The addition of a former local prep star to the Northern Arizona University women’s basketball coaching staff may be signaling a return to more emphasis on recruiting in-state players.
Head coach Loree Payne just added Olivia Lucero to her coaching staff, marking a return to Arizona of the former standout at Highland High School — and a return to the Lumberjack program, where she finished her two-year NAU career as one of the program’s top scorers.
NAU has always been viewed as a viable option for local high school basketball players who want to play at the Division I level, but unable to get recruited by the state’s Pac-12 teams in Tempe and Tucson. The Lumberjacks play in the Big Sky Conference, a smaller step up from the high school game, but still a D-I program.
Lucero will bring a local recruiting advantage to the NAU program since she knows the sports landscape in Arizona and knows which bushes to look under for undiscovered talent.
Neither Arizona State University or University of Arizona has a single local athlete on this season’s rosters.
And Payne, who took over the program in April of 2017, has been adding talent from all over the country to her roster, plus a couple of players from Canada and India. But few local athletes.
This year’s roster includes just two players with local roots. JJ Nakai is a Flagstaff native who played at Coconino High School, but didn’t transfer in to NAU until this season. A senior, she will have just one season with the ‘Jacks. Sentia Bryant, a four-year letter winner at Desert Ridge HS in Mesa, is a redshirt sophomore who did not play last season.
The addition of Lucero to the coaching staff may be a big help to an offense that needs to score more points. The ‘Jacks averaged 72.2 points a game, just a shade behind their opponents’ 72.4 average. They shot 41.6 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc.
Maybe Lucero’s mentoring can help improve those numbers. She is fifth on the NAU all-time list for career scoring average with 15.98 points a game and sixth in three-point percentage at 36.2.
Even more impressive, her 81.9 free-throw percentage ranks second-best in program history. An improvement over last year’s 75 percent average could mean a few extra wins in tight games this season.
Lucero is a native of Phoenix who played at the Gilbert high school, where she was a three-time All-City and All-Fiesta Region selection. She helped Highland to a 29-win season as a junior and a 32-3 record in her senior year, advancing to the state quarterfinals both years.
She started her college career at Loyola Marymount in California before transferring to NAU to finish her final two seasons in Flagstaff. Her senior season was one for the record books as she finished with 482 points, seventh-most in a single season in program history. And she knocked down 38 percent of her three-point efforts.
For the 25-year-old, this will be a big addition to her slim coaching resume. She spent half of the 2019-2020 season on the coaching staff of the women’s program at Chandler-Gilbert Community College before being elevated in March to head coach when Brian Rosario left to join the coaching staff at Pepperdine.
Earlier in the summer, the Maricopa County Community College District pushed women’s basketball back to the spring in response to the coronavirus, so before Lucero could get her head-coaching job into high gear, Payne called to offer her the NAU job.
Looking ahead to the season start, Payne suggested there may be a different approach to the offense for the coming season. “Rather than sometimes having a true post in, we have the opportunity to run a little bit more spread, uptemp, five-out,” she explained. “I feel like you will see a lot more guard-heavy offense.”
That means there will need to be more scoring from the perimeter. And that’s where Lucero comes in.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)