One day this spring, the NJCAA will announce that Pima College point guard Sydni Stallworth is a first-team All-American. You can book it now.
Someone will then lower the banner that lists PCC’s All-Americans and add Stallworth’s name to a list that has grown so much that there is almost no space for Stallworth’s name.
In the last eight years, coach Todd Holthaus’ women’s basketball team has produced eight first-team NJCAA All-Americans. Stallworth, a freshman from Palo Verde High School, will be No. 9.
But at the Aztecs practice Tuesday afternoon, Stallworth wouldn’t bite on questions about being the ACCAC’s Player of the Year, or about being an All-American or about Pima’s chances of winning a national championship next week in Kansas.
“If you think about that stuff you get a big head,” she said. “This is about our team, not me. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Aztecs are the No. 3 seed for the Division II NJCAA championships. This isn’t new territory; Holthaus coached Pima to the title game in 2011. He is 194-98 in nine remarkably successful years at the school.
As he watched his team go through drills Tuesday, Holthaus shook his head when Stallworth buried a deep three-pointer, a catch-and-shoot, 2-feet-behind the three-point-line shot the way Gabe York does it at Arizona.
“She’s a pit bull,” he said. “You get a player like that, and you’ve got a chance.”
Sydni Stallworth is 5 feet 3 inches tall. She averaged 15.7 points for a balanced PCC offense this year and runs the offense like a pit bull protecting his turf.
“You rarely see someone with a motor like Syd has,” said Pima assistant coach Jim Rosborough, who has coached motor-driven players like Damon Stoudamire and Jason Gardner to the Final Four. “Everybody feeds off her.”
Pima Community College’s rise as a national power in women’s college basketball is no longer a novelty. It’s almost taken for granted that the Aztecs will win 20 or more games in the ACCAC, which is probably the nation’s top junior-college basketball conference. With four region championships in eight years, four trips to the NJCAA championships, Holthaus seems to successfully reload, year after year after year.
You forget how difficult it can be.
On Tuesday, for example, assistant coach Chris Klassen told Holthaus that their little pit bull had played so hard that she had blown out her shoes and needed a new pair.
“Let me see your shoes,” Holthaus said.
Stallworth’s once-white Adidas, now smudged and worn after four months of basketball, had indeed sprung a leak. The tip of her right shoe had become unstitched and unglued.
“Let’s get you another pair,” the coach said.
“But these are my lucky shoes,” Stallworth insisted.
“They are falling apart,” said Holthaus.
“Please let me keep them,” she said.
This is when you realize that basketball at Pima College isn’t the same as basketball at a Nike-sponsored school such as Arizona, which has its own shoe store, in sizes, colors and models not available at the local mall.
To get their Player of the Year a new pair of Adidas, Pima must order the shoes through a Phoenix distributor and wait a few days.
“I’ve got a pair of yellow shoes,” said Stallworth. “Maybe I can wear those.”
It makes what Holthaus and the Aztecs have done that much more impressive. Eleven of the 15 players PCC will take to the NJCAA championships played high school basketball in Southern Arizona. When assistant coach Pete Fajardo drives to Phoenix to scout and recruit a potential prospect, he pays for his own gasoline.
Third-team All-ACCAC forward Shalise Fernander, a standout from Flowing Wells High School, not only attends school full time, she works a regular shift at Culver’s.
“She has been their Employee of the Month,” Holthaus said, beaming.
Second-team All-ACCAC guard Denesia Smith, who was a star at Cienega High School, fills time between school and basketball by working at Home Depot.
The makeup of this PCC team, and of many junior college teams, can be fascinating. One of the top additions to the ’15-16 Aztecs is Erin Peterson, who graduated from Catalina Foothills High School in 2011. She was one of the state’s top 100- and 200-meter runners, but now, as a 23-year-old freshman at PCC, Peterson is an invaluable off-the-bench player, averaging five points per game.
“We don’t overpower people, but we’re deep and athletic,” said Holthaus. “Our speed gives other teams problems.”
When Pima won the region championship last weekend, the Aztecs’ gymnasium was standing-room only. Fans had to stand on the upper concourse to get a view of a team that appears to be peaking at the right time; it beat second-seeded Mesa College 78-54.
“It’s funny, but when I was hired (in 2007), a newspaper article said coaching the women’s basketball team was the ‘Death Valley of coaching,’ ” Holthaus said. “On Saturday, we had more people in this gym than I’ve ever seen. It has been quite a ride.”
The Aztecs are no longer riding. They will fly to Kansas City early Sunday morning.
They’ve been on a high all year.