Basketball is a team sport, but individual honors are nice.
Two college seniors from Vancouver had their eyes on having the kind of final season that their conferences’ coaches would honor as the best.
That dream came true for both of them.
Heritage High School graduate Keisha Gordon on Thursday was named Player of the Year for the NCAA Division III Northwest Conference. Three days later, Fort Vancouver High School graduate Jessalyn Jackson garnered the same award for the NAIA Division II Cascade Collegiate Conference.
While George Fox University’s Gordon, a 5-foot-10 wing, and Northwest University’s Jackson, a 6-foot post player, attended different high schools, they were youth basketball teammates starting as second graders and played together in summer leagues during high school.
A listener could almost see them both light up when they were asked about each other Monday by telephone.
“I thought that was so cool,” Gordon said. “It’s funny because we were playing together in YMCA ball, and I think that at that time, I was taller than her. I’ve definitely been following them, and she had such a great year. I’m so happy for her and everything that she’s got to experience and achieve. It’s just so great knowing someone as a friend and someone I played with in summers before. She’s a great person and a great athlete, and I’m just really happy for her.”
And vice versa.
“Oh, wow. That’s awesome,” Jackson said. “We played together for a really long time then both kind of went our separate ways, but that’s really cool. We were on the same team for a long time. I always had respect for her as a player because she’s always been great. I don’t know a lot about their conference, but she’s always been a stand-up person, for one, and then just an amazing basketball player.”
Gordon is the Newberg, Ore., school’s all-time leader in career scoring (1,664 points) and steals (278), and is fourth in assists (326) and ninth in rebounds (716). She was Second Team All-NWC as a freshman and First Team each of the past three seasons.
Her selection may not be much of a surprise, but getting the news still seemed unreal.
“I was taking a nap and I woke up to a text saying congrats for Player of the Year, and I was kind of confused at first,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or if it was real. It’s really cool that I got that my senior year. Obviously, I want something more than that I want that championship but I think it was really cool to get. I’m really happy.
"I remember thinking over summer that it’s my last year playing college basketball, and I remember thinking as I was training last summer that I want it to be memorable. Why wouldn’t I be able to get it? But during the season, it’s not something you think about on the court like, ‘I need to do this and this and this to get Player of the Year.’ It was surprising, but really exciting. It’s such an honor, because there are a lot of great players in our conference, so I really feel honored to get that award.”
George Fox is the NWC powerhouse, with a national championship and two Elite Eight appearances in Gordon’s first three seasons and a sixth consecutive conference title this season.
“That championship” which Gordon wants would be another undefeated national crown that would serve as a nice bookend to the one she helped win as a freshman.
The Bruins (27-0) are ranked No. 3 by both D3hoops.com and in the USA Today/ESPN/Women’s Basketball Coaches Association poll. GFU is hosting games in the first two rounds of the NCAA-III national tournament, with the Bruins facing California Lutheran (18-7) at 7 p.m. Friday. The second-round game is at 7 p.m. Saturday, with that winner advancing to the Sweet 16 at a site to be determined.
As far as individual glory goes, Gordon said there was a bit of relief last Thursday when she became the school’s all-time leading scorer.
“It’s kind of been this big whole hype thing that’s been going on,” she said. “I kind of just ignored it, but it was cool that it was at home — and now that it’s out of the way, there are a lot more important things going on.”
Gordon said the Bruins are peaking at the right time.
“This is the best time of the year, because we know that it could be our last game. I think things are going really well for us. I’m really excited about where we’re going.”
Jackson led the CCC in scoring (19.4 points a game), and topped all of NAIA in rebounding (11.6) and blocked shots (4.5) a game. She was second in NAIA in defensive rebounding (7.9 a game) and total blocks (104). She was All-CCC Honorable Mention as a sophomore and First Team as a junior, and she completed her collegiate career at the Kirkland school with 1,327 points, 851 rebonds and 299 blocks.
Last summer, Jackson and the Eagles’ other returning players wrote down their goals for the upcoming season. Her No. 1 individual goal was to be Player of the Year.
While she posted big numbers, the Eagles finished 11-16 with a loss in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
That led to some doubt.
“At the same time, even though I felt like I had a really good chance of getting it, our team finished middle of the pack, and usually an award like that goes to the No. 1 team,” Jackson said. “I guess it did come as a bit of a surprise, just because of how our team ended.”
Jackson suffered a knee injury at practice the day before the team’s regular season finale. She sat out that game, a close loss to The Evergreen State College, then scored two points in just eight minutes of play after re-injuring the knee during the team’s season-ending Feb. 21 playoff loss at Eastern Oregon.
“That was really hard for me, and disappointing on so many levels, just to have to sit out and watch my teammates struggle,” Jackson said.
After a year of rehabilitation and training, she hopes to pursue a basketball career overseas.