WHEN THE PIMA College Aztec women's basketball team takes the floor tomorrow night in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference playoffs, it'll probably be the usual strange crowd out at the West Campus gym.
The ACCAC consists of 12 junior colleges, five in the Phoenix area, one in Tucson and the rest scattered around the state in such places as Holbrook, Thatcher and Douglas. Not surprisingly, these places have appreciable differences in everything from curricula to athletic success to crowd size and makeup.
Arizona Western in Yuma has rabid, corn-fed fans who park their tractors in the lot and then take their barnyard smell and attitude into the gym, where they snort and growl for their hometown Matadors. Not surprisingly, Western is the only school in the ACCAC that doesn't have a women's team.
The crowds are great at Eastern Arizona, also. In fact, all of the non-metropolitan schools have good fan followings. Cochise in Douglas, Central in Casa Grande, Northland Pioneer in Holbrook and Yavapai in Prescott all have large, enthusiastic crowds.
Meanwhile Pima plays home games in a metropolitan area of 700,000 people, all of whom have something better to do that particular night. The usual Pima crowd is maybe a couple hundred people, mostly friends and families of the players, a few high school players and coaches, and virtually no students.
At the remote colleges, students support their school teams, but at commute colleges like Pima, and in the Phoenix area, the students couldn't care less. In some such places, the students are downright hostile towards athletics.
There is no real hostility at Pima, just apathy. And it's really too bad. Coach Mike Lopez's men's team has been down this season, but Coach Susie Pulido's women's squad is one of the emerging powers of the ACCAC. Made up almost entirely of local players, the Lady Aztecs will be hosting a playoff game against the winner of last night's Scottsdale-Phoenix game, with the winner moving a step closer to the national championship tournament.
The Lady Aztecs are led by guards Linda Blanco of Sahuarita and Erin Carillo from Salpointe. When top-scorer Shelley Smith went down with a serious knee injury a few weeks back, Heather Young from CDO emerged as a force under the basket. This is the last game at Pima for this group and they deserve a big crowd. Not that they're going to get it.
One person who will be there is Doreen Hitterdal. She's there rain or shine, in pain or feeling fine.
Doreen's daughter, Angie Sather, is a starting forward for Pima and is one of the main reasons for Pima's success these past couple years. Angie is a hard-nosed ballplayer, a good athlete who has made herself special through hustle, determination and the willingness to do the dirty work of basketball--rebounding, setting screens and playing defense.
Angie played high school ball at Sabino, where she toiled in the shadow of all-state player Michelle Schultz. But once she got the scholarship to Pima, she quickly established herself as one of the best players on the team. This year, she probably deserves to be named to the All-Conference team.
When Angie plays tomorrow night, seated behind the Pima bench, a couple rows up, will be her sisters, Carmen and Christine, and her mom. The Sather girls and Doreen are flat-out special people. They're a close-knit family and they support each other. They've battled through some tough times to not only survive, but to excel.
A while back, Doreen went through a divorce that was acrimonious to the point of stopping short of open gunfire. She and her three daughters had to seriously readjust their lifestyles, but they hung tough. Then, when Doreen got a job hanging wallpaper, she injured her back. She suffered through two operations to repair a disc.
With Doreen unable to work, Angie got a job at a pizza place, and then Carmen dropped off the Sabino volleyball team to work part time. Somehow, all three managed to make time to catch all of Christine's basketball games at Magee Middle School, where she led her team in scoring and rebounding.
Meanwhile, Carmen, a high-school junior, was the leading scorer on the Sabino team that finished tied for first in the Class 4A Sonoran Division. She's got a good shot at being named Player of the Year.
And then there's Angie, finishing her two-year stint at Pima and looking for a place to move on. There have been a few nibbles from four-year schools, but nothing concrete yet.
All the while, the four are inseparable. Doreen, whose back is still giving her trouble, is back at work, and she manages to sit through all of her daughters' games despite the inherently painful bleachers. The girls are all excelling on the court and in the classroom. The future looks moderately bright.
No punch line here. Just a hope for a happy ending.
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