Coming off an upset win over No. 13 Wichita Falls Rider on Tuesday, the Cooper girls basketball team is in the midst of a surprising resurgence under first-year coach Arsenio Geter.
At 21-8 overall, the Lady Cougars have already doubled last year’s win total. And at 3-1 in District 4-5A play, they’re in legitimate contention for their first district title in more than a decade.
At the heart of that rise has been a talented collection of girls who have bought in to a rapidly changing culture both on the court and inside the locker room. And at the heart of that team, Geter said, is junior guard/forward Jennika Willis.
Willis, who possesses one of the most versatile skill sets of any player in the Big Country, has been a steady producer for Geter and the Lady Coogs since the season tipped off in November. But her ability to stuff the stat sheet is only a small part of what she brings to the table.
“There’s a rock, there’s an anchor for every team, and it wouldn’t be hard to name her that person,” Geter said of Willis. “And not just with her basketball IQ and skill, but her leadership role, her personality.
“She just kind of brings everyone together.”
Willis, who has a personality as big as her game, has played a significant role in getting her team to where it is today. And that started when Geter was announced as the Lady Coogs’ new coach and introduced a new and ambitious set of goals for the program.
A key member for last year’s 10-19 squad as a sophomore, Willis bought in quickly to Geter’s vision and, through her work ethic and dedication, helped set a strong tone for her teammates to follow.
“A lot of these girls play multiple sports, so when they first came here to basketball, they hadn’t touched a basketball in a while,” Geter said. “She was one of the few that would come and shoot over the weekends outside of the program.
“So getting here and still having that leadership role from the previous year, she was one of the ones to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is what we need to start doing. This is where we need to start going. This is the direction we’re heading.’ We started off pretty rusty at the beginning of the year … and she was able to help get her teammates going in the right direction.”
Playing point guard since she was little, leadership has come naturally for Willis. Her on-court role has forced her to learn and know where her teammates are supposed to be in all situations, and her outgoing demeanor has made her an easy player to rally around.
But she hasn’t gotten to this point without work.
In addition to the hours of gym time she’s spent on her own honing the multi-faceted game she’s become known for, Willis attributes much of her growth to last year’s varsity experience.
“It helped a lot actually,” said the 5-foot-9 junior. “Last year as a sophomore, I was new to it. It was my first year playing varsity. So playing with older people who kind of knew what they were doing already helped me kind of push into that leading role.”
With those minutes and growing pains under her belt, Willis hit the ground running this season. And with the unique ability to contribute at any position on both ends of the court, she has made an impact in virtually every area imaginable.
Through the Lady Coogs’ first 29 games, Willis boasts averages of 8.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 2.6 assists per game. Those numbers include a career-best 27-point game last week against Wylie, which earned her praise from Lady Bulldog coach Amy Powell.
“She just really creates some mismatches,” the second-year Wylie coach said. “She’s a point guard that can post up and uses her body well, and she hit some really nice shots in transition.”
That type of all-around game has been a great asset for Geter.
“I’m very excited that she’s just a junior,” he said. “It’s good to know that she’s coming back. The idea that she can handle the ball and she can play down low, she can stretch you out, she can make you pack the paint, she’s the most versatile player that we have on our team.
“She’s a tall girl who can play inside and protect that paint, and she can stay in front of anybody outside on the perimeter. She’s a great shooter, a good ball handler. She’s the real deal, the whole package.”
Willis’ goal now is to use that skill set to help make this a truly historic season for the Cooper girls basketball program.
And while you might assume she’d be satisfied with the progress her team has made to this point, that assumption would be wrong.
Even after watching the Lady Coogs earn one of their biggest wins in program history, Willis has bigger things in mind.
“Not really because I feel like we still have a lot more to do,” said Willis, when asked if she felt the Lady Coogs were hitting their peak. “We’re capable to doing a lot more. And just setting more goals and trying to meet those goals helps us further our game.”