NJCAALIVONIA, Michigan —  Kirkwood Community College (Iowa) and Schoolcraft Community College (Michigan) met in the Championship game last year.  Kirkwood C.C. came out on top, 62-38.  Kirkwood is the favorite again and has the number one ranking in the country.  In fact, they have won the last three years.  They are the National Junior College Athletic Association, women’s power house.

The NJCAA Division II National Tournament is the destination and the National Championship is the prize.  These two rivals could be on a collision course for this year’s title.

Twelve of the best women’s basketball teams in the country have qualified and Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Illinois will be the host.  

The event will be held at the Lorene Ramsey Gymnasium on the East Peoria Campus, March 17-20.

Kirkwood is again talented, besides being defending National Champions; they recently overwhelmed Southeast C.C. (Nebraska), 79-26 to get to the NJCAA finals.  On the season, Kirkwood is 34-1.

Kirkwood features two long range specialists, Kalli Hansen (67-3’s) and Staci Gillum (62-3’s).

But Schoolcraft has experience also and is peaking at the right time.  Said Coach Karen Lafata, “We beat a determined Owens C.C. (Toledo, Ohio), (74-64) in the District.  She added with a smile, “I am bringing my Polish-Italian heritage to Peoria. My Polish mother taught me well.  We will be intense and we will be prepared.  We have a balanced attack.  We were here last year, and that helps.”

This will be Lafata’s fourth trip to the finals.  The Detroit native and veteran coach is a Wayne State alumnus.  She previously coached at Macomb Community College.

A big highlight was Schoolcraft’s showcase performance at the District H Tournament in Toledo.  They won three games and sophomore Angela Burrell (Detroit Northwestern) was named MVP.  She shoots the three consistently, with 51 on the year.

Antania Shepherd (Detroit Cody) and Amber Avery (Southfield Lathrup) were also named to the NJCAA District H- All Tournament team.

Schoolcraft Community College (Livonia, Michigan), Coach Karen Lafata gets her Lady Ocelots ready during a recent timeout. They are 31-1, on the year and will compete in the NJCAA National Tournament in East Peoria, Illinois. PHOTO BY: Rena Laverty

Balance and consistent speed are the benchmark of Schoolcraft’s attack.  They play a penetrating wing offense, with the forwards slashing in toward the basket from the outside.  To have tournament success they will have to make their layups and get offensive rebounds.

The Lady Ocelots boast six double figure averages.  Besides Burrells’ 11 points a game they also have, Antania Shepherd-13, Amber Avery-12, April Goins-11 (Detroit Pershing), Kimberly Bee-10 (Detroit CMA), and Jasmine Brown-10 (Romulus H.S.).  As a team, they average 84 points.

On defense they don’t press much but are relentless in coverage.  The Lady Ocelots have that signature Coach Lafata trait: Everyone’s hands are up.  On the season they have averaged only giving up 54 points a game.

Schoolcraft sophomore, Emelda Chew (Detroit Northwestern) said, “Coach Lafata stresses team-team-team, she rotates us all and everyone contributes.  I have learned so much these past two seasons.”

Brown and Shepherd are both hitting over 70% at the foul line.

Said Brown, “Coach Lafata stresses foul shots.  My dad is a coach and I know how important it is to make foul shots.  And Amber (Avery) gives us a spark when we are down; she is our go-to girl.”

The Lady Ocelots also get quality minutes from three freshmen, guard Jalesa Moise (Plymouth H.S.), guard Elaina Mathis (Detroit CMA), and center Nakia Griffin (Livonia Churchill).  Freshman center Sarah Jury (Livonia Ladywood), compliments the playing time as the super-sub.

Schoolcraft’s only loss this year was to Delta C.C. on the road, in a Michigan Community College Athletic Association league game, 62-56.

The NJCAA Finals are a great platform to display talent as many Universities will have coaches and scouts in attendance.

Schoolcraft Athletic Director Sid Fox announced that Goins has recently signed a letter of intent to play for Florida Southern in Boca Rotan, Florida next season.  He added, “We take pride of our tradition at Schoolcraft to prepare our student-athletes for the next level.  They are true student-athletes.  Any program will be fortunate to have one of our Schoolcraft ladies. Coach Lafata prepares you for the future.”

On the bench, Lafata is assisted by Kevin Brathwaite and Marty Simmonds.  Kim Kotlewski is the certified trainer for the team.

Three teams from Illinois made it to the finals, Illinois Valley C.C. (Oglesby), Parkland College (Champaign) and Kankakee C.C. (Kankakee).

Lake Michigan C.C. (Benton Harbor) also made the tournament.  Another favorite will be Monroe College of New York,

There are also two undefeated schools, Baltimore City C.C. (Maryland) and Patrick Henry C.C. (Virginia).

The tourney bracket with game times will be available online and all the tournament games can be viewed on the web. Look for the “watch games” link on the tournament website www.icc.edu/njcaatournament.

The tournament is also hosting a charity event entitled, “Hoops for Haiti.” Throughout the festivities, representatives from the participating teams will have the opportunity to shoot a free throw for “Hoops for Haiti” sponsored by Azura, a campus women’s boutique.  If the free throw is good, Azura will donate $100 to Friends of the Children of Haiti.

This is the third year Illinois Central College will be hosting the national tournament.  I.C.C. was recently awarded another three-year host bid which will run through 2013.

Ironically, the I.C.C. women were ‘giant killers’ this year as they were the only team to beat Kirkwood and they also beat Kankakee C.C.

Deb Nikidemski of Grand Rapids Community College was named to the NJCAA District G- All Tournament Team.

District Champions and National Tournament Qualifiers

District A – Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ (25-7)
District B –  Johnson County CC, Kan. (30-3)
District C – Monroe College, Bronx, NY (24-5)
District D – Kankakee Comm. College, Kankakee, IL (30-2)
District E – Kirkwood Community College, Iowa (34-1)
District F – Bismarck State College, N.D. (25-6) 
District G – Lake Michigan College, Benton Harbor, MI (26-5)
District H – Schoolcraft College, Livonia, MI (31-1)
District I – Patrick Henry Comm. College, Martinsville, VA (19-0)
District J – Baltimore City Comm. College, Baltimore, MD (24-0)
District K – Illinois Valley Community College, Oglesby, IL (27-5)
District L – Parkland College, Champaign, IL (26-7)

NJCAA District G, All-Tournament Team
PLAYER TEAM
Rachel Striebich Edison (OH) CC
Taquweisha King Kellogg CC
Courtney Stocking Grand Rapids CC
Deb Nikodemski Grand Rapids CC
Katy Stuppy Lake Michigan College
MVP Tyecia Warren Lake Michigan College
Coach of the Year Jason Cooper Lake Michigan College

NJCAA District H, All-Tournament Team
PLAYER TEAM
Chanahl Putnam St. Clair County CC
Angela Ruelle Oakland CC
Brittany Darling Owens (OH) CC
Amber Avery Schoolcraft College
Antania Shephard Schoolcraft College
MVP Angela Burrell Schoolcraft College
Coach of the Year Karen Lafata Schoolcraft College

Raymond Rolak is a Michigan based Sports Broadcaster

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