In her first three seasons with the Cal Poly Pomona women's basketball team, Stephanie Coons did not receive a lot of attention for her scoring and rebounding skills.
Of course, with players such as NCAA Division II All-American center Niki Bracken and All-California Collegiate Athletic Assn. forward Marcine Edmonds in the lineup, Coons wasn't expected to carry the team offensively.
But with Bracken and Edmonds using up their eligibility, Coons realized she would be asked to play a bigger role this season. And she has been more than equal to the challenge.
The 21-year-old senior has been the top scorer and rebounder for the Broncos and ranks among the leaders in the conference in both categories at 16 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Longtime Coach Darlene May thinks the former Wilson High of Hacienda Heights standout has made a strong case for the conference's most-valuable-player award.
"I'll guarantee you that if we win the conference (tournament) this year, she should be conference player of the year," May said. "Just look at what we lost and where we are now. I know there are some other good players in our conference, but just look at what she has done for us this season."
The Broncos have already clinched their 10th regular season title in a row and will play host to the conference postseason tournament starting Wednesday. From the perspective of Coons, it is simply a case of playing a different role this season.
"It's been a change to run down the floor looking to shoot instead of looking for Niki or Marcine," she said. "That wasn't my role last year. I was expected to score but I wasn't needed to score 15 to 20 points a game. This year it's different but if I only get rebounds or assists I'm happy, too, as long as I'm playing well."
May credits the improvement to the effort Coons has displayed in preparing for her final season in college.
"She worked extremely hard during the summer to improve her skills," May said. "She was in the gym every day and it has made a difference."
Coons said that with the arrival of assistant coach Paul Thomas and the team's switch from a half-court game to a more up-tempo approach, she realized conditioning would be important.
"I saw what we were going to do differently, so I knew I'd have to be in better shape and also work out with weights a little more," she said.
As a senior, Coons also realized that she would have to carry more of the leadership responsibility.
"I'm a leader on the floor but she (May) wanted me to be a leader off the floor, too," Coons said. "Once you get on the floor it comes naturally, but when I'm looked at to be a leader off the floor, I see that as a real honor. That's a harder kind of leadership to provide."
That is not the case once Coons takes the court.
"When I go to practice, I always give 110% and I'm always ready to work hard and you really can't help but attach yourself to that kind of approach to the game," she said. "When I work hard I try to set an example so maybe the younger players will benefit from it. I only have maybe a month of basketball left but they still have a long way to go."
Coons says she is concerned for the younger players on the team because she remembers how difficult it was when she first joined the Broncos after a brilliant high school career. Coons was a two-time Sierra League player of the year and made the All-Southern Section team in back-to-back seasons.
All the same, the transition from high school to college was a challenge.
"When you're a good player in high school, there's no challenge for you and you tend to get lazy," Coons said. "You come to college and you find there are a lot of good players and you get pushed hard. I didn't get yelled at in high school because I was a star player but in college you're just like everyone else."
It did not take long for Coons to discover the difference in her first game with the Broncos.
"When I played my first game as a freshman, I played about seven minutes and I just went home and cried," she said. "It was like before you were a big fish in a little pond but now you were a little fish. . . .
"That was really hard for me to adjust to because when I was in high school, I always knew I was going to play. But in college, as a freshman, here I was running plays that I had never even heard of. You think you reach a peak in high school but then you hit another valley in college. But when Coach May gave me playing time as a freshman that really gave me a lift."
As difficult as her freshman season was, Coons said it has beneficial to her development.
"I was definitely a role player," she said. "I'd go in for two minutes, usually to give someone a breather. But I was playing a lot as a freshman and it gave me a good experience. It left me with hope that I would play a lot in the future. So when I came in as a sophomore, I felt I had a lot of experience already."