SIGNAL PEAK — With 34 titles since the inception of the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference in 1974-75, Central Arizona College has been the undisputed queen of women’s basketball in the ACCAC.
There have been challengers over the years, but no team has come close to matching the Vaqueras’ remarkable consistency. With CAC beginning its 40th season Wednesday night at Chandler-Gilbert, the expectations remain as high as ever.
While conference titles are a nice reward, the ultimate prize is the national championship. The Vaqueras have won four NJCAA titles, more than any Division I program except Trinity Valley, Texas.
Central and Trinity Valley reached the NJCAA final in 2013, with the Cardinals prevailing 83-71 for their seventh championship. CAC’s only other loss last season also came against Trinity Valley, which defeated the Vaqueras 66-63 on a neutral court in Midland, Texas, in mid-November. CAC and TVCC will renew their rivalry Nov. 14 on that same court.
This year’s preseason poll has the Cardinals ranked No. 1 and Central No. 2. If the ratings hold, the Vaqueras and Trinity Valley will meet in the title game for the fourth time. CAC won the first matchup in 1998 for its second NJCAA championship and lost to the Cardinals in 1999.
But the postseason is a long way off. Getting through the regular season is the first order of business for a team that returns five players from last year’s 32-2 group.
“My expectations are so high, especially with the talent we have,” said CAC coach Denise “Gooch” Cardenas, who is 156-15 in five seasons since replacing Hall of Famer Lin Laursen. “I don’t want to settle for second. The trick is getting better each day. We have to take care of the business at hand and not look too far ahead.”
The returning sophomores include 6-foot-2 forward Joymesia Howard, 6-4 forward Shea Brown and guards Paris Webb, Jamie Roe and Brianna Womack. Howard, selected to the NJCAA all-America second team, averaged 15.9 points with a .547 shooting percentage, 12.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals. Webb was the team’s point guard but played only four games before sustaining a knee injury. Roe averaged 5.1 points, 3.6 assists and 2.2 steals, Brown averaged 5.4 points and 4.4 rebounds, and Womack averaged 4.6 points.
“You have to have sophomore leadership to win a championship,” Cardenas said. “The fact that we have four who made it to the championship game is really good.”
Webb, Howard, Brown and Roe are projected starters, along with sophomore transfer Tia Levi-Dixon at guard. Freshmen Imari Brown, 6-4 JeZhe Newton, Anjenae Torrengo and Mauriana Clayton figure to be in the main rotation, and the roster also includes freshman Ariel Nelson.
“We’re athletic and we have a lot of people who can score,” Cardenas said. “But defense is going to be the key to our success. I know we can score; it’s going to be a matter if we can stop other teams from scoring.”
One rule change this season is the implementation of a 10-second limit to get the ball past the halfcourt line.
“I love it,” Cardenas said. “It’s no secret that we’re a pressing team, so it’s really going to help us.”
The Vaqueras went 20-0 in winning the ACCAC last season and is 105-1 in conference games under Cardenas, with the only loss coming in 2010-11 to co-champion Arizona Western. The Matadors (22-9, 14-6 ACCAC in 2012-13) are ranked No. 17 in the preseason poll.
The other Division I teams are Cochise (26-6, 16-4), which CAC defeated in the Region 1 title game, and Eastern Arizona (19-11, 12-8).
Among the Division II teams, Mesa (27-7, 15-5) is ranked No. 1 and Pima (17-15, 11-9) is No. 17 in the preseason poll.
“It’s good to have a strong conference,” Cardenas said. “You want it to be competitive because it helps all the way around.”
CAC started its season on the right foot, defeating Arizona Community College Athletic Conference foe Chandler-Gilbert 85-68 on the road Wednesday night. Howard, Levi-Dixon and Calyton paced the Vaqueras with 18 points apiece.
The Vaqueras face at least four ranked Division I teams in their next eight games, taking on No. 18 Midland, Texas, and No. 5 Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, Idaho; Trinity Valley, and Arizona Western in their Nov. 26 home opener.