Clockwise from upper left: Rachel Friend signs to attend University of Antelope Valley in Lancaster, Calif. Driving to the basket. On defense. Rachel and teammates.
Capital High's Rachel Friend signs to attend and play basketball only one year after Antelope Valley University's women hoops program began
Only two decades old, the NAIA school is in Lancaster, Calif.
By ARNIE LESHIN
If Rachel Friend had signed up last year to attend Antelope Valley University, she would have been part of history-making at the NAIA D2 school in Lancaster, Calif.
A college that is only 20 years old, the Pioneers introduced women's basketball to its athletic program last season.
They brought in a seasoned head coach in Jason Pruitt, went 19-7 overall, 12-2 on their Pioneer Event Center (PEC) state-of-the-art home court, and even finished first in the regular season of the California Pacific Conference at 11-4.
So for the 6-foot Capital High graduate, Friend can look ahead to a new experience after she recently signed to attend AVU. She is happy to make her way to the west coast, excited to be taking advantage of what she's learned on the court as a Jaguar.
"I'm extremely happy for her," said her former head coach Dale Lucero at the signing. "I began as her coach seven games into my first season, she was a freshman and the game was new to her. She was about 5-10 at the time, she appeared nervous, but I loved the way she was anxious to learn, and how she wanted to improve."
Ditto for Friend in the only sport she plays.
"I'm totally excited over all this," she said. "Now I'm not looking back, only trying to get better. Now I can say it was great staying with the game and learning. This is a wonderful opportunity to go to college and play basketball, and I'm looking forward to being at Antelope Valley University."
In her initial campaign at Capital, she averaged three points a game, six rebounds, and two blocked shot. In 2014-15, she improved to five points per start, 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Once again, she upped her play as a junior six points a game, 8.1 off the boards, and 3.1 blocked shots.
"She had a solid senior season," Lucero said. "She led the state in rebounds with 10.2, averaged seven points per game, and had a whooping 5.3 blocks. She was so coachable, it was a pleasure to work with her."
At AVU, she will be mentored by Pruitt and his staff. Pruitt himself has been a high school and college coach for several years, and his overall record is impressive. In the first-ever contest for his Pioneers, they turned in a 76-72 win at Pepperdine University on October 29th of 2016. Following a 97-72 rout on the road over Occidental, they played their first game at home and lost, 87-80 to Biola University.
Despite its winning record and excellent start as the new conference entry, it was kind of a roller coaster ride for the team.
Example: It went from losing four in a row to winning five straight times, then there was yet four more defeats, a win, and a run of 10-straight victories to put it at 19-4 overall and 11-1 in conference.
But the season wound down with three straight setbacks that included a loss to California-Merced in the conference semis. The teams had split two games during the regular season, the Pioneers were the top seed and Cal-Merced the fourth.
"We were down 55-36 at the half," Pruitt said, "but rallied to within six points of the lead, and lost by 13. I expect us to be even better next season."
He should. The roster listed only one senior to go with eight juniors, two sophomores and six freshmen.
Friend will probably have to trade in her No. 33 for a new one, for it worn in the inaugural campaign by 6-2 freshman Alexis Budd, the tallest player in the lineup. With the exception of a player from Hawaii and another from Arizona, the Pioneers' roster was composed of all California natives.
When the energetic Pruitt first arrived, he announced he will hit the ground running on the recruiting trail.
And that included Rachel Friend from the Land of Enchantment as the school's first athlete from New Mexico. Because of this, it's still a history-maker for her.
It is California here I come for the Jaguar who earned it.