By Rhett Wilkinson
Photos courtesy of USU Media Relations
March 17, 2011 was a significant day for the Utah State University women’s basketball program, with importance far more reaching than St. Patrick’s Day. That Thursday evening in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, sophomore guard Devyn Christensen poured in 27 points as the team stunned the University of Arizona in the first round of the Women’s National Basketball Invitation Tournament — the first time the program had ever been involved in the playoff. The Aggies didn’t just defeat the Pac-12’s Wildcats; they hung 103 points on the 21-win squad, their highest total since 1982. While the USU women’s basketball faithful went crazy—and they really were the faithful; the USU men’s basketball team was playing in the NCAA Tournament that same evening—the Wildcat bench, including a dynamic swingman named Brooke Jackson, stared into space in silence. For Jackson, it was an especially rough outing: though her team had scored 95 points themselves, the junior went just 1-of-6 from the three-point line and fouled out in 16 minutes of play.
Feb. 11, 2012 may not seem like an equally important day in the program’s history, but it sure tells a different story than the one the Spectrum offered 11 months earlier. It’s early in the evening onan overcast Saturday in Logan. This particular, often-dominant team has taken control of its game against New Mexico State in a very-different, 57-45 slugfest. Though some fans have already left the arena looking for ways to forget the men’s basketball team’s third loss at the mighty Spectrum this season—a defeat that all but fixes them in the bottom tier of the WAC standings heading into March’s conference tournament—Ashlee Brown and Jen Schlott are working with a familiar face while helping their team improve its overall record to 16-7 and maintain a firm grasp of second place in the WAC.
That particular visage is looking a lot brighter than it did when the Aggies hung triple-digits in the building. It’s not necessarily because she made half of her shot attempts, stayed out of foul trouble (no fouls, actually) this time or played even more minutes. It’s mostly because Brooke Jackson now finds herself playing with Brown and Schlott—close friends for years—and helping the entire team climb toward achievements even higher than the Aggies were displaying against Jackson’s club of even less than a year ago.
The trio’s longstanding relationship is rare in an athletic collegiate world of transfers, violations of team and NCAA rules, and in some circumstances, players leaving early for the professional ranks. Though Jackson falls into one of those categories—the 5-foot-8 senior guard transferred to Cache Valley for the university’s excellent health, physical education and recreation master’s degree program—that doesn’t mean she doesn’t call Brown a friend and Schlott a sister. Her relationship with them, made possible through summer and high school leagues in southern Arizona, has helped lead to an experience at Utah State that Jackson describes as “perfect.”
“It’s been so enjoyable for me here,” said Jackson, who played in a 2006 summer league in California with Brown before returning to Mountain View (Mesa, Ariz.) High School for her senior year to find Schlott, a freshman during the 2006-07 season. “I wasn’t really even nervous about coming here, both with the team and just on campus. It has been nice to have known some people before getting here.”
Jackson, who comes off the bench but is third on the team in scoring with 11 points per game, coming only behind Brown in minutes per game (25.4)—may give credit to those who may have provided her with a lift when she arrived on campus in the summer. But Schlott, a sophomore, insists that she never took any sort of role as Jackson’s liaison with a club that leads the WAC and is fifth in the nation in three-point field goal percentage. (Jackson is second on the team in that category, shooting a sizzling 40.7 percent from distance.)
“She fit right in and learned things quickly,” said Schlott, whose minutes per game (18.8) are second only to Jackson’s off the bench. “I never had to be right by her side or hardly explain anything to her. She’s really smart and just came in naturally.”
The adaptation came with the right attitude as well, added USU head coach RaeganPebley, the only mentor the program has known since it began again nearly a decade ago, in March 2002, after a 16-year absence.
“A lot of players who would transfer somewhere for their senior year would just approach it with a bad attitude, because it is the end of the career, but that’s not Brooke,” Pebley said. “She approaches it like the four-year players. That’s a high level of maturity that we see each and every day from her.”
Not that Jackson’s degree of seriousness is enough to stop her from keeping a personal, jovial connection with those sharing the Arizona connection. After all, Brown’s Chandler Wolves fell just short of the pinnacle of the2007 state playoffs, losing in the semifinals. Jackson and Schlott’s Mountain View Toros club that claimed the state title days later.
Of course, Brown, a senior and the clear vocal leader of the team, has an explanation for not getting the chance to meet her current teammates’ club on high school’s grandest stage.
“They were given a team that wasn’t nearly as good as what we had to deal with,” Brown said of her club, which was part of an athletics program named one of the 25 best in the nation by “Sports Illustrated” in 2005. “I don’t let them forget that.”
Jackson attested that Brown will indeed make a point of that fact on a regular basis, including during practice. Between that and her and Schlott’s left-handed-only handshake before each game, Jackson has a good measure of personal exchanges that she continues today but forged years ago under the Arizona sun.
As the team looks to make history by rising above last year’s NIT one-and-done performance, Pebley said Jackson’s maturity will only be aided by her big-game experience, which she brings with her after playing extensively in the Pac-12.
“Here’s a player who has played in the Pauley Pavilion,” Pebley said. “Our entire team can take last year’s postseason to apply this time around, but it’s another way in which Brooke has provided leadership for this team. She is the type of competitor that wouldn’t have wanted to come to a school that beat her, so that says how impressed she was with the school. I’m proud of her and am amazed by how much she fit into this team from the beginning.”
Of course, more than a few phone calls may have been made from particular individuals when Jackson was looking at various options for graduate school. Schlott, who talked with Jackson on the phone almost daily from the time Jackson graduated high school in June 2007 until she arrived to Logan late last summer, wasn’t so shy in disclosing such details.
“I may have placed a call or two before she got here,” she says sheepishly, glancing over her right shoulder toward the locker room and then back over her left in the direction of a smiling Jackson.
Did Brown also follow Schlott’s procedure?
“No comment,” she says. Then her eyes widen the same as they do when she knows she’s open. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”