Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For the New Mexico Highlands University women’s basketball team, there is no place to go but up.
Coming off a rugged 1-26 season in 2019-20, then taking a year off because of virus-related health mandates, the Cowgirls are looking to abolish the past and surge ahead under new coach Garett Sherman.
“We just tried to keep things simple and as fun as we could make them,” he said. “Last year obviously wasn’t ideal, with us not playing. Everybody had the attitude that we couldn’t control what was going on. All we could control were the things we could control.”
For the most part, practices were restricted to small pods during which it was difficult to get much accomplished.
“Last year was pretty much, well, we could work in small groups, so we worked in small groups and conditioned,” Sherman said. “And we spent a good amount of time recruiting. For us, the first thing we look for is players interested in being a student first. We want them to make good grades and be a part of our community outside of basketball. And I think that blends in well with the returners from when I took over. It’s a group that gets along pretty well.”
But, with just five returning players from the squad two years ago, Sherman hit the recruiting trail hard. And, since D-I schools were restricted from in-person recruiting, many of them picked up their new players from the transfer portal. And the junior college players tended to stay where they were to take advantage of the extra season of eligibility.
That left the high school market largely untapped for D-II schools, he said.
“We felt the most talented kids available were high school players,” Sherman said. “We think the (five true) freshmen we brought in are very good players. We’re lucky to have them. Our biggest need was to add a little bit more size and we were able to bring in three kids that are six foot or above.”
As a matter of fact, two of them Sherman plans on being starters from the outset.
Aja Scott, a 6-foot forward, and Sana’a Baker, a 6-1 power forward, are both from Lakeview Centennial High School in Dallas.
Baker was the University Interscholastic League MVP and Scott joined her on the conference’s All-First Team as the team reached No. 8 in Texas 6A before being upset in the first round of the playoffs.
“What we sold our recruits on is you get to come in and hopefully get to build something from the ground up,” Sherman said. “We think our freshman Baker is really good. We kind of had an idea that she was good coming in, and I think she’s going be a very good player for us.”
Joining the two youngsters as starters will be returning starters Maiah Rivas (5-4, PG, sophomore), who averaged 10.9 points and 3.3 assists, and Jordyn Lewis (5-8, SG, grad student), who averaged a team-best 16.6 points. Both have New Mexico ties as Rivas graduated from West Mesa and Lewis from Ramah.
The final starter, Shania Johnson (5-10, W, junior), came in last season from Johnson County Community College, where she took a redshirt season.
Two other starters from 2019-20 are back and will be expected to be solid contributors off the bench. Ashley Antone (5-11, F, sophomore) averaged 11.4 points and a team-best 4-9 rebounds and Desiree Forster (5-7, G, sophomore), averaged 8.3 points. They both also have New Mexico ties, with Antone from Gallup High School and Forster from Rio Rancho.
As a matter of fact, strengthening those New Mexico roots is something Sherman said he plans to do as he continues to rebuild the program.
“We’re hoping that we can have a good showing this year and, in time, hopefully attract some of New Mexico’s best players,” he said.
As for this season, Sherman said he knows the team has its work cut out for it, and other Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference coaches recognize that, as well, listing Highlands last among the 15 schools. Still, the goal is to make the conference tournament and see what happens thereafter.
“Really, our expectations are to compete and stay together,” he said. “The past couple of years, the women’s basketball team hasn’t been competitive. Our first objective is to become a competitive team in the RMAC, and stay together throughout the season through its ups and downs.”