After head coach Todd Holthaus ended Thursday’s practice, freshman Jacqulynn Nakai set up a basketball shot trainer, put on her light pink cordless Beats headphones and went to work.
The night before, Nakai led the Pima College women’s basketball team to a 95-53 win at Scottsdale Community College for their sixth consecutive win. The 5-foot-6-inch point guard from Flagstaff scored a game-high 22 points, hitting six of her eight 3-point attempts.
The Aztecs (12-2, 6-0) are ranked fourth in the latest NJCAA Division II poll. They’ll face Cochise College (12-2, 5-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the West Campus Gym.
The freshman has become the Aztecs’ leading scorer, averaging 17.8 points per game while shooting 46.3 percent and 42.5 percent from the arc. The Coconino High School grad also shoots 80.8 percent from the line and is averaging 4.6 boards per game.
“It’s nice at times (to be the leading scorer), but not really because everybody’s looking at stats so teams are going to be physical with you, especially,” Nakai said. “Just knowing you’re one of the key players makes things a little more difficult, but you’ve got to keep working hard and trust the process.”
Nakai essentially replaces Sydni Stallworth, who starred for Pima the last two seasons following a stellar career at Palo Verde High School. Stallworth is in her first season at small-college power Alaska-Anchorage. Holthaus said it’s been a blessing to have Nakai to replace Stallworth, though he stopped short of comparing the two point guards.
“I would never want to put JJ in a box and compare her to Syd. Nor do I want to do that to Syd,” Holthaus said. “JJ is a little bit bigger, and maybe not as athletic, but JJ shoots the heck out of the ball and has great vision.
“It’s been fun for me to coach because I’ve had a great point guard for three years straight.”
Guard play has been a hallmark for Pima under Holthaus, who’s in his 11th season as the Aztecs’ head coach. Since taking over, Holthaus — a former UA assistant — has led Pima to NJCAA Region I Championships (2009, 2010, 2011, 2016), a runner-up finish in the NJCAA Division II Championship in 2011 and a third place in the 2016 national championship tournament.
Nakai says her plan is to keep improving, make it to the national championship tournament and hopefully get into an NCAA Division I program.
“I’ve had a few offers so far,” Nakai said. “(I’m) just working towards the bigger schools and, coming through here, learning, becoming a better player and making my game more versatile.”
The Aztecs have more than just a stellar point guard.
Holthaus praises the team’s chemistry, saying this is his first team without academic or personal issues. All players enter the gym ready to practice, he said.
“This group’s a lot of fun — great chemistry,” Holthaus said. “For a team with 15 females, chemistry is huge.”
Sophomore Izzy Spruit said “everyone clicks together” this season.
“Last year, the sophomores clicked really well, but it was hard to get the freshmen in,” she said. “Last year, I kind of fit in with them, but this year I feel like everyone meshes.”
Part of what’s feeding Spruit’s determination to work hard in the gym is redemption for how the season ended last year. The Aztecs were ranked No. 1 for a portion of the 2016-17 season and the team thought they had an easy path into the national championship, Spruit said, but they fell short in the regional tournament.
“Last year, I think we thought that, since we were so good and our five starters were back from the previous year, that it was like a ticket to nationals, and we kind of overlooked it a little bit,” Spruit said. “So I think this year, we’re working hard to be there. We want to prove ourselves to everybody else.”
There’s still plenty of season left for the Aztecs to try to improve their ranking and to make a run for the national championship.
And they have a coach who’s nearing his 400th career win, a strong freshman shooter and great chemistry.
“I think this team has the ability to (be ranked No. 1 again),” Holthaus said. “I think there’s a lot of basketball left to be played.”
“The Cochise game Saturday is a huge battle,” Holthaus said. “They are more athletic than we are and probably the best team in the conference, but we’re kind of scrappy and feisty and have a pitbull mentality. So it’ll be exciting to see if we can come out with a win.”