Cupboard not bear as KCKCC women begin national championship defense
No. 10 ranked Lady Blue Devils home Wednesday and Friday
The fallout of a national championship season – the loss of four starters, 71.3 percent of the scoring and 67.1 percent of the rebounding.
That's the price Kansas City Kansas Community College had to pay to win the 2016 NJCAA Division II Women's National Championship but what a bargain it was.
But now the rebuilding must begin starting Tuesday at North Central followed by home games with Ottawa JV Wednesday (5 p.m.) and an early season showdown with Des Moines Area Friday (6 p.m.).
Just one starter returns along with three other veterans, two of whom only played sparingly in the national tournament. The cupboard, however, is not as bare as it might look. "Looking at the box scores, we don't have a lot coming back but we have a lot of talent that was either on the floor or on the bench last March," said Joe McKinstry, the NJCAA Coach of the Year in his very first year as a head coach.
Enough talent that the Lady Blue Devils are ranked No. 10 in the NJCAA Division II preseason poll. The down side is that Highland is ranked No. 2 and Johnson County No. 5. "I think Highland and Johnson County are the best two teams in the country," says McKinstry.
Heading the list of returnees is 5-10 SM Northwest forward Brooklyn Wagler, an all-tournament selection in the national tournament, and her sidekick, 5-11 Brie Tauai of Blue Springs. Together they were the most accurate shooting duo in the Jayhawk Conference – Wagler shooting 57.1 percent and Tauai 54.1 percent. They are joined by 5-5 point guard Valencia Scott of Olathe East and 5-10 forward Kyliea Jarrett of Bonner Springs – and three redshirt sophomores.
An All-Jayhawk and All-Region selection in addition to being all-tournament, Wagler averaged 12.1 points and 7.0 rebounds despite being undersized. "By rule we have to put a label on a position but Brooklyn is ready and willing to play anywhere which is part of what makes her special," says McKinstry. "It's no accident or coincidence that she has the nose for the ball or being at the right place at the right time."
Considering she played the entire season with an injured shooting shoulder, Tauai had a spectacular season as the 'sixth man,' averaging 9.1 points and 4.3 rebounds. "She chose to play through the aggravation and frustration dealing with the shoulder which speaks to her mental and physical toughness," says McKinstry. Tauai had the injury surgically repaired in May and continues working to return to 100 percent.
Scott averaged 4.7 points and 1.5 assists in 34 games; Jarett 2.5 points and 2.7 rebounds in 33 games. Both are in the battle for starting jobs. "Valencia Scott had a fantastic summer putting in a lot of time and effort in working on her responsibilities as a floor leader. Quick, she's a very good athlete," says McKinstry. "Kyliea Jarrett is probably our best team defensive player. She's a maximum effort player, high energy, who with confidence can do a lot of things for us."
Not on the 2015-16 roster but very much part of the program are three redshirt returnees who figure prominently in this season's plans – 5-11 Millie Shade of Lawrence Free State, 5-7 Ky'Ana French of Milwaukee and 5-6 Whitney Hazlett of Mill Valley. There would have been a fourth in 5-11 Nimo Samana of Van Horn but she's out with a knee injury.
"Millie Shade is a standout shooter and athlete who we are counting on to pick up on some of the scoring and rebounding from last year," says McKinstry. "Ky'Ana French is a dynamic player with a lot of potential to be successful statistically and Whitney Hazlett is a shooter with quickness and athleticism who can be a big asset if she develops aggressiveness. All three know the program and what is expected and the hard work that is needed."
There are just two true freshmen, 5-9 Alix Wilson of St. Joseph Central and 5-10 DaShundra Morgan of Fayetteville, Ark. "Alix Wilson is a high energy, selfless player who has had a great preseason and will help immediately; DaShundra Morgan comes from a very high level program in Arkansas who can be an impact player on the defensive end and at four different positions offensively," says McKinstry.
The unknown comes from a corps of five transfer students including two from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, 5-7 combo guard Kayla Horn and 6-1 center Bianca Buckley. Also, 5-5 guard LaShai Scales of F.L. Schlagle has transferred from Highland; 5-10 Aeriel Holiday of Houston, comes from Sul Ross State; and 6-0 forward Lauren York of Blue Valley Southwest, will be eligible the second semester after being injured while at St. Louis Community College.
"I like our speed and athleticism," says McKinstry, who returns assistants Chamissa Anderson and Dawn Adams. "I think we're as quick across the board as last year with the ability to shoot the ball better from the outside. Ball movement and passing should be better. The question marks are whether we can come together as a group and buy into our philosophy of conditioning and defense."
Schedule-wise, it looms much more difficult than the past season, which opens Nov. 1 at North Central before home games with Ottawa JV Nov. 2 and an early season showdown with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Nov. 4. In addition to the annual Keith Lindsey Classic at home Nov. 11-12, the Blue Devils will play three Division I powers in classics, Marshalltown and Division II DMACC in Marshalltown, Iowa, Nov. 18-19 and Northeast Nebraska and Iowa Western in Council Bluffs Nov. 29-30
And then there's the Jayhawk Conference, arguably the nation's best since Johnson County won the 2015 national title and Highland finished second in 2014. No longer are the Blue Devils the chaser; the target now looms large on their back.
Four sophomore returnees from KCKCC's 2015-16 NJCAA national championship team are back to lead the Lady Blue Devils this season (from left) – Valencia Scott, Brooklyn Wagler, Brie Tauai and Kyliea Jarrett. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)