DOUGLAS — Misty Opat’s first season as head coach of the Cochise College women’s basketball team is off to an interesting start as she, like many other coaches, has to adapt and adjust her coaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opat was hired in June to replace Laura Hughes, who stepped down after nine seasons to accept an administrative position at Cochise College.
Opat will make her debut as head coach of the Apaches women’s team Tuesday. Cochise heads to Tucson for a conference showdown with Pima Community College. Tipoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. The home opener is scheduled for Feb. 6 against defending Region 1 champion Central Arizona College.
“I’m ecstatic about this opportunity, so happy to be here,” Opat said. “Laura did a great job in her tenure here and I’m looking to build on that and maybe take it to new heights.”
Opat says she frequently talks to Hughes, who is still on campus, adding she has been helpful in the transition.
The coach added because of COVID-19 and the fact Cochise College did not allow students on campus until January significantly impacted how she dealt with her team during the fall. The athletes were allowed to report to campus shortly after the first of the year and underwent COVID testing and education about the do’s and don’ts before being allowed to start practice.
“We had Zoom calls every week and we had (the athletes) do daily check-ins with their workouts,” Opat said. “Overall I was very pleased with the kids’ engagement and their conditioning level once they got here.”
There is just one returner with game experience from last year’s team. Sophomore Sharon Preci from Savona, Italy, has been in quarantine in Italy and is expected to join the Apaches later this week. She will be COVID tested again and then go into quarantine for several days before being allowed to practice with the team.
Taylor Salazar from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who redshirted last year as she recovered from an ACL injury, also returns.
There are just nine players on the roster so depth is a concern.
One of the newcomers, Tatjana Tatar, from Toms River, New Jersey, is expected to make an immediate impact, Opat said.
Ajda Licina, a point guard from Podgorica, Montenegro, is feisty and aggressive, the coach added.
“I think we have a couple of solid point guards in her being one of them,” Opat said of Licina. “It’s possible you could see her and Tatar playing at the same time.”
Iyana Jenkins, a 6-foot-1 post player from Cleveland will be in the lineup.
“She might be the strongest player I’ve ever coached,” Opat said. “Once she gets it all figured out and put together she’s going to be a special player here at Cochise.”
India Perry from Indianapolis, is another good player who can get to the basket, the coach states.
Johniqua Smith from Chicago is expected to see time playing the No. 2 guard.
“Because of her stature she will also give us some minutes in the post,” the coach said.
Corina Suarez Tudela comes to Douglas from Spain and is a good shooter who handles the bll well, Opat said.
“She’s listed as a sophomore but will be back for another year since this year doesn’t count,” Opat said.
Sanaa Keeswood of Shiprock, New Mexico, comes to Cochise in great shape and is expected to be a major contributor.
“We’re going to be a little short handed this year but we’ll be alright if we can stay away from injuries,” the coach said.
Opat admitted not having any scrimmages or preseason games and starting the season with a conference game is a tough way to open the season but that’s something her team will simply have to adapt to.
“These kids are still in the process of learning the system and getting to know me, it’s kind of a baptism by fire,” Opat said.”We’re going to put our best foot out there.”
Prior to coming to Cochise, Opat was at Chicago State University, where she served two seasons as head coach for the women’s team. Before that, she spent 10 seasons at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., where she served as head women’s basketball coach and athletic director.
She led her team to four National Junior College Athletic Association Division III National Championships and seven consecutive North Central Community College Conference titles.
Opat says she is very aware of the talented teams that play in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference. They are respected by programs throughout the nation.
“I’m excited to now be coaching in this conference,” the coach said. “This is one of the premier conferences in junior college women’s basketball. We’re going to work hard day in and day out to compete for the opportunity to get to the national tournament. If we can get these kids to buy in and work hard we can make some noise here. We know the competition level is going to be great every night we step onto the floor.”
Schools in Maricopa County have opted not to play basketball this season leaving Pima, Eastern Arizona, Arizona Western, Central Arizona and Cochise to play this year for the ACCAC championship.
“I don’t think it’s going to be hard to keep everyone motivated,” Opat said. “I think the kids appreciate the fact we’re able to have a season. There are some schools who are not having a season this year. We’ve talked a lot about staying in our bubble and keeping our circle small, trying to do our best and do our part to get through the season.”
Opat plans on running an up-tempo offense and doing a lot of pressing.
“We’re going to look to score some off transition and get some layup buckets,” she said. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here and get the season started.”