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College Station seniors built foundation for girls basketball success
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College Station seniors built foundation for girls basketball success

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College Station vs. Waller

College Station's Na'layjah Johnson (14) drives past a Waller defender at College Station High School on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.

It’s been an amazing three seasons for the College Station girls basketball program, and the best could be yet to come.

The Lady Cougars (19-2, 13-0) clinched their third straight outright district title Tuesday with a 57-43 victory over Waller. College Station will play for its first perfect league season against Magnolia on Friday night to wrap up play in District 19-5A.

The Lady Cougars, ranked second in Class 5A by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, are vying to return to the state tournament, where they lost last year in the semifinals to Frisco Liberty 44-41 in overtime.

College Station is in position to match or top that despite graduating team co-MVPs Rebekah Hailey and Mia Rivers from last year’s squad. The Lady Cougars haven’t missed a dribble with a well-rounded team led by the largest senior class in program history. Point guard Na’layjah Johnson and guard Cornecia Thompson are rare four-year starters. They are complemented by guards Tanijah Richardson and Bianca Youlton and forward Love Ryberg.

“All five of them just have a certain chemistry,” College Station coach Megan Symank said. “They’ve been playing together such a long time that they’ve just been really an easy senior class [to coach]. They’ve got talent. They don’t bring a lot of drama. They just take care of business.”

Johnson and Thompson were cornerstones in a rebuilding process that started after the 2016-17 team won the program’s first district title led by key seniors. As freshmen, Johnson and Thompson combined for 32 points in a 74-50 bi-district loss to Ennis. College Station finished fourth in district that season and ended with a 12-22 record.

“They were primarily guards. They were good ballhandlers, good shooters as freshmen,” Symank said. “The following year we brought in Love as a post player. Then we brought in Tanijah and Bianca, who had been in the program the entire time — they had great success at the JV level.”

The team’s chemistry extended beyond basketball as most played Little League and volleyball together before reaching high school.

“I feel like we’ve been together for a very long time in different organizations like Little League,” Johnson said. “Our chemistry has been there since middle school, and we’ve had a lot of success between us. We just share a lot of memories. We started playing a lot of different sports, but once we got serious in high school, we just settled in on basketball.”

Johnson leads the team in scoring at 15.1 points per game, followed by junior Aliyah Collins (12.8) and sophomore Jaeden McMillin (11.8). The other seniors combine to average only 12.8 points per game but do plenty of little things to help the team.

“What makes it special is that we all individually have something that we’re really good at,” Johnson said. “We just come in every day and try to perfect our roles. We don’t try to do too much and do somebody else’s role, understanding where you stand on this team. It’s just basically playing for each other. I don’t think it’s just like one person. I think it takes all of us, no matter if you play one second or the entire game.”

Thompson calls Johnson the team’s clutch player. Last year, Johnson hit a 3-pointer against Cedar Park to force overtime in College Station’s regional championship victory.

“Every team needs a person who can hit 3s when you need them,” Thompson said.

Thompson uses power to complement Johnson’s perimeter touch.

“She’s our big bully on the court,” Johnson said. “When she’s out there, she’s going to eat you up on defense. And even on offense, she’s going to bully you to the basket. If you’re going to be weak on her, she’s going to score on you no matter what.”

Johnson also calls Thompson the team’s backbone.

“She can be serious at times, but she can be very playful,” Johnson said. “She knows when to do each.”

The 5-7 Ryberg (4.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg) averages 20 minutes per game, providing power and depth inside. Richardson makes the most out of her eight minutes a game.

“[Richardson] just brings a lot of energy,” Johnson said. “Whatever role she’s put in, she’s more than happy to do it. She just goes out there and plays hard every night no matter how many minutes or seconds she’s out there. She goes out there and plays her butt off each and every game.”

Youlton averages the fewest minutes of College Station’s seniors but manages to make a big impact.

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“She has a lot of integrity,” Johnson said. “She does everything right when no one is around. She keeps us accountable. She’s a leader no matter if she’s on the court or off the court. She’s going to correct us when we’re wrong. And she allows us to correct her when she’s wrong.”

Symank said every team needs a player like Youlton.

“She is such a special kid, because she’s such a hard worker and so selfless,” Symank said. “You really, really need players like that, especially for that senior leadership.”

This senior class is long on leadership, something Johnson and Thompson says starts with their coach.

“I feel like we all lead in our own way,” Johnson said. “Coach Symank always tells us we need to lead. No matter who you are or what role you play, you have to be a leader, because when your time comes, you have to get out there and perform and you never know when you’re time is. All of us are pretty much leaders on this team, and that’s what makes us have so much success.”

These seniors also had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic this season.

“We went through a COVID quarantine where we’ve all gone through it and recovered,” Symank said. “That put a big break in our December.”

The Lady Cougars missed the middle of December and weren’t afforded the luxury of playing nondistrict games to prepare for 19-5A play when they returned.

“It was kind of like finding ourselves again almost,” Symank said. “You’re playing district games trying to figure out who you are.”

Along with playing 10-12 less games than normal, the team missed bonding time afforded by traveling to early season tournaments.

The Lady Cougars have made the best of the situation.

“We’ve been going a full month now,” Symank said. “I’m seeing some of our best defensive games. We’re coming on really strong there. Offensively, we’re in the right spots. We’re figuring it out, but we’re just not quite as smooth and clean as I want us to be. I still think that’s OK, because we have a little time to develop.”

Mentally, College Station’s seniors have been preparing for the playoffs since walking off the court after losing to Frisco Liberty in the state semifinals last year.

“Getting to state, that was good, but we wanted to win,” Thompson said. “I really wanted a ring. I know everyone else did. Just getting there is not enough, because we obviously lost and we watched the team that beat us win. That just put in our hearts that we got to get there next year. That’s what we’re determined to do this year.”

It’s part of the program’s maturation.

Two years ago, the Lady Cougars couldn’t overcome a 20-point deficit and lost to Manvel 70-57 in their first regional semifinal appearance.

“The players returning from that team, that’s something that weighed heavily on them,” Symank said. “I truly believe it was a contributing factor to be able to pass the regional semis and to be able to play in a regional final and understand what’s next at stake.”

The Lady Cougars opted to stay in Aldine after that tough loss to Manvel and watch the regional championship.

“We went and watched the [finals] and bitterly watched another team cut down the nets and watched them go to state,” Symank said. “I think experiences like that are really important because the next year they wanted to be that team.”

Symank believes the senior class has learned from lessons like that one to fuel their success.

“They’ve used every experience and they’ve had to continue to grow our program and try to get to the next level and not just be satisfied,” Symank said. “That’s one thing that’s really special about this class. They carry that legacy and that tradition with a badge of honor, and they carry it well together.”

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