It looks like those days are fast fading when Grand Canyon University could be counted on to provide a landing spot for girl basketball players graduating from Arizona high schools, giving them a legitimate option once they were passed over by the three larger, more-established programs in the state. Playing for GCU meant being able to get a good college education while staying at home where they could play in front of family and friends.
But that was when the small Christian college in west Phoenix was a Division II program. Four years ago, the school began a transition process to move up to D-I. That transition period is over now and this coming season will be the school’s first as a full-fledged D-I program.
And with that new start comes a new head coach as Nicole Powell takes over to lead the school into a new era.
One look at Powell’s first recruiting class gives a good idea as to how she will be building the program. Evidently, it won’t be by using in-state talent. None of the five in this class came from a high school within Arizona’s borders.
At one point, the GCU program carried seven in-state recruits on its 11-player roster. That was six years ago when the Antelopes set a school record with 29 wins and advanced in the NCAA D-II Tournament to the Sweet Sixteen round.
The program at that time relied heavily on a deep pool of talent from around the state to fill its rosters, and that local talent enabled the school to thrive at the D-II level. Then-head coach Trent May led his teams to national rankings in multiple seasons and advanced to the NCAA Tournament five times, which earned him Pacific West Conference Coach of the Year honors four times.
May, too, had to begin stocking up on out-of-state talent as GCU entered the four-year transition period and began competing with D-I teams. By the 2013-14 season, his roster carried just two local players, and he tried bringing in more transfers with college experience.
He was let go in March after a couple of mediocre seasons. On his way out the door, May turned over a returning roster that includes two local recruits. Casey Rarrick is a redshirt junior from Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School who started 17 games in her guard position last season, finishing as the team’s three-point leader. Vanessa Murphy is a 6’1″ sophomore post player from Xavier Prep in Phoenix whose contributions came off the bench, playing in 19 games and starting one.
But Powell, a Mountain Pointe High School (Phoenix) star and college All-American who also spent 11 years in the WNBA, has made it clear the foundation for the future will be laid by casting a wide recruiting net. Her first class has been drawn from four of the usual ‘hot-bed’ states that are loaded with hoops talent, and even stretched to Canada.
The 2017 Class includes:
Camille Hailey, a 5’9″ point guard from Los Angeles who was the No. 18-ranked recruit in California and No. 61 in the nation.
Taylor Howard, a 5’11” guard from Houston, Texas, who was voted Houston’s Top Girls Basketball Player entering the 2016-17 season.
Payton Paro, another addition to the back court, this time from Tampa, Fla. The 5’9″ swing player (G/F) holds career records at Plant High School for games played and blocks, and also ranks second in career points with 1,335.
Florence Tshimanga, a 6’3″ forward/center from Montreal, Quebec, who averaged 9.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.6 blocks as a senior.
Myra Williams, a 5’10” forward from Detroit, Mich., who was ranked No. 15 in Oakland County last year after averaging 10.4 points and five rebounds.
Is there a blue-chipper in the bunch? No, but that comes with building a winning program that draws top talent. Right now, it’s all about finding the right pieces to the puzzle, players that fit Powell’s game plan for the rebuilding process.
But there isn’t any reason to believe that kind of player can’t be found in her own back yard. There are over 200 high schools in this state with girls’ basketball programs.
Hopefully, Powell’s recruiting path will take a turn inward as she continues to add more pieces to the puzzle.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)