Kelli Jennings

Kelli Jennings

ENID, Okla. — Kelli Jennings has Jan. 7 circled on her calendar.

That’s when the first-year NOC Enid women’s basketball coach wlll welcome her team back for the first time since the Thanksgiving break.

The restrictions COVID-19 has put on junior college basketball programs (no games until Jan. 23 for the Lady Jets) has been especially hard on Jennings, who is making the transition from high school (Okarche) to college.

“Frustrating is a good word,’’ Jennings said. “We can’t find a groove because you’re in quarantine or in a two-month break. It’s been interesting and frustrating for sure.’’

Jennings estimates the Lady Jets have had about 10 practices where all the players were there and healthy. Like the men, NOC Enid started in small groups and worked up to full squads. A couple of players tested positive during the first semester but Jennings said her team is safe and fully recovered.

The Lady Jets did get to scrimmage Seminole on Nov. 16 before going on the Thanksgiving break

“It wasn’t bad at all,’’ Jennings said of the scrimmage. “All of the quarters came out with us tied or ahead, but the score doesn’t matter in a scrimmage. You need to find out what you need to get better at. The girls played hard. We did see where we need to improve in.’’

Jennings joked the Lady Jets need “to improve everywhere.’’

“We’re going to need time to put together chemistry on the floor,’’ she said. “Only time will give us a chance to do that. We have been working on our zone and more continuity and chemistry on the court. That will come with repetition.’’

A two-month break obviously is not good to develop that repetition and chemistry.

“You have to be flexible,’’ Jennings said. “We will have two weeks of practice before our first game (Jan. 23 against the Oklahoma Angels). We hope the girls are working out on their own and will be ready to work on a full season in 14 days.’’

The Lady Jets will have two-a-days after their return. Jennings encouraged her players to work out at their home high schools, if possible, during the break. She said she knows that isn’t necessarily possible.

“You never know what their families will feel about them going out,’’ Jennings said. “You want to keep everyone as safe as possible. They know what they need to be doing and hopefully, they will be doing those things. We were at a good spot when we went on the two-month break.’’

The Lady Jets returned four players with some starting experience from last year’s 21-9 team that lost to Murray State in the Region 2 finals — guard Tonijah Fortune (7.2 ppg), guard Abbey Phibbs (2.5 ppg), guard Madelyn Hankins (8.5) and center Lauren Wade (10.6 ppg).

Jennings emphasized all starting positions are still open and will be determined by who came back in the best shape after the break.

“I’m not someone who likes to single someone out this early,’’ she said. “We have had several girls who have been working hard. We’ll see who the standouts are when we get back. I keep telling the girls all the time that the hardest working ones are going to start. They got to prove that in the 14 days we have before the first game. We’re going to start the girls who bust their butts and find everything they can.’’

NOC Enid has stayed fairly injury-free except for freshman guard Sydnee Vanderburg, who re-injured a knee. Jennings said she hopes to have her back by February.

Jennings is adjusting to coaching college players for the first time. Most of the Lady Jets came from 5A and 6A schools, while all of Jennings’ experiences came at smaller schools (Okarche, OBA and Medford).

“It’s been great getting to know them and starting to recruit for next year,’’ she said. “Basketball is basketball. The hardest part is them not going home to their parents. You have to have the team accountable and making good decisions. They have to hold each other accountable. You hope you have taught them what they need to know and make good decisions. You want to keep them working hard and give everything they can so when they leave (on break) and are on their own, they will do good and productive things.’’

Jennings, like her days at Okarche and OBA, is emphasizing defense first.

“The time we have had together we have been able to get some things down, but not as much as we would like so far,’’ she said. “You have to take what you can get this year.’’

Jennings has been studying videos from last season to watch Oklahoma Athletic Conference opponents and try to figure out opposing coaches strategies. She also has gone to several high school games to evaluate possible future players.

“You do what you can,’’ she said. “The first semester was hard because we didn’t have a game. That makes it hard to get in a groove. It’s extremely hard to motivate 18- or 19-year-olds when you don’t have a game for three or four months. Every team is in the same boat. We’ll work hard and see if we have success.’’

Jennings, though, has no regrets for taking the NOC- Enid job. She had been commuting an hour one way while coaching at Okarche and still living in Enid.

“I really miss those girls from Okarche,’’ she said. “It’s hard to leave a place that I really love. It’s been tough, but I’m so grateful I got this opportunity. I’ve enjoyed watching my old team play games and be competitive, but I’m grateful where I am. I don’t have to worry about driving an hour in possible snow and ice. My husband (Bradley) always worried about that.’’

The Lady Jets host the Oklahoma Angels at 2 p.m. Jan. 23 and the Mid-America Christian JV at 5 p.m. Jan. 27 before opening the conference season at Eastern Oklahoma on Feb. 1.

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Campbell is a former sports writer and current part-time writer for the News & Eagle,

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Graduate of Oklahoma City John Marshall (1972) and University of Oklahoma. Been at News & Eagle since June 19, 1978. Previously worked at Oklahoma Journal, Midland, Texas Reporter & Telegram, Norman Transcript, Elk City Daily News

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