Old dogs don’t need to be taught new tricks. That’s the mentality for the Labette Cardinals this winter.
Ranked No. 7 in the NJCAA preseason polls and picked to finish second in the KJCCC, Labette’s roster of 13 women features only two freshmen. The rest are transfers or returning players.
It’s also one of Cardinals head coach Mitch Rolls’ most churned rosters in his tenure.
“Even though we have the high ranking, it’s almost a whole new team,” Rolls said. “We’re a fresh-faced group and it’ll be fun to see how things pan out once we get going into real games.”
Labette has five players that have earned All-KJCCC honors at its disposal — Jayla smith, Ishuana Hunter, Patricia Sosa Lora, Janiya Reed and Emery Maze. The latter earned honorable mention at Dodge City before transferring to the Cardinals.
“Even players like Ishuana or Jayla who have accolades, I’m telling everybody that it’s a clean slate,” Rolls said. “Anybody could be at the front or back of the depth chart depending on the week. It’s about constant accountability.”
The Cardinals have turned into a perennial power under Rolls, who enters his eighth season at the helm.
Hunter is the most experienced returner for the Cardinals. A third-year sophomore who’s battled injuries on-and-off, Hunter is a two-time NJCAA All-Star selection who averaged 10.4 points and 7.6 rebounds last year.
“Being the dynamic player she is, all we’re trying to do is add IQ and skillset,” Rolls said. “I don’t have to teach her how to score or rebound or work. The more she learns, the more she dominates. I think she’ll be a pro one day.”
Smith, who earned All-American honors two season ago for Labette then sat out last year, returns to the Cardinals’ rotation.
“She’s an anchor to the team,” Rolls said. “She can score without plays being drawn up. And she’s probably the best defender I’ve had. She’s a constant stat producer that makes winning plays. And she’s very unselfish.”
Reed was one of Labette’s more efficient scorers a year ago, averaging 9.9 points, despite battling a lower body injury all year.
“Her role is a lot bigger because she’s healthy now,” Rolls said. “She couldn’t play extended minutes last year. We had to do load management just to get through the season. But now she’s fully cleared. So I think she’ll surprise some people.”
Sosa Lora, who was 17 when she started her freshman campaign last year, led the Cardinals in rebounding.
“She was very close last year to being super dominant,” Rolls said. “She’ll get you double-digit rebounds and score in double-digits. She had trouble figuring out our defensive scheme last year. Little things like that, she has a grasp on now. She’s really opened my eyes in how she understands the gameplan.”
As for a newbie that will turn heads, look no further than Taliyah Rahman. A transfer from Shaw University, Rahman went to the same high school in Philadelphia as former KJCCC MVP Denijsha Wilson, who starred on the Cardinals team that won a conference title in 2020.
“She’s led us in scoring through all our scrimmages,” Rolls said. “She’s a tiny, 5-foot-3 guard. She’s got family ties to this program. In six scrimmages, she shot over 50% from the field. She’s a high-level talent.”
Others on Labette’s roster include Janai Smith (Philadelphia), Alexis Calderon (Chapel Hill, Texas), Wakiryah Daniels (Jonesboro, Arkansas), Nisea Burrell (Philadelphia), Mariah Curley (Midwest City, Oklahoma), Akiai Edouard (Winter Haven, Florida) and Kalyn Williams (Baton Rouge, Louisiana).
Labette’s schedule is littered with ranked opponents in non-conference play. CCBC Essex, ranked No. 3 and located in Maryland, comes to Parsons on Nov. 18.
The Cardinals will also faced Division I powers in Hutchinson, Eastern Oklahoma and Barton.
“I know for a fact that we have the hardest Division II schedule in the country,” Rolls said. “When I started scheduling seven years ago, I took the same approach. We want to play really good JUCO teams in our non-conference season. No coach wants film of a kid playing a JV. We might take a few losses and lose ranking. But I don’t shy away from good teams.”
No. 4 Johnson County is projected as the KJCCC favorite in the preseason poll. Highland and Kansas City Kansas are also receiving votes in the national rankings.
Labette’s women are the winningest program on the campus over the last five years. Rolls expects this latest iteration to keep the bar high.
“We want the ability to give ourselves a chance to compete with the best teams in the country and have a chance to get to the national tournament,” Rolls said. “That’s a standard and we’ve got to reach it.”
Labette opens the season on Tuesday with a home game against Washburn JV.