Central vs. Eastern women's basketball

Central Arizona’s Denali Hughes, right, screams out as she celebrates with her teammates after defeating Eastern Arizona on March 6, 2020, at George Young Activity Center.

SIGNAL PEAK — There is no benefit to having a “what-if” mentality.

That’s the attitude and approach Central Arizona College women’s basketball coach Denise “Gooch” Cardenas is taking into what promises to be the most interesting and challenging of her 13 years as head of the program.

On March 6, 2020, the Vaqueras qualified to compete at nationals for the first time since 2015. Trailing by five points entering the fourth quarter, they rallied to defeat Eastern Arizona 59-48 in the Division I Region 1 title game. As the No. 6 seed in the 24-team NJCAA Tournament, Central (28-3) was a viable contender to come away with the program’s fifth national championship.

The coronavirus pandemic derailed those plans and also delayed the start of a new season, which is set to begin Jan. 28. The Vaqueras are scheduled to play 15 games prior to the start of the postseason April 6.

“It was disappointing how last season ended because the girls worked so hard,” Cardenas said. “But we have to move on. To me [last season] was one of those things where everybody lost something in some way. Everyone was in the same boat.”

Central’s top three players in 2019-20 – first-team NJCAA all-America selection Ayanna Clark, all-America third-teamer Makayla Pippin and point guard Jenay Bojorquez have departed. But with four returners on the 10-player roster, the cupboard is far from bare.

Dealing with disruptions caused by coronavirus-related issues — which are almost to certain to arise — will be the major challenge, Cardenas said.

“Our focus is to keep everything afloat,” said Cardenas, whose overall record at CAC is 327-62 (.841). “Our motto is to find solutions and solve problems as they arise. It’s a strange year. The feeling is different. What we have to do changes daily.”

Central’s go-to player this season figures to be forward Denali Hughes, who was named to the all-Arizona Community College Athletic Conference third team last year. Hughes averaged 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals.

Also back are guards Mahogany Menefee (5.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 1.3 assists), Reyelle Frazier (3.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 1 assist) and Laney Lupe (1.5 points).

Hughes, Menefee and Frazier likely will be joined in the starting lineup by newcomers Shalyse Smith, a 6-foot-1 forward, and guard Senya Rabouin.

Rounding out the roster are guards Mia Ross, Napualani Tufaga and Miracle Brown, along with forward Seairra Hughes.

The Vaqueras did not begin practice until Jan. 4.

“That affects us huge, but the kids are sponges and taking everything in,” Cardenas said. “They’re willing to learn, and that’s exciting. I’m just glad to have the opportunity to continue to do what I love — to compete and help the girls better themselves.”

Central does not have any nonconference games and will face only four opponents during the regular season. The Vaqueras play Cochise, Arizona Western and Pima four times apiece and have three games against Eastern (the Jan. 26 game against the Gila Monsters was canceled).

“We’re going to know each other in and out, especially in the third and fourth games,” Cardenas said.

Fans will not be allowed to attend games due to coronavirus restrictions.