The players have been through offseason workouts, official practices and scrimmages.
It’s time to take the training wheels off and see what they have learned.
It’s time for basketball season at Tyler Junior College, and the fun won’t stop until March.
The men’s team, with just two sophomores, opens at home Friday and Saturday in the Robert Pack Classic at Wagstaff Gymnasium.
The Apache Ladies, with eight sophomores and a No. 10 national ranking, will play this weekend at the Odessa Classic.
Coach Mike Marquis, beginning his 11th season at the helm, is majoring in patience this semester as he watches a team with 10 freshmen try to build chemistry.
“Every day, we can be really good and really bad all in the same practice,” Marquis said. “Our concentration and mental toughness waver on occasion, as expected with that many young men in college for the first time and trying to go through college practices.”
John Tyler graduate Jaron Johnson is the only player back for the Apaches who played major minutes in last year’s 19-11 campaign. The 6-5 wing averaged 9.9 points and 4.5 rebounds as the sixth man, shooting 42 percent from the field and 73 percent from the free throw line.
“My experience is that in our conference, you can lose on any given night,” said Johnson, who has worked to improve his shooting and ball-handling. “We’ve got to play every game like it’s basically trying to get to the championship.”
The other returning sophomore is Abdi Nur, a 6-8, 230-pound post from Atlanta, Ga., who played in 21 games last season and averaged 1.5 points and 2.1 rebounds.
The freshmen are 6-6 wing Trevor Berkeley (Tucker, Ga.), 5-8 point guard Trent Washington (Waterloo, Iowa), 6-7 wing Tyler Brunson (Tucker, Ga.), 6-6 wing Hershey Robinson (Benton, La.), 6-0 guard Kameron LaTouche (Ontario), 6-9 post Chris Coleman (Buffalo, N.Y.), 6-3 wing Ta’Jon Welcome (Houston Washington), 6-10 post Winslo Barry (Bahamas), 6-7 forward Alton Tanner (Katy Taylor) and 6-8 forward Daniel Edozie (Compton, Calif.).
“Overall, we really like this group. We’re athletic, we’re long, we fit our system very well,” said Marquis, who sports a 179-117 record at TJC. “We feel good about the possibilities for the group.”
Areas of concern?
“We’ve got to see if we can score on the block consistently, we have to see what our decision-making capabilities are when the game starts,” Marquis said. “But our practice habits have been strong … we think we can carry it over to the games.”
The Apaches graduated third-team All-American Malcolm Moore (UTEP) along with 6-10 center Kader Tapsoba (Texas Tech), leaving a void in the middle. With Mitch Marquis now a TJC assistant coach, the Apaches are also breaking in new point guards.
“We’ve had a string of terrific go-to players on the block, and we’re just looking for someone to develop into that early in the year,” said Mike Marquis, adding that Johnson — a 6-5 wing — is TJC’s most polished low-post player at this point. “Within the system, no one has emerged on a day-by-day basis. We have so many good perimeter players, people are going to have to guard our perimeter which could free up (the inside).”
Marquis said this year’s club won’t be as easy to figure out from a position standpoint.
“This year you’ll see lot of 6-6 skilled athletes who can play multiple positions,” he said.
The two point guards will each bring a different look, literally, with the 5-8 Washington and the 6-7 Brunson.
“It gives us a good 1-2 punch, but both being freshmen they are going to have some up-and-down moments,” Marquis said.
The Apache Ladies are picked to finish right behind top-ranked Trinity Valley in the Region XIV Conference. It’s easy to see why, with a sophomore-laden team coming off a 23-win season.
The biggest offseason question was whether 5-8 guard Markisha Hawkins, an honorable mention All-American, would return to TJC or sign with an NCAA Division I school. She made one unofficial visit to the University of Kansas, but Tyler was never far from her thoughts.
“Really, my coach made me decide to come back another year,” said Hawkins, who averaged 17.8 points and 6.8 rebounds last season while playing anything from point guard to forward. “We were talking about it during the summer and we were getting new players, and (coach Trenia Jones) said she liked them a lot. So I decided to come back another year.”
The other returning sophomores — all with key experience — are 6-1 guard Ericka House (Hot Springs, Ark.), 5-6 point guard Amber Ames (Corsicana), 5-9 forward Ashley Benjamin (Houston), 5-10 forward Meghan Forest (Denton), 6-1 forward Cecilia Okoye (Mansfield) and 6-2 center Jasmine Davis (Hot Springs, Ark.). Another sophomore, starting point guard Shawnee Johnson (Houston), transferred from Ranger College.
Jones calls having so much talent back a “blessing and a curse.”
“You hope that they will play off their success from last year, but then you worry about them getting comfortable or them thinking they already have positions set or playing time set,” said Jones, in her 12th year. “You just don’t want them to become complacent.”
Even with all the veterans, Jones listed only two returning players in the starting lineup for Friday’s opener at Odessa College — Hawkins and Okoye, who averaged 11.4 points and 6.1 rebounds as a freshman.
“We’re a totally different ballclub than we were last year … even with seven girls back,” Jones said. “We pretty much fed off (point guard Latika Smith) last year. Now we’ve got bigger post players, we don’t have a Latika Smith, but we have better guard play.”
Keaira Arion, a 5-8 freshman from Beaumont Kelly Catholic, is expected to start at the two-guard while Kirbi Clark, a 6-2 freshman from Houston Madison, debuts at center.
Rounding out the freshmen are 5-6 point guard Kyia Williams (Calion, Ark.) and 6-1 forward Carolina Lopez (Colombia).
SMOKE SIGNALS: The Apaches are scheduled to play the Texas Riders at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wagstaff Gymnasium, followed by Southwestern Christian at 4 p.m. Saturday. … The Apache Ladies play Howard College in their second game at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Odessa Classic.