. That’s going to determine how well we do.”
THE BACK COURT
Last season Hall became the program’s all-time leader in assists, racking up 713 in an illustrious career that saw the four-year starter earn NAIA All-American honors in three consecutive seasons. Hall ended her career ranked in the top-10 in Cougar history in points scored, field goals, 3-point field goals, free throws, and games played. But with Hall’s graduation the Cougars, whose last two point guards have been NAIA All-Americans, have a void to fill. Enter newcomer Sullivan Ziegler.
Ziegler, a sophomore transfer from NCAA division II Metro State (Colo.), earned playing time as a true freshman for one of the top program’s in the country, helping the Roadrunners to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament and a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship.
“Sullivan brings leadership and some qualities in some of the new stuff that we’re trying to run. She does a great job as a coach on the floor,” said Hardeman. “She does a great job of making other people look better and the team has liked working with her. She’s a floor general; an orchestrator. It’ll take her a while to figure out the different sets, but when she does I expect her to do very well.”
Joining Ziegler in the back court will be senior Amanda Sims, who last year led the Cougars with 54 3-pointers in her first season with the program. Sims was one of the team’s top all-around players, finishing the year in the top-3 in points, rebounds, assists, and steals.
“Amanda has done a great job at being a verbal leader while leading by action. She works hard in the weight room, on her conditioning, and in the gym,” said Hardeman. “She only knows 100 percent, so she gives everything all the time. She’s a perfect example. She shows people the level that we need to compete at, and from a coaching standpoint you love having her out there.”
At the beginning of the 2011-12 season sophomore transfer Tianna Jones showed flashes of brilliance before having her season cut short with a leg injury 13 games in. Jones, who averaged 6.2 points and 2.5 assists per game, recorded a season-high 18 points against Hope International, and twice had seven assists in a contest. This year she’ll be asked to split time between both guard positions as an athletic change of pace player.
“Tianna is going to play some one and some two. She will play with Sullivan at times, and at others she’ll be our point guard,” said Hardeman. “She showed great promise before getting hurt last season. We’re going to run more this year, and she does a great job at that. She’s so fast that we definitely want to put her in those advantageous situations.”
Azusa Pacific also welcomes back Morgann Ellis to the back court after the senior missed last season with an injury. Katie Powell comes into the season with a year of college play under her belt. As a freshman she averaged 3.5 points and 1.8 rebounds per game, while nailing 24 3-pointers.
“We’re looking for Morgan to come back strong. She has a great shot and basketball IQ. I think she’ll help a ton at the shooting guard spot and since a lot of our offense is changing the ball will be in a lot of players’ hands,” said Hardeman.
“Katie has worked hard and continues to shoot the ball well. She’s such a solid and heady player. She doesn’t make many mistakes and that’s always a good thing to have from your guards.”
Cara Bomar enters her third year with the program as one of the team’s top outside threats. Over the offseason she improved in a few key areas, looking to contend for an increased role as a junior.
“Cara has improved her speed and quickness. She’s gotten stronger and has improved in a number of areas so I expect her to push for increased playing time,” said Hardeman.
THE FRONT COURT
Last season Williams rewrote the record books, averaging a double-double while pulling in a program-record 440 rebounds. She earned NAIA first team All-American recognition and surpassed the 20-rebound plateau in three games. Williams was also a defensive force in the post, registering a team-high 38 blocks. Now with Williams gone to graduation Azusa Pacific will have to find a way to supplant nearly 20 points 13 rebounds a game.
“Defensively we’ll miss Amber a lot. It’s hard to replace her production but we have people excited to step in. People have worked hard to be stronger and faster so we’ll have to do things to accentuate our strengths,” said Hardeman.
One of the players eyeing to take the lead down low is small forward Maddy Barrett who had an impressive rookie campaign last season. Barrett is a resilient rebounder who’s athletic enough to play on the perimeter or on the block. She broke the freshman single-game record with 19 rebounds against Point Loma, and nailed a season-high three triples in the Cougars NAIA quarterfinal loss to Oklahoma City. As a freshman she averaged 5.1points and 7.0 rebounds a night, while tallying 1.4 steals per game.
“Maddy is a handful for anyone to guard. She’s big enough to go inside, but she’s worked on her outside game so she’s tough to stop. In her sophomore year she’s already a very hard player to guard. Whether she has a big or small guarding her we’ll find a way to take advantage. If they put a big on her she can score from the perimeter. If they put a smaller player on her she can take her down low,” said Hardeman.
Hannah Kenny was the team’s biggest spark off the bench during her sophomore season, and now she’s figured to be listed in the starting lineup. Kenny was one of the team’s most efficient players, shooting over 51 percent from the field, while scoring 3.7 points in only 12 minutes per game. She pulled in an average of 3.9 rebounds a night, and did a ton of work that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
At the center position Annie Fredrickson is expected to continue her improvement as one of the team’s strongest players. Azusa Pacific also brings in freshman Kelly Hardeman, who is looking to play a prominent role in her first year with the team.
“Annie’s role should increase and she’s worked hard this offseason. She’s in the best shape of her career. And now with Amber gone she’s going to have to get used to being the biggest player on the floor,” said Hardeman. “Kelly is going to play a lot. She’s a lot like Maddy in that she’s deceptively long and a good shot blocker. She also has a good offensive mindset.”
Calli Jackson brings one of the team’s top basketball IQ’s to the table, and in her fourth season with the program should see plenty of opportunities.
A LOOK AT THE SCHEDULE
Playing in the GSAC had its perks, with all the opponents within a few hours’ drive. That’s all going to change, but don’t expect to hear any grumblings from the Cougars when they have to go through the rigors of flying to Hawaiʻi every other year as part of their new conference schedule. In all Azusa Pacific will have to adapt to conference contests in the Bay Area, Utah, Arizona, and on two of the Hawaiʻian Islands.
But even before the conference slate racks up the frequent flyer miles the Cougars will embark on a two-game set in the Pacific Northwest against Seattle Pacific and Western Washington to open the season. Following those two games the team will compete in the UC San Diego Invitational, facing off with the Tritons and Cal State San Bernardino on Nov. 23 and 24. The non-conference schedule takes a short break when Azusa Pacific takes on Point Loma in San Diego on Dec. 1 for the program’s first PacWest game.
The team then squares off with Biola for the schools’ annual rivalry game on Dec. 3 before the Cougars kick off the Azusa Pacific Invite on Dec. 18 and 19, where they’ll face George Fox (Ore.) and Cal Poly Pomona. On Jan. 5 the Cougars begin the rest of the conference season, playing Fresno Pacific at home. Azusa Pacific takes its four-game trip to Hawaiʻi on Feb. 16, opening with Hawaiʻi Pacific.
The team’s final regular season contest is a home tilt against Grand Canyon (Ariz.),and following that the team will hope to compete in the National Christian College Athletics Association tournament. The NCCAA Regionals are March 5-6, with the national tournament slated for March 13-16 in Winona Lake, Ind.