Hoops star gets chance to join elite group of college frosh

Kayla MacKenzie earned three region Player of the Year awards during her basketball career at Glendale’s Raymond S. Kellis High School.

She set a 4A state record for points in a single game: 54.

She averaged 27 points a game last year, her senior season.

And she played in-your-face defense, snagging 18 steals in one game, also a state record.

And then she waited for a college to call.  And waited.

Finally, a small college in the heart of Oklahoma City came calling with an offer to play at the next level.  They were losing a couple of guards to graduation and they had noticed her stats that had been posted with an online recruiting service.

Oklahoma City University, with just over 2,000 undergraduates, is no bigger than many of the 5A high schools around Arizona.  The school is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

But its women’s basketball program is one of the best in the country.

MacKenzie’s new college coach, Rob Edmisson, said about her at the time of the signing in mid-July:  “We believe that her basketball talents will continue to help OCU stay as one of the best programs in the country.”

And he wasn’t just blowing smoke.

The OCU Stars finished last season with a 32-4 record, were the conference co-champions, and won the Sooner Athletic Conference Tournament for the third straight year.   Their 30-win season is the ninth in the last 12 years; all 12 years they posted 25 wins or better.

The Stars lost by two points in the final seconds in the national championship game with Union (Tenn.) University, trying for their second consecutive national title.

It’s not a big, glamorous D-I college.  But, at 5’7″, she doesn’t have the size to be a big-school target.  It’s also easy to get lost in the shuffle when you play for a small school that hasn’t been around long enough to build a tradition in the game.

But MacKenzie has a chance now to make an immediate impact at the next level.  If she does, she would join an impressive group of local basketball players who have excelled in their first year of college ball, making the coaches who took a chance on them look like geniuses.

All three players started their college careers last year, right here in AZ.

The player who got the most visibility last season was Amy Patton, a 5’10” guard that came out of McClintock High School in Tempe.  She didn’t have to settle for a small school since Northern Arizona University, a D-I program, scooped her up.  But it limited her exposure in the less-publicized Big Sky Conference.

Patton led McClintock to the state finals her senior year and was named the Arizona Republic Player of the Year.  And then the next year at NAU she became the second-leading scorer in the conference, was the fourth-best freshman scorer in the country, and was named the Big Sky Freshman of the Year.

And then there’s Samantha Murphy, who was the conference Player of the Year and conference 3-point champ while at Xavier Prep in Phoenix.  She got an offer from Grand Canyon University, a Christian-based college in Phoenix with a small on-campus population.

The 5’8″ guard exploded on the court her freshman year, leading the PacWest conference with 19 points a game and finishing the season among the leaders in 11 of 13 conference categories.  She was named the PacWest Player of the Year.

And we can’t forget Washington High School’s Olivia Major, who took her considerable talents to a town called Coolidge to play at the junior college level.

But not just any JUCO.  Central Arizona College has won five national championships, hs been to the national tournament 28 times, and hasn’t been beaten in conference play over the last 142 games.

Major, who took Washington to back-to-back state titles, proved right away that she belonged on a national power.  She finished her freshman year as the fourth-highest scorer in the nation at the JUCO level, averaging 21.4 points a game for the Vaqueras.

And the kid from Raymond S. Kellis High School is poised to continue the process next season.  Her coaches say, although she’s not a real vocal leader, she has a great work ethic and is very coachable.

She wants to learn more, they say, and keep improving her game.  Playing on a nationally-ranked team should allow her to do that.

So maybe it wasn’t just her gaudy stats that got the attention of the OCU coaching staff.  As a general rule, work ethic trumps talent.

Kayla MacKenzie evidently has both.  And somebody finally recognized it.

(Photo: Oklahoma City University Athletics)