FARMINGTON — Piedra Vista's Monique Russell took her game to another level during the 2015-2016 girls basketball season, and the coaching staff at Northern New Mexico College took notice.
After the high school season ended, NNMC invited Russell to a tryout where the senior proved to be the best player on the court. Soon after the tryout, the coaching staff offered her a spot on next season’s roster. And on Friday Russell signed a letter of intent to play for the Lady Eagles.
“I didn’t get a lot of looks (from other colleges), but they like me for the way I play and the way I am. That really caught my attention and made me want to go and try out. I really liked it there,” Russell said.
NNMC, which is in Española, competes in the Association of Independent Institutions of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The Lady Eagles finished the 2015-2016 season 11-20 under first-year head coach Tony Gallegos.
From her junior to senior year, the Piedra Vista guard improved her scoring — becoming one of the best 3-point shooters in the area while connecting on 38 percent from beyond the arc — and averaged 9.9 points per game. She also stepped up her play on defense, taking advantage of her length to harass opponents on the perimeter, contest shots and get her hands in the passing lanes while committing just 1.4 personal fouls per game.
“As a freshman, she came in and we loved her size and length, but talk about someone who improved her game every summer. She was always in the gym working on her jump shot and ended up becoming our best defensive player,” PV head coach Joe Reed said. “She deserves this. She worked extremely hard and improved her game enough to go to the next level.”
Russell’s work ethic during the offseason helped propel her to being voted one of the team’s two captains entering her senior season. She became a better leader, both on and off the court, and also broke free of her shyness to become a vocal leader on the team.
Russell said part of the reason for her extra dedication during the summer was a desire to take on a larger role for her final season at PV.
“I was tired of kind of being the second choice,” she said. “I told myself every day to keep going and bring up my game more so people would realize I could play, and it really showed at the end.”
The work paid off. Russell helped lead the Lady Panthers to a 17-10 record and a trip to The Pit for the 5A quarterfinals. And in the final seconds, trailing No. 1 seed Gallup 66-63, the Lady Panthers put the ball in Russell’s hands. But her 3-pointer at the buzzer hit off the back off the rim to give Gallup the win.
Russell’s play during the season caught the eye of NNMC’s Gallegos the first time he saw her play.
“Initially, we were called by another coach to come and check out some kids in Santa Fe, and immediately when I saw her play I said to coach (Montoya), ‘This is somebody who could fit into our program,'” Gallegos said. “She’s long, has very good defensive skills, and every time she was bringing the ball up the court she had her head up and kept her eye on everything that was going on.”
Gallegos said when Russell attended the tryout session, she “played at a level above everyone else at the guard position.”
Gallegos added that Russell fits the team’s style of play perfectly and will be in position to compete for a starting position in the Lady Eagles’ back court as a freshman. And if she doesn’t crack the starting five, he expects her to see significant minutes off the bench.
Moving up to the college ranks, Russell will need to add strength, which will help her better finish through contact and improve her stamina while shooting from long range. It will also help her maintain her high level of play on the defensive side of the ball against bigger competition.
Russell said she plans to major in environmental engineering at NNMC.
And as far as finding motivation to keep improving, Russell doesn’t have to think back far to find it, remembering the final shot she took in a PV jersey.
“I’m going to remember that last shot that I took,” Russell said, “and I’m going to keep working so if I ever get that shot again I’ll make it.”
Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.