The first six weeks of the Yakima Valley College women’s basketball season must have felt like an eternity to Jenni Johnson.
The former Toppenish High School star is used to being at the center of the action, but due an eligibility issue, she had to sit out the first 10 games before she could suit up. As frustrating as that time off was for Johnson, she wasted no time making her presence felt.
The 5-foot-10 sophomore guard/forward immediately found her rhythm, scoring in double figures in each of her first six outings — including 27 points in her second game back — as the Yaks jumped out to a 15-4 start.
Despite coming off the bench for most of the season, Johnson led the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC) in scoring with 20.9 points per game and earned a spot on the NWAC East first team. She also shot 53.1 percent from the floor and 81 percent from the free-throw line.
“It was pretty hard to sit and watch games because my teammates kept telling me how much they missed me,” the 2018 Top-Hi graduate said. “But I was practicing with them the whole time, so when I finally got back out there, I was ready.”
The Yaks continued their winning ways, finishing 11-5 in conference play and 21-8 overall, earning the program’s first playoff berth under fourth-year head coach Adam Strom.
The NWAC Championships, scheduled for March 12-15, ultimately were canceled due to concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, but Johnson and her teammates still felt like they made the rest of the conference take notice this season.
“This was one of the best teams YVC has had in a while,” she said. “We had a lot of talent, and we were feeling really good about our chances going into the tournament. It was pretty heartbreaking when they canceled it, but there’s nothing we could do.”
This year’s team featured all but two players from the Yakima Valley, including Johnson’s former high school league rivals Chehalis Aleck (Wapato), Tarryn Hart (Wapato) and Kalli Willett (East Valley).
Others from the area included Nicole Rasmussen (West Valley), T’Mesh Mills (Yakama Tribal School), Nayha Mills (Yakama Tribal), Callie Delp (Zillah), Lexie Styles (Sunnyside), Yvette Lopez (Highland) and Jayleen Vasquez (Granger).
Most of the players have known each other for years, which only helped the Yaks’ team unity.
“We had really good chemistry on and off the court, and that was the biggest difference this year compared to my freshman year,” Johnson said. “We all got along well and everyone understood their role, which made the season a lot of fun.”
Strom and assistant coach Akil White — both former Lower Valley high school coaches — have developed strong relationships with programs around Central Washington, allowing players like Johnson to thrive in their own backyard.
Johnson, who will turn 20 in May, said she appreciates everything the YVC coaches have done to help her develop as a player. Now, she’s looking at some four-year schools in California and Oregon where she can continue her college career.
“I always felt like I could be a go-to player, but after sitting out the first part of the season, I didn’t want to come in and step on anyone’s toes,” she said. “But Adam kept telling me to be more selfish and take over games. Knowing that he trusted me like that really boosted my confidence.”
Johnson said she learned to become more aggressive this season, driving into the lane and getting to the line instead of settling for outside shots like last year, when she averaged 10.8 points per game.
She was just finding her groove before the NWAC tournament, scoring a career-high 36 points in the Yaks’ final home game against Wenatchee Valley on Feb. 26. Unfortunately, the Yaks will never know what might have been.
“The sophomores wanted to go out on our own terms, but it was still a good run,” she said.
Johnson is hopeful that she’ll have an opportunity to keep playing basketball, but once those days are behind her, she is planning to pursue a career in criminal justice. She could see herself working in federal law enforcement someday.
“I’ve always had an interest in investigative work,” she said. “Having grown up in the Yakima Valley, I’ve seen and heard a lot of things. It would be nice to be able to help.”