Jan. 27—ROCHESTER — One year ago, the Rochester Community and Technical College women's basketball team finished in some rare air.
For just the second time in school history, RCTC won the women's NJCAA Division III national championship.
Now, here the Yellowjackets are again, two-thirds into this season and favored to win a national title for the second straight year. That's despite a massive overhaul from last season, with just one returning starter, center Jada James
Gone are a cast of six who played for an unprecedented third season at RCTC, that allowance thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Included were two All-Americans, Olivia Christianson and Mya Ruzek, and another who led the nation in assists, Ravyn Miles.
Not only was this a talented group but an incredibly tight one, even taking vacations together.
But thanks especially to this year's glue, the sturdy James, and a coach who has quickly shown the kind of chops rarely witnessed from someone in just his fourth year on the job, Jason Bonde, that off-season overhaul has been mostly seamless.
The Yellowjackets, 15-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country in Division III Junior College, are on a near par with last year's team.
That's saying something.
"I didn't quite expect this, but we knew that we had some talent coming in," Bonde said. "But there was the unknown of only having three players back from a year ago, Jada James (St. Paul), Sophie Andring (Eyota) and Janae Bennett (Brooklyn Park). And Jada was the only one among them who'd played a ton of minutes. But Sophie and Janae had to go against two All-Americans everyday in practice, so I knew they could make strides and get better."
They have, and freshmen such as point guard Macaya Copeland (Minnetonka), and guards Cassidy Shute (Austin) and Aniyah Reuben (Brooklyn Park) have given the team a serious jolt of talent, particularly as shooters. Toss in the forceful abilities of James down low (13 points, eight rebounds per game), plus the immediate get-along nature of this group and there it is — RCTC is the team to beat all over again.
These Yellowjackets are lapping it up. They're doing it while aided by a housing situation that has them spread out among three residences, all within walking distance of each other.
They've become close to inseparable and with some wonderful meals together often courtesy of the cooking of RCTC assistant coach Jaide Pressley.
"She's a great cook," James said. "I love her food. I absolutely love it. After we eat, we'll watch a TV show or play fun little card games. We do it just so everybody gets involved. It's very important to connect outside of basketball because it helps with our chemistry and everything on the court."
Bonde goes out of his way each season to meld players as quickly as possible. With the constant turnaround inherent with junior college sports, every year demands lots of introductions.
Bonde stresses the importance of his players hanging out together, encouraging them to do it in small groups to begin with in order to really get to know one another.
With such a mix of city and small-town players every year on his teams, cultures have to mix. Under Bonde, that's gone well.
"Honestly, it's just fun," said Andring, who scores 14 points per game and is one of five Yellowjackets averaging double figures. "Bonde makes basketball fun. It's just fun to play with my teammates; we all share the ball. We're all having a good time out there. And even off the court, we're super close."
James began this season feeling pressure. That had nothing to do with her basketball abilities. She'd already established herself as a force a year ago when she averaged 10 points and seven rebounds. The stress came from being the team's lone returning starter and knowing that leadership responsibilities would follow.
Mostly, she's adjusted nicely to her new role.
"It's a little bit difficult for me because I'm learning to be a leader for this team and help guide them in new ways," James said. "That can be a little bit hard at times, but it has also been fun. Last year was easier because I didn't have that (leadership) load on me. But I'm not too surprised at how well we're doing because we hold ourselves to a high standard in this program. We know we have to come in and work hard."
Bonde has been thrilled with what he's gotten from James, on and off the court.
"We go as Jada goes," Bonde said. "She's our leader."
At just 5-foot-9 but extremely strong and with great hands and a soft finishing touch around the basket, James can almost never be stopped one on one. So, teams double-team her, which opens operating room for the rest of her teammates.
They've taken full advantage. Open shots are going in at a wonderful rate for RCTC. The Yellowjackets shoot 46% from the field, including a lofty 37% on 3-pointers.
The ever-smiling Copeland, a smooth and quick point guard who played a big role on Minnetonka's strong team last year, leads RCTC in scoring at 17 ppg. Next is Andring (14), followed by James (13), Shute (12) and Reuben (11).
Getting Copeland to come RCTC's way was a big deal for Bonde. The more he wins games and last year a national title, the easier it's become to land more high-profile players such as Copeland, who was recruited by some Division I junior colleges.
"It wasn't a surprise to me to get her," Bonde said. "The only reason we got her is because we have good players. We're not afraid to go after players who could maybe go some other place. That's why we've had the success we've had of late. It's the talent we have on these teams."
Copeland has had no complaints about her college choice.
"I love being around this group of girls," she said. "They're like a second family to me."