Reinvigorated Clark women's team ready for postseason

Penguins have won 13 of their past 16 games

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

Published:

 

There was a new coach with a new system, and one of the top players on the team was not eligible for the first nine games of the season.

No wonder it took some time for the Clark College women's basketball team to find its rhythm.

NWAACC Tournament

Clark women vs. Whatcom College, 10 p.m. Saturday at Toyota Center, Kennewick

The Penguins (15-11) are not looking back at November and December now. Instead, they have figured out their game and are chasing a championship.

After finishing the regular season with 13 wins in their past 16 games, Clark opens the first round of the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges tournament at 10 p.m. tonight in Kennewick against Whatcom College of Bellingham. The 16-team, double-elimination tournament runs Saturday through Tuesday.

"We're not going over there to make an appearance. We're going there to try to win it," coach Al Aldridge told his players after Thursday's practice at Clark College.

That would make for a remarkable turnaround for a team that started the season 2-8.

Things turned in Clark's direction when Dominique Johnson became eligible to play in late December. Another key contributor, Tanya Martin, joined the team, as well.

Johnson would go on to earn first-team honors for the nine-team NWAACC's Western Division. Toni Doroha was second team. Ashlie Nguyen was named to the all-defensive squad.

Aldridge said Nicolette Bond, who was instrumental in that first month, became even more productive on offense because "she didn't have to do it all."

Help had arrived, the players and the coach got to know each other more, and then it happened.

Every Penguin had a great game at the same time. The result: A 115-18 victory over South Puget Sound. A 2-8 team at the time, the Penguins opened division play with a 97-point victory.

"It was a confidence booster," Johnson said. "We felt like a brand new team."

Surely, South Puget Sound was not a good team; the Clippers finished the season 2-22. But remember, Clark was not so good at the time, either.

That night, though, the Penguins had five women in double figures. Bond and Johnson each scored 23. Bond had six 3-pointers, Johnson connected on five. The team shot 63 percent from the floor. Just as impressive, all 11 who played recorded at least one assist.

"This place was electric. We were on fire," Aldridge said. "All the pent-up frustration and anger of losing and goals not being met, and all of a sudden, everybody broke out at the same time. Confidence soared after that."

Johnson said right after that game, there was a feeling that this team was about to become a team. The Penguins ended up winning five of six before losing a one-point game to eventual West champion Centralia.

"We were so close," Johnson said. "That game, we knew we were good enough."

Johnson made up for lost time, finishing the regular season averaging 21 points per game. A 5-foot-7 guard, she shot 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range.

Kind of like how she played in high school.

Johnson was the Metro League MVP her senior year at Southridge of Beaverton, Ore., helping the Skyhawks win the Oregon big-school state title in 2010. Johnson was a part of three state title teams.

Her college career never really sparked until this season, though.

She redshirted her first season at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, then played 29 games last season, with 11 starts. She averaged 8.8 points per game but was not happy there.

"I don't think I fit in well with that program," she said. "Just not my style of school. I wanted to get back to the city and closer to my family."

She was not sure where she would end up, but then learned that Aldridge was leaving Prairie High School to coach at Clark.

"I heard he was a very successful coach," she said.

Johnson enrolled at Clark, but she did not have enough credits to be eligible when the season started.

"We knew. We knew she was good," Aldridge said. "She was tearing everybody up in practice. She just couldn't play in any games."

Johnson said that was a difficult stretch, watching her new team get off to a slow start as she waited for the green light. Now, she said, it was meant to be.

"That's the best part of it. We turned it around once we got everyone," Johnson said. "We finally just clicked together. No one thought we could, too. It was nice to prove them wrong."

This is Johnson's lone year of eligibility at Clark, having already played one season of college ball. She said she does not know where she will play next season, but the plan is to play.

For now, she is hoping for four more games with the Penguins.