A powerhouse has been established at Labette.

Mitch Rolls is entering his fifth season as the Labette Cardinals’ women’s basketball head coach. In those five years, he’s turned a two-win team in his first year into one that is perennially ranked in the NJCAA polls. Going into 2019-20, the Cardinals are No. 11 in the preseason NJCAA Division II poll.

A year ago, Labette went 21-11 overall and finished second in the KJCCC regular season standings before losing in the semifinals of the Region VI Tournament for the third straight season.

“We’ve been lucky to have success the last few years,” Rolls said. “But in JUCO, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. There’s a lot of turnover with players and coaches. So it’s good that we got recognized in the preseason. But every year, you have to prove yourself all over again to stay there.” 

The Cardinals have plenty of notable returning sophomores from last year’s group, headlined by the only returning First Team All-KJCCC player in the conference in forward Jessica Martino.

The sophomore from New York City competed in the NJCAA All-Star Game over the summer and will be atop opponent’s scouting reports.

“We want to see consistency out of her,” Rolls said. “She’s almost done with her four-year choice, so that takes a lot of stuff off her mind.” 

However, Martino will likely miss the first few games of the season as she deals with a nagging injury sustained in the offseason.

“She’s got a minor injury she’s been dealing with for a few weeks now,” Rolls said. “She should be ready to go for most of the season. She’s going to continue rehab then she’ll be right back. We’ll take it really slowly with her.” 

Labette’s backcourt will mirror last season’s as Diamond Jones, Denijsha Wilson, Kymora Westerfield and Niagara Washington all are set for their second year in Parsons.

Those four guards combined to average 25.5 points per game a season ago.

“If we can guard the basketball and keep ourselves out of foul trouble,” Rolls said, “that’s what we’re preaching to them. We also want them to teach the culture to the freshmen and transfers. They have to set the standard.” 

Labette also gets an unexpected returner in the post in Angel Williams. A sophomore out of Tulsa, Williams played for the Cardinals in 2017-18 and averaged 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

“She totally refocused herself,” Rolls said. “She worked on her conditioning. She’s a strong post player that lacked endurance to play 10 minutes at a time. Now she can do that and is one of the most athletic bigs in the country. We have a legit on-the-block presence now.” 

Reinforcing Labette’s sophomore class are three transfers.

Continuing the Nigerian pipeline to the Labette program, Gift Sampson joins the team after spending last year at NJCAA Div. I Florida State Jacksonville where she averaged 8.3 points a night.

“She had a good freshman year and is committed to South Carolina Upstate, a Division I school, already,” Rolls said. “Now she just needs to have a good sophomore year and stay healthy.” 

Two KJCCC transfers also join Labette. Taylor Watkins out of Dallas played for Northwest Kansas Tech last year, while Jordan Chiles from Fort Worth, Texas, played at Neosho County.

Freshmen reinforcing Labette his year include Jayla Smith (Detroit), Shanice Uwase (Portland), Nicole Ajayi (Seattle), Jamie Moore (Baldwin, New York), Ariah Powell (Detroit) and Dedriona Pope (Palm Beach Gardens, Florida). 

Taking a look at the KJCCC Div. II ranks can be a daunting sight. Four of the six teams in the conference are ranked in the preseason top 15. Kansas City Kansas is the No. 1 team in the nation, followed by No. 8 Johnson County, No. 11 Labette and No. 12 Highland.

If the Cardinals want to get past the wall of the Region VI semifinals and find a berth into the national tournament, they’ll have to survive junior college basketball’s version of the Hunger Games.

“For us to finish second in the regular season the last two years, third the year before and not make it past the semifinals, yes it’s a letdown,” Rolls said. “But we’re playing top-level competition night in and night out. If you don’t have a little luck on your side, you can lose any night.” 

Labette opens the season at home on Saturday against Neosho County. Conference play for the Cardinals starts on Jan. 22 against Kansas City Kansas.

“We play hard, we defend and we try to be grittier than most teams,” Rolls said. “We’re not as big and don’t have the same funding. So we have a chip on our shoulder until we get to where we want to be.” 

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