The Aggies women’s basketball team has a red dot on its back and an appetite for a fifth-consecutive regular season Western Athletic Conference title.
In the pre-season polls, the crimson and white has been selected as the number one team in its conference. Last season, the team became only the second in the history of the WAC to complete a “four-peat.” The only other team to do so was Louisiana Tech, 2001-2006.
Under her first year, head coach Brooke Atkinson took no time to get going last season as she commanded her roster to an 18-13 overall record and 11-3 in WAC play. The successful season, however, was abruptly cut short in a shocking loss to Seattle University in the semifinals of the WAC tournament.
“Every day, every possession is important,” Atkinson said. “That game proved it to us. Everything just kind of snowballed. Seattle played really well, and we did not. We keep that in the back of our minds, what that felt like. They’ve been a part of so much positive and to go through that, it just reminds you that you’ve got to earn everything. You’ve got to pay your rent every single day, and that’s what this team has done.”
This year’s team has freshness and added depth to surround senior guard and reigning WAC player of the year Brooke Salas and first-team All-WAC junior guard Gia Pack. Notable departures from last season are Jasmine Cooper, Tonishia Childress, Zaire Williams and Jeneva Toilolo. Newcomers who are expected to make an immediate impact include guard/forward Stabresa McDaniel, forward Nana Sule, forward Adenike Adernito and guard Rodrea Echols.
McDaniel is coming off a significant knee injury she suffered while at North Texas last season. She previously played for two seasons at the University of Minnesota. Sule averaged 6.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game playing for Chipola College. Echols was ranked No. 18 by ESPN at her position out of high school, then spent one season at Oklahoma State before transferring to Trinity Valley Community College. At Trinity Valley, she scored 7.7 points per game. Rodrea becomes the third player on the roster to transfer from Trinity Valley, joining twins Dominique and Monique Mills.
Perhaps most intriguing is the addition of Adenike Adernito, who looks to play down low after enjoying 21 double-doubles at South Georgia Tech a season ago.
“Sometimes last year, we asked a lot of Brooke and Gia — to score and create,” Atkinson said. “Now we’ve added more depth from the one to the five. We’re still going to ask a lot of them, but they have people that can go make a play and create for them.”
It’s been all positives for the team thus far, and the bar is set higher than ever. Gia Pack has set out to become this year’s WAC player of the year, though Salas has much more to prove. Both players are embracing their sizable roles.
“I think the players [from 2016] leaving really made me step into the leadership role — just being that mentor, that teammate they can lean on whenever they need me,” Pack said. “When I came in as a freshman, I wanted to learn. I get their motive. I get what they’re doing. Coach Trash [who left NMSU for USC in 2017] made sure I knew the positions one through four so now I’m immune to doing it all. I’m ready. I’m hungry. I’m ready to step up into this leadership role.”
Over the offseason, a tough loss brought Pack and her head coach closer than ever. An already firmly held respect became an ever-lasting friendship that was strengthened by powerful emotions.
“Our relationship is very sincere,” Pack said of Atkinson. “She’s there for me, even when I don’t expect her to be. I lost my grandfather last month, and she was there for me. She was just there every step of the way, very supportive, very approachable. She’s just a really great person.”
Pack has high praise for a coach that’s earned seven consecutive playoff berths with three different programs — South Dakota State, Colorado State and NMSU.
“We’re coming for everybody. Everybody is a target — everybody. We want to win every game,” said a fiery Pack. “I know I have the ability to win player of the year. It starts with working hard, being consistent and being able to take constructive criticism from players and coaches. It’s never too late to learn anything — that’s my main thing, to improve, to grow.”
This is year two of the Atkinson era. No more firsts, and teams around the conference have lots of film to study. The Aggies will need to out-perform a long list of strong opponents.
“This year I’m working on becoming more of a vocal leader, which pushes me out of my comfort zone,” Salas said of stepping into elevated expectations. “In past years, I put my head down and led by example. Also, making sure that I don’t ask of my teammates anything that I don’t do and just holding myself accountable is what I have to do.”
Salas has been a sensation since coming to Las Cruces. Salas was named All-WAC newcomer recipient in her freshman campaign, a first-team All-WAC member as a sophomore, and Player of the Year Award a season ago, which speaks to the magnitude of her skills. But performance on the court isn’t the only footprint the senior would like to leave.
“I want the community and the fans to remember me for how I treated them, for how I interacted with them, not just how I played on the court,” Salas said.
This is a team fans want to get behind. It’s going to be a fun ride.
The 2018-2019 women’s basketball regular season opens up on Tuesday, Nov. 6, at 5 p.m. inside the Pan American Center when the ladies take on the University of Texas-Permian Basin.