A month after playing her final basketball game for Pima College, Raja Moreno-Ross got a text message from her old coach, Todd Holthaus.
“Call me ASAP.”
She called. “Well?”
“You’re an All-American,” Holthaus said.
“A first-team All-American.”
Other than “you just won the Powerball,” how do you get a better phone call than that?
If you looked away for a year or two, you might find this hard to believe. Until her junior year in high school, the daughter of former Arizona Wildcats football lineman Sam Ross was a soccer goalie of note with an A-level personality.
“Raja is constant entertainment,” says Holthaus. “She’s good with people.”
But she wasn’t a basketball player at all.
“I didn’t even know the terms, like ‘the key’ or ‘baseline’ or any of those things,” she says. “I had zero basketball IQ.”
For eight years, Moreno-Ross established herself as one of Tucson’s top youth soccer players, one who seemed destined for a college scholarship like fellow Oro Valley hot shots Kaitlyn Lopez , Justene Kesterson and Karina Gabino, all of whom now play at Arizona.
But last week, when the NJCAA announced its 10-woman Division II All-American team, Moreno-Ross had successfully completed an identity change.
“She is pretty fearless,” says Holthaus. “She put up numbers I couldn’t imagine against kids who were bigger and had far more experience.”
This isn’t new for Holthaus; behind the south basket at the PCC gymnasium, the school displays a banner of its women’s basketball All-Americans: Tia Morrison, UNLV; Abyee Maracigan, Idaho State; Deanna Daniels, Grand Canyon University; A’jha Edwards, Montana State-Northern.
On Monday, Moreno-Ross looked up at the banner and shook her head. Her name will soon be added to the list.
“I got lucky coming to Pima,” she says. “I got lucky to get a free education and lucky to be a part of such a good tradition.”
It took some unusual courage for a 15-year-old to willingly change high schools, from Ironwood Ridge to Tucson, to move from the suburbs to midtown, to change friends, change sports and change her life.
“I was going through some rough times at home and with family; we had a lot of transitioning going on,” she says. “So I decided to do something for myself; I had watched the Tucson High basketball team play in the summer league at Pima College, and I was impressed.
“It was all about hard work. I thought I needed some of that.”
Moreno-Ross gets her athletic DNA from her father, who played on Dick Tomey’s Arizona football teams of the early 1990s, and from her mother, Melissa, who ran on the cross-country teams at Amphitheater High School.
Initially, the soccer-to-basketball switch was overwhelming; Moreno-Ross harbored thoughts about quitting her entire junior season at THS.
“I hated every single day,” she remembers. “Our coach (Paul Reed) was not one for fun and games during those two-hour workouts. You had to pay a price to get better but my mom told me ‘finish it,’ and so I finished it. I paid that price.”
Holthaus, who has been one of the leading coaches in ACCAC basketball since 2007, averaging 22 wins a year and reaching the NJCAA championship game in 2011, knows a good prospect when he sees one, even if the résumé is more about soccer than basketball.
“I thought she could tap into her athleticism and she did,” he says. “She’s still got a lot more in her. She doesn’t back down.”
Moreno-Ross has taken a recruiting visit to Hawaii and is also talking to Long Beach State. She’s somewhat of a ’tweener, a 5-foot 10-inch power forward who spent most of her PCC years at center.
But even though she gave up six inches and years of experience, she more than held her own against fellow first-team All-American Joy Howard of national power Central Arizona College. Moreno-Ross had 13 double-doubles this season, averaging 13.2 points and 9.2 rebounds. She was third in the NJCAA in rebounding and, a tribute to her staying power, third in the nation in minutes played.
“I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve changed my whole life by coming to Pima,” she says. “Now I really believe in myself.”
Upon learning of her selection to the All-American team, Moreno-Ross phoned her father, who was in a business meeting in Philadelphia.
“He started shouting ‘My baby’s an All-American! My baby’s an All-American!’” she says. “His co-workers looked at him like he was crazy.”
But it was a good crazy.