Cardenas attempts to reinvent culture of CAC women's hoops
By ED PETRUSKA Contributing Writer Oct 30, 2019 Updated Oct 31, 2019
SIGNAL PEAK — Victory No. 300 will come soon enough for Central Arizona College women's basketball coach Denise "Gooch" Cardenas.
Perched at 299 wins going into the Nov. 1 season opener against Howard (Texas) the 12th-year coach of the Vaqueras is looking to add about 30 more before the season ends. That total would put CAC solidly in the hunt for a fifth NJCAA title and the program's first since 2008-09, when Cardenas guided the Vaqueras to a 35-0 mark in her first season at the helm.
After notching 30 or more wins in five of her first six seasons, during which Central reached the Division I NJCAA Tournament semifinals four times, Cardenas is hopeful the Vaqueras can return to the national stage for the first time since 2015. Since going 24-5 in 2014-15 and 25-6 in 2015-16 (en route to its 12th-consecutive Arizona Community College Athletic Conference title and 13th-straight Region 1 crown), CAC has slipped a bit.
The Vaqueras went 19-10 in 2016-17 and failed to qualify for the Region 1 tournament for the first time since 1979-80. The last two seasons (22-10 in 2017-18 and 22-9 in 2018-19) have ended with losses to Cochise in the region tourney final.
"It's been extremely frustrating," said Cardenas, whose teams are 299-59 overall (.835) and 215-23 (.903) against conference opponents
Returning to the highest level will require "reinventing the culture of this program" and getting the players to understand CAC's storied tradition, Cardenas said. She and assistant coaches Andrew Laursen and Kendra Aaron "have to be in tune" with today's athletes and "get them to buy into doing the right things and what we're trying to teach them. Our main focus is making them better people every day. The rest will take care of itself."
Second-team NJCAA All-America selection Ayanna Clark heads the list of Central's four returners. The 6-foot-3 forward, who also earned ACCAC Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors, was the second-leading scorer in the conference with a 22.8 average. Clark – a five-time ACCAC Player of the Week – ranked first in rebounds (13.3) and blocks (2.4).
Guard/forward Makayla Pippin (14.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals) was named to the All-ACCAC second team. The other returners are guards Alexia Marsh (2.0 points, 2.4 rebounds) and Ariana Davis (1.5 points).
Joining Clark and Pippin in the starting lineup is guard Jenay Bojorquez, a sophomore transfer. Although Cardenas is not revealing who else will start, the projected rotation also includes Marsh and Davis, along with guards Reyelle Frazier and Mahogany Menefee and forward Denali Hughes.
Rounding out the roster are guards Ashana Hinds and Laney Lupe and forwards Czarina Mada and Imani Harris.
"On paper we look pretty good," Cardenas said. "We're definitely strong inside and we're fast. If we can hit some outside shots, we'll be all right."
Cochise (28-4 overall in 2018-19) is the three-time defending ACCAC champion. The Apaches also have won three consecutive D-I Region 1 title games. They went 21-1 in conference play last season to finish four games ahead of the second-place Vaqueras.
As the No. 16 seed in the 24-team NJCAA Tournament, Cochise lost to No. 17 Florida Southwestern in the opening round.
Somewhat surprisingly, Central is ranked No. 11 in the D-I NJCAA preseason poll, while Cochise is unranked.
Eastern Arizona (18-13, 14-8) and Arizona Western (11-19, 9-13) are the other two D-I teams in the ACCAC.
There are eight D-II teams in the conference, but only two, Pima (24-12) and South Mountain (14-13), posted winning records last season. Pima lost in the quarterfinals of the national tournament, then won two consolation games to take fifth place. The Aztecs are ranked No. 3 in the D-II NJCAA preseason poll.
Following the opener against Howard in Hobbs, New Mexico, the Vaqueras play two more games there – facing host New Mexico Junior College on Nov. 2 and Western Texas on Nov. 3. NMJC is ranked No. 4 in the D-I NJCAA preseason poll.
CAC's home opener is Nov. 4 against Southern