Sanders Coaches Thunderbirds to Hoops Success
12/16/2014 1:29:37 p.m. - Hobbs, NM. [Story courtesy of Ed Johnson/Albuquerque Journal Assistant Sports Editor - Friday, December 12, 2014]
Drew Sanders showed up in Hobbs eight basketball seasons ago, having retired from coaching junior college and high school ball in Oklahoma.
His thought was not to settle into cozy retirement. If that was the case, he would not have taken the job as coach of the New Mexico Junior College women’s program.
“It wasn’t very good,” Sanders said. “I think they won three games the year before.”
The Thunderbirds won only five games his first year, then 18 his second. But they have won two of the past three Western Junior College Athletic Conference titles outright and were co-champs in 2013. In 2012, they were 29-4 and finished fifth in the national tournament. They were 25-5 last year and a No. 15 seed in the NJCAA championships.
This year they are 12-1 and ranked 13th in the NJCAA.
“There’s no secret,” said Sanders, who is 149-79 at NMJC, was 145-70 at Eastern Oklahoma State and 340-169 as a high school coach. “It’s players. You’ve got to get better players. Then, when you get the players, you work very hard.”
With his credentials (he’s a member of the Oklahoma Girls Basketball Hall of Fame), Sanders has persuaded a variety of talented players to venture to Hobbs.
Since 2011, 23 of Sanders’ players have earned scholarships to four-year schools, including Kassandra Harris, a Cibola grad now at New Mexico State.
This year’s team includes two Brazilians – sophomore forward Angelica de Paulo (14.5 points a game, 6.0 rebounds) and freshman guard Alana da Silva (4.8 assists). Kelsey Criner, a sophomore guard from Dallas, averages 15.2 points and 3.8 assists a game.
“From a talent standpoint, I would say we’re very good,” Sanders said.
From a mental toughness and chemistry standpoint, we still have some building to do. You have to be mentally, emotionally tough to win this conference. I’m hoping we get there. We’re probably more talented than last year.”
Helping hone that talent is Sandia High grad Kendra Coveal, a former All-State player and an All-RMAC first-teamer for Adams State. Coveal was working as an assistant at Adams State last year when the head coach was released.
“She was looking for a job and we were looking for an assistant,” Sanders said. “Sometimes God smiles at the opportune time. Kendra has a great work ethic. She’s very intelligent, very organized. She’s great at all the day-to-day jobs that some people hate to do. Booking trips, meals, hotels. At a junior college, you have to do everything. Study hall, weight training, conditioning. She brings all of that.
“And as she’s learned my system, she’s better coaching on the floor. Not that my system always works, but it’s what we do.”
Sanders’ philosophy centers on defense. The Thunderbirds average 77.6 points a game but limit opponents to 41.6 a game, while holding them to 28.5 percent shooting.
“You’ve got to be good defensively,” Sanders said. “At times you can execute everything correctly on offense and the ball doesn’t go into the basket for whatever reason. What keeps you in the game is defense. Transition baskets are the easiest way to score.
“This particular club is very, very good defensively. Very athletic. Good team speed. We transition really well. We can extend our defense and apply good ball pressure. We force people out of their comfort zone.”
So, is the goal to go to Salina, Kan., home of the NJCAA Tournament?
“No,” Sanders said. “The goal is to win at Salina, Kan. I don’t want to just get there. I want to win the dang thing.”
[Photo: New Mexico Junior College women’s basketball head coach Drew Sanders cuts the net after his Thunderbirds won the 2014 regional tournament.]