Community colleges struggle to build women's basketball teams

Angelina Villasin got off to a solid start as a point guard in her first year on the women's basketball team at Harper College in Palatine, averaging 19 points a game.

In one memorable contest about a year ago, Villasin scored 27 points in a win over Elgin Community College. She looked forward to the final 15 games for the 2016-17 campaign after winter break in January.

But Villasin's season came to a premature end, and not due to injury. With only five players on the roster - the exact number needed on the court - Harper officials deemed it too difficult to continue and ended the season early for the second time since 2011-12.

"It was really disappointing," said Villasin, a second-year Harper student from Mount Prospect who was a 3-point ace at Prospect High School. "We had a really rough start because we all really weren't friends, and then we just started to click, and then they cut the season. And we were like, 'Aww, man.' "

Even at a time when girls are more involved than ever in high school athletics, Harper isn't alone in struggling to find young women to play suburban junior college basketball.

It's not like all the top girls basketball players are going to four-year universities on scholarship, either. Of 429,380 participants in high school girls hoops, only 16,593, 3.9 percent, continued at a university, according to an NCAA report released this year.

  Harper College Coach Sean Stochl is singing the praises of his program to potential players in his first year in charge of the Palatine school's women's basketball team. Mark Welsh/

Although basketball is the top girls high school sport nationwide and attracted 16,929 participants in Illinois last year, its popularity hasn't carried over to the community colleges.

While Harper now has a nearly full roster of 11 players, College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines each started the 2017-18 season with just six.

Oakton was forced to cancel a game Nov. 4 at Richard J. Daley College after one player couldn't get off work to attend and another was injured, leaving four available players.

Potential problems cited in attracting women to two-year ball include after-school job commitments to help pay for classes, and students' desire to focus on academics. While Oakton has a small amount of scholarship funding due to its Division II status, schools such as Harper and College of DuPage can't offer anything because they play in Division III.

To address the problem, some schools have started aggressively recruiting high school girls and touting how community college basketball can lead to great opportunities.

  Oakton Community College women's basketball coach Melissa Rauschenberg sits between Marian Ismail, right, and Angelina Apostolou during halftime of a recent game against Triton College. Joe Lewnard/

Oakton Owls coach Melissa Rauschenberg can use herself an example. She played basketball for two years at Harper before transferring to Elmhurst College, where she received scholarship money and completed her career.

"I don't think a lot of young athletes realize that you can start here, get a lot more playing time your first two years and get exposure to the game, get exposure to other colleges, and then play all four years versus sitting on the bench as a freshman at a four-year school," Rauschenberg said.

Harper coach Sean Stochl also is being aggressive in trying to land potential players in his first year in charge. He also coaches Harper's men's team, which hasn't been short on players.

  Harper College women's basketball Coach Sean Stochl wants to build a strong program, after a lack of players led Harper to end the 2016-17 season midstream last January. Mark Welsh/

Stochl said parents and high school girls should know the women's game at two-year schools is highly competitive and typically includes out-of-state trips, such as Harper's visit to St. Louis Community College last Saturday.

"We've got to do a great job of marketing what we provide," he said. "So, Harper has to do that so (young women) feel they're going to get the same opportunity as if they were at a four-year school."

Players also are trying to help boost the numbers. Oakton Owls first-year guards Angelina Apostolou and Amanda Aragon are among those who want to get other young women interested in the junior college game.

"I think some don't think past playing in high school," said Aragon, who attended Niles North High School.

  Oakton Community College guard Amanda Aragon, right, makes a move toward the basket during a recent home game in Des Plaines against Triton College. She says girls don't necessarily think about playing sports beyond high school. Joe Lewnard/

Harper Athletic Director Doug Spiwak said he's trying to turn around the numbers problem, in part by working closely with two high school districts within the college's boundaries to identify players who likely won't get scholarships from four-year universities but have a desire to keep playing.

Spiwak, who also serves as the North Central Community College Conference president, said he wants to put a stop to Harper women's basketball periodically ending in midseason.

"That hurts your image," Spiwak said, "especially for recruiting. If I'm a female athlete at, let's say a local high school - Conant in Hoffman Estates, whatever - and I want to play somewhere, I'm a little concerned about playing at Harper if they didn't have a full team."

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