COLUMBIA — After struggling to adjust to the pace of college basketball during the first half of the season, Columbia College freshman forward Jessica James has been playing well lately.
Fans from all over town have been taking notice of James’ strong play.
“J.J. (James) has been doing so good lately that she’s been pulling fans from other schools, particularly from Stevens,” senior foward Megan Archuleta said. “This one time, this random girl came up and made a huge sign for J.J. She was so embarrassed.”
James has been in the starting lineup the past four games. She has averaged 8.25 points, while helping the Cougars win three of those games. James scored a career-high 14 points in a win over Missouri Baptist on Feb. 5.
Her recent success is a testament to the improvement that James has made this season.
James came to Columbia College after starting every game of her four-year career at North Platte High School. At the beginning of the season, however, James struggled to adjust to a new role and a new coach.
“She was just coming in and struggling with what role she was going to have,” coach Mike Davis said. “I don’t think she had ever been in quite this intense of a situation.”
At first, the adjustments James needed to make both on the court and in the classroom overwhelmed her. A poor grade on her first exam and the intensity of the first few practices had James doubting herself.
“I got yelled at a lot first semester,” James said. “At first I was kind of like ‘Man, what did I get myself into?’”
The low point of the season for James came during Christmas break. Because the team did not have any games scheduled, Davis put his players through an intense week of practices. James said that she felt the coach was singling her out.
“We were coming off a loss, and I was on the baseline running back and forth for almost an hour straight because I kept screwing up in the drills,” James said.
But rather than let it get her down, James used her challenging week as a source of inspiration. Both James and Davis said they see the week of intense practices as the turning point in James’ season.
“I think it took until Christmas time for her to understand that ‘Hey, I need to be out there playing and need to work harder,’” Davis said. “Once she did that, her level of play changed instantly.”
James credits Archuleta with helping her through her struggles. James said that Archuleta told her to keep her head up and keep working hard.
Columbia College started the season with three freshman on its roster, but two of them, Tammy Thomas and Tabitha Davis, quit halfway through the season, leaving James as the only freshman on the team.
Once again, James tried to take something positive from a negative situation.
“That just gives me more opportunity,” James said. “There are more roles to fill.”
James’ hard work led to better performances in practice, and coach Davis made the decision to insert her in the starting lineup.
Although she said that she was not nervous about starting, James was surprised about receiving the opportunity.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all, just because of my first semester struggles,” James said. “I never would have thought that I’d be starting.”
Davis has been especially pleased with James’ ability to score in the post. He said that she forces opposing defenses to make adjustments because she is left-handed.
While she has come a long way, there is still room for James to make further improvement as Columbia College works toward its goal of qualifying for the NAIA National Tournament.
“She’s improving, and that’s what we need her to keep doing,” Davis said.